She has been known through the ages as the repentant sinner, yet St. Augustine called her the "Apostle to the Apostles" - Mary Magdalen. Her name conjures many images that have permeated our history and our tradition for centuries. But, who exactly is this woman who ultimately became the first person to witness the Risen Lord?
Susan Haskins in her book, Mary Magdalen, Myth and Metaphor, presents an exhaustive research on the subject of Mary Magdalen. It is evident that women during the time of Christ had a secondary role in Jewish society. They sat separately from men at the Temple, they were not permitted to read the Torah and they were excluded from the priesthood. In spite of this, Jesus clearly accepted women and included them in his salvific mission. They played an active role in his parables and were treated equally to the men that surrounded him. He was sensitive to their needs even though they were culturally ostracized. St. Matthew writes in his Gospel that harlots and tax collectors were closer to the Kingdom of God than the Pharisees.
In exploring the image of Mary of Magdala, we are presented with a courageous woman who is inspired by Jesus to change her ways and who chooses to follow him. She is also, as Jesus, a radical, an outcast. She did not fit into the pattern of the women in Jewish society. According to Church tradition, we know for a fact that she was one of Jesus' followers. She was present at the Crucifixion and according to the Gospel of St. John, she was not only the witness to the Resurrection, she was also charged with spreading the Word.
But, Mary Magdalen was much more than a mere prostitute who had been forgiven. The portrait of the repentant sinner who inspires because she has sinned, so enhanced during the Middle Ages, remains insignificant compared to the scope of her spiritual journey.
Her love for the young Rabbi was unequaled. She remains at the foot of the Cross during his crucifixion. She refuses to abandon him and even after his death she continues to care for him. The love she had for Jesus transcends physical love. The power of this shared love was that their relationship did not have to be a physical one to be special. Jesus taught the true meaning of love throughout his lifetime. He was a friend and a companion to many. He touched people in a special way and Mary Magdalen was no exception. Their human love was transmuted into something beyond the realm of the physical world.
The encounter of Mary Magdalen and Jesus after the Resurrection reflects the magnificence of this love. It is a scene of sublime consequence for Mary Magdalen. She is so engulfed in her grief at the loss of Jesus that she fails to recognize him. As he speaks to her and she reaches out to touch him he says, "touch me not." Jesus is no longer a man, but the Son of God. Mary, on the other hand, is still obsessed with her earthly love. Nonetheless, her personal loss becomes her spiritual gain. She has traversed a long road from the woman caught in adultery to the follower of Jesus to the faithful one that never fled. Her love transcends adversity.
Mary Magdalen is a forceful figure recognized by the Gospel writers. She is the messenger of the Resurrection chosen by Jesus because of her fidelity, her love, her courage and her faith. As so very well stated by Sarah Payne in the video, "Mary Magdalen, an intimate portrait," "...she was not a mere prostitute but stood for love, she had known suffering and she had been saved, she was independent yet she chose to follow, she was faithful when others fled." She was a woman of her time, yet she was chosen to spread the News.