Greetings! It is an honor to celebrate Mary Magdalene’s feast with you. My hope is that you will also fall in love with her and the many other women who remained faithful to the end. I am grateful to Catholic Women Preach and FutureChurch for this opportunity – there is so much to share.
My reflection draws on the work of many scholars – Sandra Schneiders, Barbara Reid, Carolyn Osiek, Carla Ricci, Francine Cardman, to name a few. I want to call out their names, the same way we honor the names of the women who ministered with Jesus in Galilee, and remained at the cross, at the tomb, and finally, as his chosen witnesses, proclaimed his Resurrection.
Who is St. Mary Magdalene and where do we find her? Clear answers are in the four canonical gospels. There is rich detail in other texts such as the Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Philip – but today I want to focus on the canon accepted in the institution of the Catholic Church because there is a lot there about Mary Magdalene that most Catholics rarely hear or see.
In the 1st c. women’s names were rarely recorded1 so it is significant that at least 3 women are named in the Crucifixion or Resurrection scenes in all 4 gospels. We know these names because the early followers believed the testimony of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, Mary the Mother of James and Joses, and the other women.
In fact, Luke opens his text, promising an “orderly account … handed on … by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word …” (1:1-2).
Mary Magdalene and the other women were some of those reliable eyewitnesses2 (Ricci, 190). Their testimony was, and is, required for a complete telling of Jesus’ life. The earliest 1st century followers of the way told and retold the foundational stories of the Crucifixion, empty tomb, and Risen Jesus - stories that formed and solidified their faith.
We can honor those 1st c. storytellers by delving into their narratives to discover striking images of the meaning of discipleship and of prophetic witness.
For me, two of the richest narratives are Luke 8:1-21 and John’s Resurrection (20:1-18). Luke introduces Mary Magdalene in chapter 8, earlier than any other gospel. Jesus is pressing forward in his ministry in Galilee. Luke tells us: “The twelve were with him as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others who supported him (or “them” in some translations) out of their resources.” (8:1b-3)
In Carla Ricci’s analysis, when Luke presents “The twelve as well as some women” he establishes the women as a group parallel and equal to the twelve. Also, the three women who were healed of evil spirits and infirmities are “privileged witnesses” who have experienced Jesus’ healing and were invited to follow him, which was unusual.2
I must comment on the exorcism of seven demons: This indicates Jesus’ power over a debilitating mental or internal illness. It does not mean that Mary Magdalene was filled with the seven deadly sins as Pope Gregory I erroneously claimed in the late 6th century3. That error inspired medieval legends and created a damaging legacy that still lives on in art and popular culture today. Later in that same chapter, the story of the Gerasene man possessed by a legion of demons shows clearly that demons in the 1st c. context did not imply sexual sin.
And so we see Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna are healed and faithful, independent women who supported Jesus from their own financial resources. They left their homes and everything behind to follow and support Jesus’ mission.
Jesus moves forward - the twelve and the women follow. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna are present for the rest of this Gospel. Imagine them at Jesus’ side as he explains the parable of the Sower of the Good Seed to his closest disciples. (Luke 8:9-15)
You know this parable – the good seed falls on different kinds of soil or rock or dust. As Jesus explains the last 2 examples – the thorns and the good soil – there is a hint of why some left and some stayed with Jesus as he suffers and dies. He warns that the seed that falls “… among the thorns … are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life…” (Lk 8:14). When I hear this I remember my petty judgements and fears that waste time and distract me from doing service.
Yet there is hope – Jesus reminds us that we also have good soil in our hearts. We can be “… the ones who, when we “… hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”(Lk 8:15). I believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna and the other women knew that the seed was growing in the fertile soil of their hearts.
Luke ends this section of chapter 8 emphasizing the need to hear the word and act on it. Jesus teaches that no one would light a lamp – that is, hear the word - and then hide it under a jar or under a bed. And hedeclares that his true family are those of us who hear the word and do it.
I hear him tell us, tell me, to have the courage to show up and shine with patient endurance like Mary Magdalene and the other women witnesses.
A final note on Luke 8 – here Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” are clearly identified as faithful, generous women who came up from Galilee with Jesus and supported him out of their resources. It is striking that Mark and Matthew also identify Mary Magdalene and the others as, “the women who came up from Galilee and supported him out of their means.” This identifier appears four more times in Crucifixion, Burial, or Empty Tomb scenes (Mt 27:55-56, Mk 15:40-41, Lk 23:48, Lk 23:55). Not one of the women is remembered as a sinner and, even though three were healed, that is not their identifier.
Luke and John’s resurrection scenes are exquisite. I cannot do them full justice here so I urge you to explore Carla Ricci’s and Sandra Schneiders’ works4. There is so much in John’s resurrection (20:1-18) that is not heard by most Catholics and not seen in art. So my heart takes me to explore its essential elements with you.
