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.