THE APOSTLE TO THE APOSTLES
HAS MARY MAGDALEN BEEN MALIGNED?
Since you[M.M] are now with the chosen because you are beloved and are beloved because you are chosen of God, I, in my misery, pray to you, in bliss; in my darkness, I ask for light; in my sins, redemption; impure, I ask for purity (St. Anslem).
From the earliest days of the Church, the Fathers have always held this beautiful saint in very high regard and gave her the title, Apostola Apostolorum, "Apostle to the Apostles". Even Augustine acknowledged this title, and it was still being repeated as late as Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Of course it is not difficult to understand why. Mary whose loving spirit must have wilted when she heard those words from her Master, Noli Me tangere, (better translated from the original Greek as "do not cling to me") is instantaneously revived with the commission to be bearer of the Good News, "tell my disciples I am not only alive, but I shall ascend to My Father and their Father."
What a wonderful privilege for one who had followed and cared for her Lord right to the end after her healing by Jesus. Mary of Magdala had been the leader of that faithful band of women who had not only followed Christ but had ministered to his needs. After the Resurrection it would seem from Acts (1.14) that Mary Magdalen was one of the disciples praying and waiting in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in order to begin their work of evangelisation. In the uncanonical books such as are in the Nag Hammadi library, Mary Magdalen exercised an important position in the apostolic church, as did of course other women such as Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12.12), Lydia (Acts 16.40), Chloe (1Cor.1.11), and deacon Phoebe (Rom. 16.1).
How did Mary Magdalen ever become associated as being a penitent prostitute? We can blame Gregory the Great for this. In Homily 25 "On the Gospels" he referred to Mary Magdalen as "a sinner in the city". Indeed in this homily he conflates three separate figures: the sinful woman of Luke 7.36-50; the woman who anointed Jesus in Matthew 26.7 and Mark 14.3, who is called Mary in John 12.3; and Mary Magdalen herself in Luke 8.2-3. What emerged from this homily and for centuries afterwards was not a maligning but that Mary is much loved for her penitence, manifested through her copious tears, and the tremendous love she showed to her Lord because she had been forgiven much. Indeed she has always been regarded as the patron saint for penitents, many of whom have wept for their sins too. And because she was seen in the Western Church as also the Mary, the sister of Martha, she has always been esteemed as a contemplative, an example all Christians should follow, sitting at the feet of her Lord, simply listening to His words. She was thus one of the most popular saints of both the early and mediæval churches. Devotion to her is reflected in a prayer to her by St. Anselm in the 11thC. It began:
"St. Mary Magdalene, you came with springing tears to the spring of mercy, Christ; from him your burning thirst was abundantly refreshed through him; your sins were forgiven; by him your bitter sorrow was consoled.
My blessed lady, I who am the most evil and sinful of men do not recall your sins as a reproach, but call upon the boundless mercy by which they were blotted out."
If there has been any maligning it has been outside the Church. Some art and fiction have portrayed Mary Magdalen as a disreputable person, even a wild person, dominated by her passions, and have ignored the emphasis on her healing and the life she led in thankfulness to her Lord. Of course if the Western Church had followed the Eastern Church in separating the three identities mentioned above, perhaps this image might have been spared. Thankfully the Western Church since 1969 has set the record straight! The Feast Day of Mary Magdalen now records the historical woman, as Scripture has it - a woman grateful for her healing from whatever infirmity/infirmities it was/were. [We have to remember that "seven" is often used in the bible not as a correct numbering but as a symbol (there are over 300 uses of 7 in the Bible) as in the seven pillars of wisdom (Prov. 9.1) and the seven cleansings in the River Jordan (2Kings 5.14).] She was the leader of the small band of women who became disciples and ministered to the needs of their Lord as he taught throughout Galilee and even in Jerusalem as they were there still with Him at His crucifixion. At the foot of the Cross, these holy women of Jerusalem, including Mary Magdalen, must have wept bitterly as their Lord died so excruciatingly. And the only thing they could do is to anoint Him in death, for which they prepare spices and ointments on the eve of the Sabbath after they had accompanied Joseph and Nicodemus to the sepulchre where Our Lord was buried. And then wait for the Sabbath to be over. Mary's waiting resulted in her being regarded as one of the most distinguished disciples of Our Lord. It is this account of Mary's commission that is the Gospel reading for her feast day on the 22nd July.
Yes, Mary Magdalen has been, and still is to-day, held in great esteem by the Church. Her proper title, ' Apostle to the Apostles', can never be taken from her.