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St. Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

July 21, 2018
Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ, painting by Duccio
Feast of St. Mary Magdalene  July 22
Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (see Luke 7:36-48) are sometimes understood to be the same woman. From this, plus the statement in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, has arisen the view that she had been a prostitute. In reality, we know nothing about her sins or weaknesses. They could have been inexplicable physical disease, mental illness, or anything that prevented her from wholeness in mind and body. Mary Magdalene is mentioned in the Gospels as being among the women of Galilee who followed Jesus and his disciples. She was also present at his crucifixion and burial and went to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint his body.
In John’s very moving intimate Easter Gospel, we peer into the early morning scene of sadness as Mary Magdalene weeps uncontrollably at the grave of her friend Jesus. John does not tell us when Mary arrived at Jesus’ burial place (20:11-18). She is simply there, and the emphasis is on her tears and her uncontrollable grief. When Mary bends down to look in the tomb, she sees the angels. They are sitting, presumably on the ledge of the burial place, at the two ends of the grave clothes, where Jesus’ body had been.
In the Scriptures, when someone encounters an angel, that person is frequently overcome with terror and fear. John does not mention any such feeling on Mary’s part. Realizing her sadness and grief, the angels do not startle her with good news but ask the question that can allow her to name her grief and find healing. The angels say to her with great compassion, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (v. 13). This is in striking contrast with their triumphant announcement of the Resurrection recorded in the other Gospel accounts of the empty tomb (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7; Luke 24:5-7). Mary’s answer (v. 13) shows that she is totally focused on the fact that Jesus’ body is missing. He is still her Lord even though he is dead; her loyalty is to him. When she tells the angels that she does not know “where they have put him,” she may be thinking that Joseph of Arimathea or his friends may have moved Jesus to a more permanent grave. Her answer allows the angels to truly announce to Mary the Good News, but they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of the Risen Lord!
Mary saw him but did not realize it was Jesus (v. 14). Her own deep sadness and grief prevented her from linking together all the details: the grave clothes, the presence of angels, the absence of the body. The very object of her concern – Jesus – stands before her, but she is blinded from recognizing him. Deep emotions have this effect on us. Mary’s inability to recognize him seems to be attributed to the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, since such failure is typical of encounters with him (cf. Matthew 28:17; Mark 16:12; Luke 24:16, 37; John 21:4).
Mary Magdalene & Jesus iconWhen Jesus calls her by name, she turns and says to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). ... [Jesus says] “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20:15-18).
Mary’s was a seemingly short journey with earth-shattering ramifications. Because of her incredible message and mission, she was fittingly called Apostola Apostolorum (Apostle to the Apostles) in the early Church because she was the first to see the Risen Lord and to announce his Resurrection to the other apostles.
Jesus lived in an androcentric society. Women were property: first of their fathers, then of their husbands. They did not have the right to testify. They could not study the Torah. In this restrictive atmosphere, Jesus accepted women, honoured them, respected them and treasured their friendship. He journeyed with them, touched and healed them, loved them and allowed them to love him. There was no discrimination. For Jesus, women and men were equally capable of grasping the great religious truths, living them, and announcing them to others. Mary Magdalene is living proof of Jesus’ boundary-breaking humanity and compassion.
In 2016, Pope Francis announced that the liturgical memory of St. Mary Magdalene, commemorated on July 22, would be elevated to the level of a feast, like that of the other Apostles. The beautiful preface for that feast captures well Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary mission to announce the Resurrection to the world. Here is my own working English translation of the Latin text published by the Vatican in 2016:
Preface of the Apostle to the Apostles
It is truly right and just,
our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, whose mercy is no less than His power,
to preach the Gospel to everyone, through Christ, our Lord.
In the garden He appeared to Mary Magdalene, who loved him in life,
who witnessed his death on the cross,
who sought him as he lay in the tomb,
who was the first to adore him when he rose from the dead,
and having sent her out he honoured her with her place among the Apostles,
so that the good news of new life might reach the ends of the earth.
And so with all the angels and saints we confess you, in exultation singing:
 Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts ...
Excerpt from “Stay with us...” Encounters with the Risen Lord
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
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