Mary Magdalene: A Model of Discipleship

Mary Magdalene by Pietro Perugino, Florence

Mary Magdalene, whose feast we celebrate on Saturday, has always been a popular, fascinating – and mysterious – figure in the life of the Church.  It was she to whom the Risen Jesus chose to appear first after his Resurrection.  She was in a sense the first evangelist as she then went out in haste to tell others the Good News, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:11-18).  For this she has been called the “Apostle to the Apostles” or, as Pope Francis recently named her, the “Apostle of the new and greatest hope.”

Yet, as large a role as she plays, little else is known for sure about Mary Magdalene.  What we know for certain is that she had been possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9).  When Jesus freed her of that evil in her life, Mary became one of his closest followers.  With love and gratitude, when most of the Apostle were in hiding, Mary Magdalene remained near the Lord during his Passion and, except to faithfully observe the Sabbath, she did not leave him even after he was dead and placed in the tomb.  She did not want to let go of him.

Pope Saint Gregory the Great notes in a homily how Mary Magdalene remained at the empty tomb after Peter and John had left on that first Easter Sunday – she was still seeking Jesus (John 20:3-10).   “While she sought she wept,” he said, “burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”

Persevering to the end does not mean never making mistakes because we all sometimes stumble and fall during the journey of life.  What it does mean, Pope Francis has emphasized, is persevering in faith – always getting up after we have fallen and seeking Jesus.  It means going to meet Christ in the confessional, opening our penitent hearts to him so that he might free us from the domination of sin and evil and restore our dignity.  Then, having been given a new life like Mary, it means going to our brothers and sisters and joyfully proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord!”

Some believe Mary Magdalene to be the same Mary of Bethany who was the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as well as the unnamed woman whose sins were forgiven by Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee (John 11:1-2; Luke 7:36-50).  Others believe that these are three different women.  In any event, of what is known for sure about her, Mary Magdalene illustrates what a disciple is – one who, in the experience of human weakness, is healed by Jesus and closely follows him; one who with apostolic zeal goes to announce his merciful love which is stronger than evil and death.