Our July celebration of Hall of Fame of Saints continues today with the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. St. Mary Magdalene holds a special place both in Christian and world history. According to three of the four Gospels, she was the first eyewitness to the most important historical event in the history of the world; the Risen Christ first appeared to her. Mary Magdalene then spread this news to the eleven apostles and other disciples of Jesus and is known as the “Apostle to the Apostles”.
While accurate historical information on Mary Magdalene is limited, we do know that she was a close disciple of Jesus. In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem from August 1988, Blessed John Paul II praised Mary Magdalene’s special role as being the first witness to the Resurrection:
The women are the first at the tomb. They are the first to find it empty. They are the first to hear ‘He is not here. He has risen, as he said.’ They are the first to embrace his feet. The women are also the first to be called to announce this truth to the Apostles. The Gospel of John (cf. also Mk 16:9) emphasizes the “special role of Mary Magdalene”. She is the first to meet the Risen Christ. […] Hence she came to be called “the apostle of the Apostles”. Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles. — Blessed John Paul II
St. Mary Magdalene has seen a resurgence in popular culture in recent decades, primarily due to sensationalist but historically inaccurate novels like The Da Vinci Code. There are also myths of Mary Magdalene that were passed on by Church authorities. For example, the popular myth of her being a repentant prostitute is likely not accurate. Mary Magdalene has long been confused with other women also named Mary and some anonymous women whose stories were mistakenly fused into one sensual young sinner. This conflation merging several women into one composite has incorrectly linked the Magdalene with the unnamed sinner (commonly thought to have been a prostitute) in Luke 7:36-50. Though St. Mary Magdalene is named in each of the four gospels in the New Testament, not once does it say that she was a prostitute or a sinner. Nothing in the New Testament even hints of her as a prostitute. Contemporary scholarship is said to have restored the understanding of Mary Magdalene as an important early Christian leader. In 1969, Pope Paul IV clearly separated Luke’s sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene via the Roman Missal.
Other legends, too, were added to the Gospel account. For instance, Mary Magdalen was said to have gone to Ephesus with Jesus’ Mother and St. John the Apostle. She was even said to have been the fiancée of John, until Jesus called him. There was even a claim that her tomb had been seen in Ephesus in the 8th century.
The town of Vezelay, in France, was claiming to have her relics from the 11th century and there was even a story that she, her sister Martha and Lazarus had spread the Gospel in Provence. Mary Magdalen was said to have lived as a hermit in the Maritime Alps before dying at Saint Maximin. These stories were widely believed but get little credence from modern scholars.
In art Mary Magdalene is usually represented with the emblem of a pot of ointment, or shown in scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. In England there were 187 churches dedicated to her and both Oxford and Cambridge universities have colleges named after her. Mary Magdalen is patron both of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life. Together with her close relationship to Jesus this explains her great popularity over the centuries.