Here, unlike the other gospels, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone and does not carry spices. The stone has been removed. She runs to tell Peter and the Beloved and they go to the tomb. Peter enters, sees the burial cloths, but no dialogue is recorded. In verses 8-9 the narrator says the Beloved saw the cloths and “believed” but that they didn’t yet understand the scripture that “he must rise from the dead.” The meagre fare in those 9 verses is all we hear on Easter Sunday in the Roman Catholic Lectionary.
We don’t know what the Beloved believed or if the Beloved told anyone what he believed. The rest of John’s Resurrection – verses 10-18 - is never read on a Sunday. So let’s stay with it just as Mary stayed. In verse 10 Peter and the Beloved leave the tomb; in contrast, in verse 11, “… Mary stood weeping …” She stayed in the confusion and dark of her sorrow. This tomb is the last place she saw Jesus; it is now holiest place in her life, and at this moment the only place she can be – you know that feeling.
Her tears are honored, angels appear. She asks them, where is my Lord, they don’t answer. She turns away but never stops asking. Jesus, who she thinks is the gardener – the sower of the good seed – appears and asks, “Woman who are you seeking?” She does not recognize his face or voice and asks again. This time she asks for his body. Jesus knows she is not going to leave; finally, he calls her by name -- “Maryiam” – now she knows him. She is seen and can see this is the man who taught and healed her. She responds, “Rabbouni” my teacher - the only time this version of Rabbi is used in the gospel. This shortest of dialogues reveals their relationship as Proclaimer of the Word, Jesus, and hearer of the Word, Mary. She is about to take on his role of Proclaimer. Before she can approach him he says, “Don’t touch me” – not a rejection, but a redirection to experience his presence in a new way. He Commissions her to Speak in his Name, in the 1st person – “… go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her” (Jn 20:17-18).
Throughout the 4th gospel people asked, “Where are you going Lord. Where are you staying?” In John 20:17 we have the answer - I am going to my Father and yours to my God and yours. But where is that? And how do we get there? To me, Jesus describes that we are brought into the family of God through the relationships we build and weave between and among us, Jesus and God our Creator all sustained by the gifts of the Spirit. Sandra Schneiders observed that “… this saving revelation comes to us, as it did to the first disciples, through the word of a woman bearing witness.”5
The evening of that 1st Easter day – the day of Mary Magdalene’s proclaiming - Jesus appears in the same room where the disciples were hiding. He does not repeat the message he gave her. (John 20:19-23) He fully expected the others to believe her, as he expects us to believe her today.
I believe she stayed throughout the rest of chapter 20 and so was in that room with the disciples – both women and men - when Jesus appeared a 2nd time, breathed on them, blessed them, and sent them out with the Holy Spirit. I believe she was in the room when Thomas returned and the Risen Jesus appeared for the third time (John 20:24-29). Where else would she go? This community is her home.
As I mentioned, John’s full resurrection 1-18 is never read as a unit on Easter Sunday or any Sunday. On Easter, we hear only verses 1-9 with Peter and the Beloved seeing the burial cloths – no angels, no Risen Jesus with a life-saving message.
The lectionary assigns verses 11-18 with Mary Magdalene’s powerful witness to Easter Tuesday and to her Feast – which is always on a weekday. Verse 10 – when Peter and the Beloved leave is never read. And so Mary Magdalene’s powerful role in the Resurrection is hidden from most Catholics.
What do we do? To me, now we who are committed to the Full Gospel must be the storytellers. We are the people who can keep John’s resurrection story alive in our hearts and working in the lives of our communities. We can preserve and promote the memory that the risen Jesus selected Mary Magdalene, called her by name, commissioned her to proclaim in his name, and that she did.
We can ask pastors and presiders to read the full Resurrection (Jn 20:1-18) on Easter Sunday. We can read all of John 20 (1-31) with our friends and family. Tell it like a family story – it is part of our history. Get your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to record it on Tik Tok. Write to the Vatican’s office of Divine Worship. Commission ART to illuminate and bring your favorite images out to the world. Never stop seeking. We must preserve and pass on Mary Magdalene’s pivotal role in bringing the story of the Resurrection to us. If our bishops, cardinals, priests and pope cannot see her, can they see me, can they see you? Without her witness, where would we be? Thank you and Amen!
1 Construct of Social Invisibility of Women. Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald, A Woman’s Place: House Churches of Earliest Christianity (Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 3.
2 Carla Ricci, Mary Magdalene and the Many Others, (First Fortress Press, transl. by Burns & Oates, 1994), 123-161, especially, 160, and 163-195, 190. “They are privileged witnesses: some of them had personal experience of his healing powers (note that in the Gospels none of the male disciples is said to have been cured.) They too, as we have seen, shared the special teaching reserved to the disciples and were witnesses to and depositories of the Master’s words. Finally, the women, the only ones of his followers to be present at the foot of the cross, were chosen to be the first and privileged witnesses to the ultimate reality of the resurrection. … Luke, in his prologue, makes a vital reference to the value of witness: the sources of the information he has about the events of which he intends to write, “an orderly account” are “those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and servants of the word” (1:2-3).”
