By Fr. Scott Lewis, SJ
Several years ago, there was a stunning art exhibit that focused on the images of Mary Magdalene throughout history. In the numerous paintings of Mary, she was often depicted as a gaunt and haggard penitent while others portrayed her as a somewhat voluptuous beauty. The paintings tell us much about her impact on culture. She has fired imagination and speculation for centuries, especially in the 21st century. She would probably be surprised and amused that she is still a hot topic and capable of provoking controversy.
In the sixth century, she was tagged with the label of prostitute by the erroneous identification of Mary with the unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7 — and so she remained for many centuries. Mary became the symbol of the penitent woman, forgiven but never allowed to shed her tarnished label. She was a key figure in many of the speculative esoteric Gnostic works of the second and third century, in which she was portrayed as a semi-cosmic figure second only to Jesus. In our own time, Mary has been a central figure in several sensational novels.
In fact, there is no scriptural evidence that she was a prostitute or a successor to Jesus. But there is abundant evidence that she was highly regarded in the early Church and was close to Jesus. Mary is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels, more than many of the apostles. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary was present at the tomb with several other women as they encountered the risen Jesus. According to Luke 8, Jesus had cast seven demons out of her, possibly signifying healing from physical and psychological trauma.
But there is abundant evidence that she was highly regarded in the early Church and was close to Jesus.
In John’s Gospel, Mary stood at the foot of the cross with the mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple. She went to the tomb on Easter morning alone, and finding it empty, she ran to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They came and verified her story but returned home perplexed.
As Mary stood weeping in the garden outside the tomb, she had the first encounter with the risen Jesus. He missioned Mary to bear an important message to the apostles, earning her the semi-official title of “apostle to the apostles.” The message of Jesus was, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.”
Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus insists that humans are incapable of knowing or reaching God without help from above. By referring to “my Father and your Father, my God and your God,” Jesus signaled that God was now accessible to all humankind. Jesus becomes our brother — and we brothers and sisters to one another. “I have seen the Lord,” she reported to the apostles. In John, to see is to experience and understand, and she had clearly done both.
But why did he appear first to Mary and the other women? He did so for the simple reason they were there — they had not run away, and their devotion to him would not be interrupted by death. In his interactions with women, Jesus had always treated them with respect and compassion. He defended them from mistreatment by others, whether it was bullying from some of the apostles (Mark 14) or a bloodthirsty lynch mob (John 8). He affirmed their worth and dignity and made it clear that they had every right to be instructed in the ways of the kingdom (Luke 10). Mary and others accompanied him in his ministry (Luke 8: 1-3). They responded to his affirmation and took his words to heart. It is a strange irony that despite the biblical witness and the example of Jesus, the gifts and talents of women have been ignored or underutilized for centuries.
But why did he appear first to Mary and the other women? He did so for the simple reason they were there — they had not run away, and their devotion to him would not be interrupted by death.