Of Magdala: Apostle to the Apostles
I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but I can’t help myself. As a feminist Catholic and theater connoisseur, I know it’s wrong. But I don’t know how to NOT love Jesus Christ Superstar. Every Holy Week, I listen to and/or watch Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic at least once. In fact, by the time of this posting, I will have just enjoyed the 50th-anniversary production. While many of the musical’s artistic flourishes certainly don’t square with biblical scholarship, I still find spiritual meaning in its exploration of the last week of Jesus’ life. My imagination has always been drawn to the depth of human emotion and relationship JCS captures. Plus, it’s just so catchy!
If I could, however, propose one major edit to Webber and friends, I would rewrite Mary Magdalene once and for all. A central figure since the inception of the Way, Mary Magdalene has been misrepresented in the arts, in ecclesiological and liturgical texts, and from the pulpit. As we celebrate her Feast, it is crucial to acknowledge who she was, who she wasn’t, and what her story means for ours today.
Where did Webber and so many others (including most of my sophomore Scripture students!) get the idea that Mary Magdalene was a “prostitute”? Or that she remorsefully washed Jesus’ feet with her hair and anointed them with oil? In 591 in Rome, Pope Gregory I gave a homily indicating that the unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7 who washed Jesus’ feet (and who may or may not have been a prostitute), Mary of Bethany (who also bathed Jesus’ feet), and Mary Magdalene were the same person. Reading the Gospels, we find no definitive evidence supporting these claims, and many Scripture scholars have since challenged them. Nevertheless, the conflating of these three women has persisted, confusing Christians for centuries. In a world that often dehumanizes sex workers, this false image of Mary Magdalene has made some feel justified in devaluing her.
In my Easter post, “Jesus Who Sees Me”, I emphasized Mary Magdalene’s meaningful role in Jesus’ life, as portrayed in all four Gospels. She traveled with him and financially supported his mission. She accompanied him to the cross and the tomb with her fellow female disciples, even after Jesus’ other friends had fled in fear. And as all the Gospel writers agree, she was the first to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus chose Mary Magdalene as the apostle to the apostles, the one whose voice—full of joy and fear and confusion and truth—rang out in wisdom and power, changing everything.
In 2016, Pope Francis elevated the annual memorial of Mary Magdalene on July 22 to that of a Feast, the same status as celebrations of the apostles and evangelists. I hope such acknowledgement will help deepen Catholics’ appreciation of who she really was and her impact on the Church today. In his letter of explanation for the Feast Day, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship found it important to “show the difference between the two women”: Eve and Mary Magdalene, who “disseminate death” and “proclaim life”, respectively. As I reflect on St. Mary Magdalene, who has been positioned historically both “in the gutter” and “on a pedestal”—the false dichotomy of womanhood—I am reminded to honor the multiplicity and expansiveness of real women, all made in God’s image. As my friend Ellen Romer Niemiec shared in last Sunday’s post, “There are enough places and ways that women are pitted against one another…I don’t want to be pitted against someone or compared - I want to be loved and seen as I am…”
Mary of Magdala was not Mary, daughter of…, or Mary, wife of…, but Mary, from a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, evangelizer. She was doubted and questioned by the eleven—“Nonsense!” they said—and even so, she knew what Jesus had revealed to her was true. Mary’s intimate friendship with Jesus, not their validation, told her everything she needed to know. On this feast of Mary Magdalene, might we, too, find ways to lead and walk with fellow disciples, to support Christ’s mission with our resources, and to trust Jesus speaking to and through us. Let us make room for other women, too, honoring those who came before us, rallying around those alongside us, and holding the door open for those following behind.