Tomorrow is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, First Witness to the Resurrection of Jesus, and also “the Apostle to the Apostles.” She has certainly earned her place in the list of major saints’ days in the Book of Common Prayer. It is a day personally important to me since on this feast day in July 1995 I was consecrated a Bishop in the Church of God by the Archbishop of Melbourne and 18 other bishops in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. The choice of that date for my consecration had been mine. The custom is for an episcopal consecration to take place on a major feast day. The Archbishop had suggested to me several suitable days.
“What about St. Peter’s Day?” he said. “Not my sort of guy,” said I. “Perhaps John the Baptist?” “Too bloody,” said I. But when he suggested St. Mary Magdalene’s Day which also conveniently fell on a Saturday that year I enthusiastically responded, “She’s my sort of gal!”
So it was, that St. Mary Magdalene became my episcopal patron. But, more importantly Mary Magdalene is an important and consistently mentioned Gospel personage. All four Gospels make it abundantly clear that she and several other women “who had accompanied Jesus from Galilee” were witnesses to the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It was the women who remained faithful to Jesus at the end when we are told the other disciples “had forsook him and fled” except for John who is placed at the foot of the cross with Mary the Mother of Jesus by the John the Evangelist.
All we know about Mary Magdalene apart from her Galilean origins is that Jesus had healed her at some point, “casting out seven demons.” History embroidered her story with other less savory details, like that she had been a prostitute or a “fallen woman” (thus giving the name Magdalen to those notorious Irish laundries which employed such women). Feminist Biblical scholars and others in the late 20th century rightly restored Mary Magdalene to her true gospel self by sweeping away Medieval overlays. Not only was she clearly the First Witness to the Resurrection but the first to convey this news to the Holy Apostles thus making her “The Apostle to the Apostles.” This understanding gave inspiration to the Movement for the Ordination of Women last century.
My favorite passage about Mary Magdalene is in John 20, verses 11-18, when she encountered the Risen Lord in the garden and “supposed him to be the gardener.” It is as Jesus calls her by name, “Mary,” that she recognized him through her tears and reached out to hold him. To which Jesus replies: “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary did as she was commanded and went and shared the Good News of the Resurrection, as the Apostle to the Apostles or the first Missionary.
I love Mary Magdalene for she stuck by Jesus right to the end and beyond; she never gave up on her love for and devotion to him; she stayed around when others left; and when she finally encountered the Risen Jesus, she quickly adapted to the new reality and moved on as it were, sharing her amazing and life-giving experience with others.