3 Forty Gospel Homilies: Gregory the Great, (Cistercian Publications, Transl. by J. P. Migne, 1990) Homily 33 and 25.
4 Ricci, 168, 182-195. Sandra Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, (Crossroad, 2003), 202-229 and Jesus Risen in our Midst, (Liturgical Press, 2013).
5 Schneiders, Written That You May Believe, 223.
Acknowledgements: This homily was taped in front of the relief, “Mary Magdalene Proclaims the Resurrection” (M. Beaudette, SC, 2014) in the Mary Chapel at St. Francis Xavier parish, NY, NY. I thank the parish for welcoming me. I also thank four members of “The Women Who Stayed” (Christine Santisteban, Marylee Raymond Diamond, Nancy Lorence, and Margaret Flanagan) for their patient assistance and editing.
Addendum on Luke’s Resurrection:
Because of time limits I had to omit this section on Luke’s Resurrection. So I present it here as an Addendum for future use and inspiration.
In Luke’s Resurrection (24:1-13) “two men in dazzling clothes” greet Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Joses, and Salome. They engage in a detailed dialogue, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” At first it sounds like they are chastising the women, but no, these divine agents are inviting the women, and us, to remember that they were indeed by Jesus’ side when he predicted his death, burial and rising. The women “… remember his [Jesus’] words and confirm by going out to proclaim “… all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” (24:8)
The angels’ direction to remember that Jesus had predicted his death and rising to his closest disciples is a revealing text. (Ricci, 182-183) It points back to when Jesus, twice in Luke 9:18-26 and 9:43-50, tells his closest group of followers of his coming death and rising. Further proof that Mary Magdalene and the other women were present beyond their first mention in 8:1-3 and accompanied Jesus throughout his Galilean ministry.
In Matthew (28:2-7) an angel commissions Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary” to tell the others to go to Galilee. These women are the only, tenuous connection – like a long ribbon -extending between the Risen Jesus and his scattered, terrified followers. (Ricci, 192) I imagine as they journey back to the start in Galilee they will recall Jesus’ miracles and teachings about kindness, generosity of spirit, and the forgiveness of sins that occurred at each spot along the way. They will find the Risen Jesus when they integrate these teachings into their lives and ways of being. It’s a moving image – I hope some artists are hearing this and are inspired.
End of Addendum on Luke’s Resurrection
Rita L. Houlihan
Rita L. Houlihan
Rita is a member of Ascension parish in New York City where she teaches Confirmation. She is on FutureChurch’s Board of Directors and is committed to restoring our historical memory of early Christian women leaders with a special focus on Mary Magdalene and the women omitted from our Sunday Lectionary readings. Rita has researched the questions, “Why, in 591, did Pope Gregory I distort Mary Magdalene by conflating her with Luke’s unnamed sinner (7.36-50) and Mary of Bethany?” “Why do so many still believe the legends, versus the scripture today?” She is documenting answers and working to share the history of the conflation and of its effects.
New art is needed to counter centuries of negative images of Mary Magdalene. Examples are the sculpted relief – “Mary Magdalene Proclaims the Resurrection” (Margaret Beaudette, SC, 2014) and Laura James’ series, “Mary Magdalene and the Risen Jesus” commissioned in 2021.
In June 2015, working with a small group, Rita requested that Pope Francis correct the false legend, elevate Mary Magdalene’s memorial to a Solemnity and add John 20: 10-18 to Easter Sunday. On June 3, 2016, the Vatican changed her mass to a Feast (a level below a Solemnity) and issued a decree declaring her an apostle and evangelizer. She and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are the only women with Feast designations. These are great steps, but more needs to be done to fully restore Mary Magdalene and other New Testament women to their rightful places in our liturgies and imaginations. One vehicle for those changes, the “ReclaimMagdalene” project. Please spread the word on the real Mary Magdalene.
Rita had a 32+ year career at IBM, in sales and Change Strategy Consulting and has a BA in Psychology and Philosophy (Newton College of the Sacred Heart, now Boston College) and an MA in Educational Psychology from NYU.
Links to videos of Boston College’s Mary of Magdala lectures, BC’s online Mary of Magdala course, and the Vatican’s 2016 Decree elevating her memorial to a Feast:
Take an opportunity to read and reflect on the Sunday readings during the first five weeks of Lent. Participants are provided with links to reflections on the Lectionary readings (Cycle A) written by scholars -- including weekly preaching from Catholic Women Preach. Then, each week participants share their insights in an online community discussion, guided by a facilitator.MORE INFO/REGISTER
Advertise with Catholic Women Preach: email Russ at email@example.com