Saint Mary Magdalen

Mary Magdalen (also called Magdalene) is one of the most significant characters in the Gospel narrative. We first meet her in Luke’s Gospel (8:2) where we are told that Jesus and the Twelve were accompanied in their preaching of the Good News by some women. It is said that these women had been “cured of evil spirits and infirmities”. Among them was Mary, called Magdalen, “from whom seven demons had gone out”. The location of Magdala is not certain, but it could have been near Tiberias in northern Palestine.

The next time we meet Mary Magdalen is during the crucifixion of Jesus on Calvary. There were “also women looking on from a distance”, keeping vigil there, and among them was Mary Magdalen (Matt 27:56; Mark 15:40; John 19:25). After the burial of Jesus, Mary Magdalen with “the other Mary” remained sitting there, facing the tomb (Matt 27:61; Mark 15:47). Then early on the Sunday morning, Mary Magdalen, with the same woman, went to see the tomb (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1). Luke has Mary Magdalen with several women going to the tomb, and adds that they then went back to the disciples to tell of a dialogue with angels who had told them Jesus was risen.

In John’s Gospel, however, Mary Magdalen goes to the tomb on her own early on Sunday morning (John 20:1-3). Then, after Peter and the ‘Beloved Disciple’ have gone to the tomb to investigate the women’s report, Mary Magdalen remains there by herself and the Risen Jesus appears to her, after which she goes back to the disciples and tells them that she has seen the Lord (John 20:11-18). We do not hear of her after that.

Over the centuries Mary Magdalen was sometimes identified with Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and also with the sinful woman who went into the house of Simon and anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment. These identifications were first proposed by Gregory the Great, but have since been rejected by scholars. However, they were often depicted by artists.

Other legends, too, were added to the Gospel account. For instance, Mary Magdalen was said to have gone to Ephesus with Jesus’ Mother and John the Apostle. She was even said to have been the fiancée of John, until Jesus called him. There was even a claim that her tomb had been seen in Ephesus in the 8th century.

The town of Vezelay, in France, was claiming to have her relics from the 11th century and there was even a story that she, her sister Martha, and Lazarus had spread the Gospel in Provence. Mary Magdalen was said to have lived as a hermit in the Maritime Alps before dying at Saint Maximin. These stories were widely believed but get little credence from modern scholars.

In art, Mary Magdalene is usually represented with the emblem of a pot of ointment, or shown in scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. In England, there were 187 churches dedicated to her and both Oxford and Cambridge universities have colleges named after her. Mary Magdalen is patron both of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life. Together with her close relationship to Jesus, this explains her great popularity over the centuries.

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