22 July is the Feast of St Mary Magdalene
In the Gospels, we meet a crowd of Marys, whom Christian readers combine in different ways. Mary was the most common female name at the time. They include Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James, Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas who supported Jesus on his preaching rounds, and who with Jesus’ mother and Mary Magdalene are described as standing by Jesus on the Cross, and a variety of women, most notably the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears, who are identified with Mary Magdalene. It sometimes makes us ask would the real Mary Magdalene please stand up!
In Catholic devotion, Mary Magdalene was long seen as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. That gave her a dramatic history and inspired much great art and literature. She is now seen through the lens of John’s Gospel as Jesus’ faithful disciple and companion, and perhaps the sister of Martha and Lazarus who lived at Bethany and whom Jesus loved. That link brings into her life the moving and feeling-charged scenes of Jesus coming to Bethany after Lazarus’ death. There he shared the grief and bewilderment of the sisters before raising Lazarus to life. As Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem, Mary anoints his feet with costly anointment in anticipation of his burial. Later with the other Marys, she stands by Jesus’ cross as he dies.
The most touching of the scenes, painted by Fra Angelico on the wall of a monk’s cell, represents Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb early in the morning after Jesus’ death, only to find the stone rolled away. She runs to tell John and Peter who enters the tomb, and then looks inside to see two angels who ask her why she is weeping. She explains that the body of Jesus has been removed, looks around and sees Jesus. She mistakes him for the gardener until Jesus calls her by name and embraces him until he tells her not to cling to him but to tell the disciples he has risen.
This exquisite story tells of a love tested by the absence and desolation of death and by the added horror of the loss of Jesus’ body. It tells also of the delicacy of the moment of renewed presence and the ecstatic rediscovery of Jesus’ presence and love. It speaks to us, too, of a friendship that is also discipleship, a friendship that passes easily into a call to act within a community.
The Mary Magdalene of John’s Gospel is a woman above all of deep faith and with a gift of deep friendship that is expressed in the domestic setting of Bethany, in the confronting setting of a public execution and in the reflective space of a burial place. Each of these places provide a test of the depth of her friendship and particularly of its depth. At Bethany she has to reckon with a Jesus who allows Lazarus to die; at Calvary with a Jesus whose message and life end in humiliation; at the tomb with a Jesus whose body has been stolen. Yet despite all she keeps trusting, keeps hoping, keeps believing, and above all keeps loving as she has been loved.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.