Most people today know today’s saint through her appearance in recent works of popular culture.
The readers know her through Dan Brown’s book “The DaVinci Code.” Cinema buffs know her through Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ.” Younger folks will know her from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” where she gets the best song (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him.) The fascination with this woman and her place in Christianity is not new and it has evolved through the centuries.
All four of the canonical Gospels (Mark, Luke, Matthew and Luke) place Mary at Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, thus legitimizing the existence of a real person. Through Christian history she also has been identified with other “Marys” that pop up in the scriptures: Mary of Bethany, who avoided helping her sister Martha in hostess duties while sitting and listening to Jesus talk (Luke 10:38-42) , and another Mary who Jesus pardoned after she bathed His feet in her tears, wiped them with her hair and perfumed them (Luke 7:37-48). Most biblical scholars today agree that these are three distinct persons.
If so, who is Mary Magdalene?
Mary gets her name from her hometown, Magdala. She probably was of Jewish descent but lived in the style of the Gentiles. When Luke (8:2) and Mark (16:9) talk about Jesus cleansing Mary of seven demons, it may have been a reference to her Gentile habits or even a physical impairment rather than evil spirits. In 591, Pope Gregory I interpreted the seven demons as the seven deadly sins, thus making Mary not only guilty of lust, but pride and greed as well. In any case, most scholars today do not agree with the Medieval interpretation of Mary being a prostitute. Western and Eastern Orthodox see her as a repentant sinner.
Mary is proof that through Christ’s intervention, no one is beyond redemption. She probably watched from a distance as Christ was crucified. She was present when Christ rose from the dead. When she went to his tomb to anoint his body, she found the stone rolled away. Entering, she saw Christ sitting in the place where they had laid Him. She was the first witness to His resurrection.
Some stories say that after the Resurrection and the beginning of missions of the apostles, she accompanied St. John the Evangelist to the city of Ephesus, near modern Selcuk, Turkey, where she died and was buried.
Another legend says that after 14 years, she was put into a boat by Jews, along with several other saints of the early church, and set adrift without sails or oars. The boat landed in southern France, where she spent the remaining years of her life living in solitude, in a cave. Two thousand years later, Dan Brown would use that story as a foundation for his popular novel.
Today, we celebrate Mary Magdelene as the patroness of converts, repentant sinners, sexual temptation, pharmacists, tanners and women.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini