THE SAINTS OF SUMMER
EPISODE 2 – SAINT MARY MAGDALENE
By Cliff Garvey
More than 1,400 years ago, Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), who is remembered as one of the greatest preachers of all time, mistakenly combines into one person the identities of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the woman who washes the Lord’s feet. This confusion by a revered pope results in the widespread belief that Mary Magdalene is a prostitute who changes her ways after meeting Jesus of Nazareth. Centuries later, this fundamental mistake is repeated and reaffirmed by The Golden Legend, a collection of stories about the saints that was assembled during the 13th century.
This, then, is the Mary Magdalene that so many of us know: The repentant prostitute who is venerated as the patron saint of converts, penitents, and those struggling with sexual temptation. James Carroll, the one-time Paulist priest and Boston University chaplain, who is now a fierce critic of the Catholic Church writes this: “In the earliest Christian records…an elaborate tapestry was woven, leading to a portrait of Saint Mary Magdalene in which the most consequential note, that she was a repentant prostitute, is almost certainly untrue. On this false note hangs the dual use to which her legend has been put ever since: discrediting sexuality in general and disempowering women in particular.”
With all of this in mind, God’s little ones — average people like you and me — are left to wonder. Who is Saint Mary Magdalene? Here’s what we actually know: Mary Magdalene comes from a fishing village called Magdala, which was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospels, she is mentioned twelve times by name, more than any other woman and more than most of the apostles. She is mentioned as one of the women who travel with and take care of Jesus as he preaches throughout Judea.
All four of the gospels say that Mary Magdalene is an eyewitness to the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Three of the gospels say that she is an eyewitness to the burial of Jesus and the closing of his tomb. And again, all four of the gospels say that she is an eyewitness to the empty tomb, to the resurrection of Jesus. Alone among the disciples, Mary Magdalene sees everything. Her witness is steadfast. Her presence is brave, bold, and unwavering. Her place in history is pivotal and primary.
In the Gospel of John (20:11-18), Mary Magdalene approaches the tomb before sunrise. She sees that the tomb is open. She sees that the body of Jesus is gone. She weeps, believing that the body has been stolen. She turns and sees a man standing nearby. But she does not recognize him. Suddenly, the Risen Jesus speaks her name. He says: “Mary.” And she responds: “Teacher.” Jesus then tells her to go and tell what she has seen.
Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the Risen Jesus. She is the first person to be called by the Risen Jesus. And she is the first person to share the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus. Mary Magdalene is the first advocate. She is the first evangelist. She is the apostle to the apostles. And her proclamation is clear, concise, and compelling: “I have seen the Risen Lord.” Her words ring through the ages!
The Gospels of Luke and Mark also teach us that Jesus heals Mary Magdalene of a darkness that casts a shadow upon her soul. In Luke, Jesus “cures” her of evil spirits (Luke 8:2). And in Mark, Jesus “casts out seven demons (Mark 16:9).” A demon is a supernatural being, a malignant spirit, an agent of the devil. The work of demons is to cause mischief; to corrupt, destroy, and divide; to be cruel; and to take possession of a person’s body and soul.
We have no reason to doubt that Mary Magdalene was possessed by evil spirits and demonic villains. But what if those evil spirits really represent addiction, mental illness, or some form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. What if those seven demons are allegorical? What if they are symbolic of something else?
What if Mary Magdalene was instead possessed by the seven things that God professes to hate in the Book of Proverbs (6:16-19)? A lying tongue. A heart that devises wicked plans. Haughty eyes. Hands that shed innocent blood. Feet that hurry toward the evil one. A person who gives false testimony. A person who sows discord among God’s people. Or what about this? What if Mary Magdalene was possessed by the seven sins that can corrupt any soul? What if she was possessed by the seven deadly sins? Pride. Anger. Lust. Envy. Gluttony. Avarice. Sloth. What if Mary Magdalene’s struggle represents the struggle of every human person?
As sinners, we know these things to be true: On our own, we are powerless to defeat the agents of darkness that prowl around looking for some way, some failing, some weakness, some shortcoming, or some opening to exploit in our lives. On our own, we are powerless to defeat the shadows of sin and despair that can separate us from God and from those we are called to love. But with Jesus, by the power of his merciful love and amazing grace, we are cured, we are healed, and we are forgiven. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus. Her heart is touched by his love and mercy. Her heart is healed. Her life is changed forever.
Pope Benedict XVI says: “The story of Mary Magdalene reminds us of a fundamental truth: A disciple of Christ is someone who, in the experience of human weakness, has the humility to ask for help, has been healed by him, and has set out following closely after him by becoming a witness to the power of his merciful love, a love that is stronger than sin and death (7-23-06).”
Mary Magdalene reminds me of those fellow parishioners who show up, follow Jesus in thought, word, and deed, but attract little attention. They follow Jesus. They tend his flock. They work in his vineyard. They practice what they preach. And like Mary Magdalene, their lives sing: “I have seen the Risen Lord.” In this sense, Saint Mary Magdalene may be venerated as the patron of converts and penitents. She may be revered as the apostle to the apostles. But she is also the apostle…for the rest of us.
Saint Mary Magdalene offers hope to anyone who longs for healing and purpose when their life seems lost in shadows. She offers hope to anyone who seeks forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace in a world held captive by the darkness of anger and division. She offers hope to anyone who struggles to find the Light of Christ in a dark world.
Pope Francis calls Saint Mary Magdalene the “apostle of the new and greatest hope.” The Holy Father says: “May her intercession help us…in times of woe and in times of abandonment, to listen to the Risen Jesus who calls us by name, and with a heart full of joy, to go forth and proclaim: ‘I have seen the Lord! I have changed my life because I have seen the Lord! I am now different than before! I am another person! I have changed because I have seen the Lord.’ This is our strength and this is our hope (5-17-17).” And so, we turn in prayer for the intercession of Saint Mary Magdalene, apostle of hope, apostle to the apostles, apostle for the rest of us:
All Good and Gracious God,
Saint Mary Magdalene
was a faithful disciple of Jesus.
Help us to hear your call as she did,
and to see you in all the persons, places,
and situations where you reveal yourself.
Make us effective proclaimers of the Good News
to all people everywhere.
And like Saint Mary Magdalene,
keep our eyes and hearts open
and always fixed upon you.
We make this prayer through Christ Jesus,
our merciful redeemer, friend, and brother.
Glory to the Father,
to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Saint Mary Magdalene, pray for us!
Saint Francis of Assisi, pray for us!
Saint Clare of Assisi, pray for us!
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
The Saints of Summer
Episode 1 – Saint Ann: Grandmother to the World
Episode 2 – Saint Mary Magdalene: Apostle for the Rest of Us
Episode 3 – Saint Clare of Assisi: Consumed by Love
Episode 4 – Saint Rose of Viterbo: Living Witness
Episode 5 – Our Lady of Sorrows: Model of Faith
Episode 6 – Coming Soon
About the Author & Presenter
Cliff Garvey is a co-founder of the Assisi Project. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Maine, Saint John Seminary College, and the Catholic University of America. Cliff is a writer, spiritual director, retreat leader, and university lecturer. He also serves as Associate Minister of the Catholic Community of Gloucester & Rockport in Massachusetts where his ministry focuses on adult faith formation. Thank you for listening to Saint Mary Magdalene: Apostle for the Rest of Us. The Assisi Project Podcast is produced by the Assisi Project, Inc. For more information about the Assisi Project: A Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit and our programs and ministries for adults of all ages and backgrounds, please contact Cliff Garvey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2022. All rights reserved. May the Lord give you peace!
Art Credit: Photo of Saint Mary Magdalen by Iurii Kuzo | 184392851 | Dreamstime.com
Founded in 2007, the Assisi Project is a Fellowship of Franciscans in Spirit with friends and followers throughout the world. We are dedicated to helping Christian believers of all ages more faithfully live the Gospel of Christ in the spirit of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi. The Assisi Project is a non-profit, tax exempt charitable organization. All are welcome to support our ministry via PayPal or AmazonSmile (see links below); or by sending a tax-deductible donation to the Assisi Project, Post Office Box 3158, Gloucester, Massachusetts 01931-3158. For more information about the Assisi Project, please contact Cliff Garvey at email@example.com. May the Lord give you peace!
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