Mary Magdalene's story is intimately linked with Jesus. She plays a leading role in one of the most powerful and important scenes in the Gospels.
When Jesus was crucified, Mary Magdalene was there supporting him in his final moments and mourning his death. She discovered the empty tomb, and was the first witness to the resurrection. She was there at the beginning of a movement that was to transform the world.
But the Mary Magdalene that lives in our memories is quite different. Her primary link with Jesus was long held to be as the woman washing and anointing his feet, or as a prostitute, and in art, she is often depicted as semi-naked, or an isolated woman repenting continually for her sins. The whole story of Mary as a prostitute, who is fallen and redeemed, is a very powerful image of redemption: a signal that no matter how low one has fallen, one can be redeemed.
Powerful as this image may be, it is not the story of Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament. Mark and Luke speak of her being freed by Jesus from demonic possession, and thereafter supporting Jesus in his ministry, while all four gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was among the women who saw the crucifixion, and then in John we have the account of her witnessing the resurrection.
But not once does it mention that she was a prostitute or a sinner. At some point Mary Magdalene became confused, or conflated, with two other women in the Bible: Mary, the sister of Martha, and the unnamed sinner from Luke's gospel (7:36-50) both of whom wash Jesus' feet with their hair. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory the Great made this assumption official by declaring in a sermon that these three characters were actually the same person: Mary Magdalene, the sinner who through repentance became a saint. Pope Gregory acknowledged her role in the resurrection story, but it was as the repentant sinner that she was to become known. The Catholic Church, while always acknowledging Mary Magdalene’s vital role—it was as early as St Hippolytus (3rd century) that she (and the other women at the empty tomb) was described as “apostola apostolorum”, “apostle to the apostles”—maintained the focus on Mary Magdalene as the penitent sinner until 1969. For 1,400 years, the stigma remained.
The Orthodox Church embraces a tradition which holds that as a young woman, Mary Magdalene led a sinful life, but from the moment she was healed by Jesus (through the casting out of seven demons, cf. Luke. 8:2) she led a new life, and became a true disciple of Jesus, accompanying him on his ministry, betrayal, death and resurrection. She alone went to the tomb to find it empty, and then to meet the risen Christ. And most importantly of all, she announced the resurrection. The Orthodox call her “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” and “Myrrh-Bearer,” with reference to the spices she carried to Christ’s tomb.
But times change, and in recent years the view of Mary Magdalene in the Christian West has been transformed, and her true role in the story of salvation, as the first witness of the risen Christ, and the first to announce to the apostles the resurrection of the Lord, is now widely celebrated. In 2016, Pope Francis decreed that the Catholic Church’s yearly observance of St Mary Magdalene should be raised in rank to be equal to the feasts of the Apostles.
Mary Magdalene is representative of a Church which seeks to welcome, without distinction, women and men of every race, people, language and nation; to proclaim to them the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage; and to offer them the wonders of God's salvation. Mary Magdalene is an example of true and authentic evangelisation, that is, an evangeliser who proclaims the joyful central message of Easter.