Witnessing to Truth: the Example of St Mary Magdalene

Pedro de Mena, Magdalena penitente, 1664
Pedro de Mena, Penitent Magdalene, 1664: Rubén Ojeda, Wikimedia Commons, Licencia CC-BY-SA 4.0

A quick search in the sidebar will show you that St Mary Magdalene is a favourite subject of mine. Can I have anything left to say about her? Only this. The ‘apostle to the apostles’ was called to witness to Truth in a unique way and to bear ever after the opprobrium of a bad reputation in history. She saw the Risen Lord, but was not believed. She was one of the small group of women who accompanied Jesus and the disciples and provided for them out of their own resources, but she has been identified as the sinner from whom Jesus cast out seven demons, and that has tended to colour the whole picture*. The best that might be said of her is that she is the type of repentant sinner.

There is, in fact, no incompatibility between these three ideas. St Mary Magdalene was indeed a privileged proclaimer of the Resurrection, and there are a number of medieval legends showing her active in leadership of the early Church. Leadership, in Christian terms, is always about service, and how dreadful it is when institutions or individuals forget that! That she has to bear a false reputation is not surprising. If they said of the Master ‘Beelzebub is in him’, is it strange that one of his closest disciples should be accused, too? And finally, shouldn’t every Christian be a repentant sinner — one who knows God”s forgiveness and never ceases to be amazed at his mercy?

Of course, some will argue that St Mary Magdalene has been demonised by a male patriarchy; that she is a feminist icon, a champion of women’s rights in the Church. No one can deny that the Church has tended to view her through male eyes, and some of the changing ideas about her role are a necessary historical corrective, but — and it is an important ‘but’ — in destroying one set of wrong assumptions, we may be in danger of creating another. St Mary Magdalene is important because she was a disciple of Christ and because she was singled out by him to witness to the truth of the Resurrection. Unless I am very much mistaken, that is what all Christians, male or female, are called to be and do; and that glimpse of Mary searching in the garden and seeing the Lord through a mist of tears is surely a reminder that love, and love alone, is the measure by which our witness to Truth will be judged.

* the seven demons cast out of her were commonly said to be demons of lust.


9 thoughts on “Witnessing to Truth: the Example of St Mary Magdalene”

  1. A salutary reminder that witnessing to the truth of the Resurrection does not make a Christian disciple immune to false reputation – indeed it may even make it more likely. If this was how people treated Jesus, accusing him of demon possession, it should be no surprise. Thank you so much for this. I’ve just added a link to your post on my blog today because I really want more people to read what you have written – so much better than my post for today’s festival.

  2. Not to detract from the important point of your post, Sister Catherine, but it might be worth noting that the tradition of St Mary Magdalene as a penitent sinner is an exclusively western tradition and that the Orthodox Church has not seen her in these terms. Of course, penitent sinners can become great saints – witness St Mary of Egypt and many others – but that is not how either the gospels or the eastern tradition portray St Mary Magdalene. She is commemorated, first and foremost, for preaching the Resurrection to the Apostles and is therefore given the title “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

    • What is it about the western tradition that has portrayed Mary so often as the penitent sinner whereas the eastern tradition has emphasised her role as witness to the Resurrection? Does it have anything to do with the much greater place given to the mystery of the Resurrection in eastern orthodoxy and a greater emphasis on the crucifixion in the western church? I really don’t know the answer to that question – perhaps someone else can help.

  3. Thank you ! What a rich feast this is. James Martin SJ has more good observations about Mary Magdalen too, in his recent book, Jesus. I’d like to add one of them. He points out that in John 20 ‘Mariam’ and ‘Rabbouni’ are memorably kept in Aramaic : ‘she knew that distinctive voice with the Nazarean acccent.’ It’s as personal as that…

  4. You do make a pen sing, Dame Catherine. Reading this I am reminded of the portrait John paints of her weeping in the garden:

    11:3 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

    “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him” sounding very much like a child. There is a sweetness to her, that cuts through all the horror of the Passion. There are few scenes sweeter than the recognition and the exchange between them , Mary-Rabbi. You have caught it well in this essay.

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