Once upon at time, there was a woman with a past. A past she wasn’t proud of. And so when a man from Galilee came into her life, more brilliant than a thousand knights in shining armor, she knew that all she wanted to do was follow Him and love him. She could feel His love for her burn so brightly it burnt away all the sins from her past, and she was made anew.
Then that woman got to pick one of this man’s friends to be her patron, to watch over her and to pray for her, and to be her friend, so she chose a woman who she thought had similar experiences with a dark past finally shed through Christ’s love- Mary Magdalene.
But the funny thing was, years later, when the woman sat down to write a piece about her beloved patron, her soul sister of sorts, she discovered that an awful lot of what she thought she knew about the Magdalene was…well, wrong. And where it wasn’t glaringly, obviously wrong, it was confusing.
First off, there’s the Dan Brown level of wrong: that Mary was Jesus’ secret wife, hidden away from conventional history by the hateful, misogynistic Catholic Church. That Mary is easy to dismiss, Brown’s book sales to the contrary. Then there’s the medieval level of wrong: that she was a repentant prostitute, a sort of super wayward woman. This Mary often comes complete with a sort of misogyny that is clearly anti-Christian in its tone. Lastly, there’s the Mary Magdalene I thought I knew, now called the “composite Mary”, which takes the woman who anointed Christ, washing his feet with her tears and hair, the Mary of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus fame, and the Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross, and combines them all into one person.
Its accuracy is murky, though, this composite. Originally solidified by Pope Gregory the Great in 591, the notion that Mary Magdalene was the sinner with the ointment, as well as Mary of Bethany has been argued and challenged by the Eastern Orthodox churches, various Protestant theologians, and numerous New Age writers who try to make a buck off her by claiming to finally offer the shocking real truth of this mysterious woman. Theological giants like Sts. Jerome, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas all refrained from making a final decision on the subject.
New Advent’s thoughtful entry on her supports the composite, yet the reorganizing of the General Roman Calendar in 1969 gave Mary Magdalene her own feast day, separate from Mary of Bethany, who shares July 29th with Martha and Lazarus.
What is undeniable, though, is that she had seven demons cast out of her by Christ (Mark 16:9), and was one of the few who stood by Him during His Crucifixion (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56; John 19:25; Luke 23:49), She was the first recorded witness to the Resurrection, and it was she who brought this troubling and sublime news to the Apostles, thus earning her the name “The Apostle to the Apostles”.
She is like water in some respects, you think you see a clear image, and go to grasp it, only to have it break into a hundred untouchable pieces. Even the name “Magdalene”, which seems to be a nice, tidy location identifier, becomes muddled when you learn not only was Magdala, the town in question, destroyed by the Romans for the inhabitants “moral depravity” (a stunning charge coming from the Romans), but also that in the Talmud, the word “Magdalene” meant “adulteress”. Clues that, when put together, possibly seem to point to a woman with a past she may be contrite over. Or maybe not. Maybe Mary Magdalene was just a nice woman from a corrupt city who found herself with a bad case of demonic possession.
Maybe that’s the point. Maybe it was by design that Mary’s past remains so murky and unknown, while her love and devotion of Our Lord is clear as glass. Isn’t this, after all, what Christ promises all of us when He says, “Behold, I make all things new”? Who we were, what we did, the mistakes and failures that brought us to Jesus are washed away, and what is left is the chance for us to follow Him, this man brighter than a thousand knights on shining armor, wherever He will go. Even to the foot of the cross. Even to the tomb. Even, like Mary Magdalene, my patron saint and friend, to the overwhelming glory of the Resurrection.