Three weeks ago I was in Belgium for a Mass celebrated on the one year anniversary of my beloved auntie’s passing. As I was not able to attend her funeral I was grateful to be with my family for this Mass. My auntie was quite extra-ordinary. As is somewhat the norm in my family she was an incredibly strong willed woman. And though it might sound cliché, she really did things her own way.
By the grace of God I spent some time with her mere weeks before her unexpected death. No-one would have ever guessed her to be 80 when seeing the two of us dancing the night away at my niece’s wedding. She rode her bike every day. She attended choir rehearsal every week. She loved to travel. And most importantly she loved her faith and was quite outspoken about it, ruffling feathers on more than one occasion. That is how I remember her: a beautiful, intelligent, sweet troublemaker.
Everyone called her Maddy. Her full name, however was Mary Magdalene. When I first learned her full name I was surprised that any mother would name her daughter after a notorious prostitute, albeit a repentant one. Being a nosy teenager I bluntly asked her about her name. She simply suggested I research the life of Mary of Magdala beyond what I was taught to believe.
I quickly discovered two schools of thought about Mary of Magdala. The churches in the East have always honored her as a great follower of Jesus and refer to her as the Apostle to the Apostles. The churches in the West have traditionally portrayed her as a repentant sinner. And to my youthful surprise both schools claimed biblical proof for their position.
The churches in the East base their belief on several important scriptural passages. Mary of Magdala stayed by Jesus even as he was dying on the cross (Matthew 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; John 19:25). She was also present when he was laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47). Even more importantly, she was the first (John 20:1–10) or at least among the first (Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12) to arrive at the empty tomb. And, she was the first (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:14–18) or at least among the first (Matthew 28:9) to meet the risen Christ. Finally, it was Mary of Magdala who announced the resurrection to the apostles (John 20: 18).
The churches in the West have based their traditional understanding on four other Gospel passages. The unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet was said to be Mary of Magdala (Luke 7:36–50). She was also thought to be the unnamed adulteress who was saved by Jesus from stoning (John 8:3–11). The other two passages do name her and mention that she was healed by Jesus of seven demons (Luke 8:1–3 and Mark 16:9). These demons were believed to be the seven deadly sins, with lust being one of them. Though none of these theological conjectures are supported by current biblical scholarship, they sealed the fate of Mary of Magdala as a repentant sinner for centuries. Today, the churches in the West have joined those in the East in celebrating Mary of Magdala as a woman of strong faith, first witness to the resurrection and Apostle to the Apostles.
This week we celebrate the feast of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles and with her we celebrate all the women who make up our church. Most especially those who ruffle the occasional feather as they carry on in the tradition of Mary of Magdala as the Apostle to the Apostles.
After my research I sat down with my aunt to share my findings. She smiled and simply said “good.” I knew exactly what she meant.