The Imitation of Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

iconofmarymagdaleneToday, July 22, Christians in Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. One of my favorite anecdotes about St. John XXIII happens to be a joke told by him on the occasion of this very feast. My former professor, the noted historian John W. O’Malley, S.J., tells it as follows:


I didn’t meet Pope John XXIII but I happened to be, just by accident, I was very young Jesuit, and was given tickets to an audience at Castel Gandolfo in July of 1960 and it happened to be the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, so we went out there and huge audience and John XXIII at the end said, he was reading an address, prepared address, “I want to say a special word to the women pilgrims present about St. Mary Magdalene and how they should take her as a model. They should imitate her love for Christ, they should imitate her love for prayer, they should imitate her love for penance,” and he put down the paper and looked out and said, “but they should not imitate the other thing she did.” The audience went crazy, I mean you can imagine, whistles, foot stomping, pounding of the floor, and so forth. And he was up there, just absolutely enjoying the joke as much as anybody.[1]


At this point, I trust most Catholics know how much Good Pope John loved a joke as much as the next person. Funny though he was, it should trouble us to hear it and retell it (without contextualization) for two reasons: Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, and even had she been, it’s an insult to women, men, and children the world over who have been forced by need or violence into the slavery of prostitution to make jokes at their expense. In the interest of space, I’ll elaborate on the first point and not the second: it is now widely accepted that Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute. The misunderstanding is largely the result of confusing two characters that appear consecutively in Luke’s Gospel: the unnamed sinful woman who anoints Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) and the mention of Mary of Magdala (among with other women) as accompanying Jesus in his travels, proclaiming the Good News (Luke 8:1-3). All that is said of the Magdalene is that Jesus had cured her of seven demons (usually interpreted as meaning he cured her of an illness, not whoring) and that she and the other women, Joanna and Susanna, provided for the apostles out of their own means. Mary Magdalene: apostle and patroness, not prostitute.[2]


As Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Associate Professor of Theology at Manhattan College, noted in a Facebook post this morning:

Happy Feast of Mary Magdalene, preacher of the Good News, Apostle to the Apostles, and certainly one of the most famous women to be labeled a whore for absolutely no reason. Sadly, she was not to be the last to suffer this fate.

The image of Mary Magdalene in Christianity is deeply bound up in the way women are encountered and portrayed throughout history. Perhaps thanks most, in recent memory, to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code for contributing to the public fascination with Mary Madgalene as someone seen as important mostly for the person with whom she may or may not have known in the Biblical sense, Mary Madgalene led a life significant in its own right and – as St. John XXIII pointed out – one worth imitating. She was not a Kim Kardashian to Kanye’s Yeezus, or even a Duchess of Cambridge to Prince William, but a disciple to and financial supporter of Jesus of Nazareth in his earthly ministries, a companion to him in death, one of the first witnesses to his resurrection, and a leader in the nascent Christian community: she had herself together and it’s not totally unsurprising that history stained by patriarchy has thrown her some shade.


A 1975 article by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes the ways in which the images of early Christian women affect the way Christian women understand themselves today. She writes,

Modern novelists and theological interpreters picture her as having abandoned pleasure and whoring for the pure and romantic love of Jesus the man. This distortion of her image signals deep distortion in the self-understanding of Christian women. If as women we should not have to reject the Christian faith, we have to reclaim women’s contribution and role in it. We must free the image of Mary Magdalene from all distortions and recover her role as apostle.[3]

Schüssler Fiorenza’s historical analysis of the Magdalene’s image looks at the gospel and apocryphal traditions as downplaying her role as the first witness to the resurrection, noting in Mark that she and the other women “said nothing to anyone because they were afraid” (16:8) or in Luke that the Apostles considered their witness “an idle tale and they did not believe them” (24:11), only bending to Simon Peter’s witness (24:34).[4] Only time and the authority of Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux have allowed her to be seen as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” I welcome debate on this next point but I assert that, today, women in church ministry and theology continue not to succeed to the same degree men do, in part due to permeating distorted, gender-essentialized images of women and men alike, with the one traditionally ascribed to Mary Magdalene as a primary example. As Schüssler Fiorenza notes, “only those women can ‘make it’ who play the male game. Love and service is still mainly the task of women.”[5] Still, in our wartorn and broken world marked by violence and discrimination against women, on this feast of Mary Magdalene, it is especially important to remember Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s hopeful point that “Christian faith and community has its foundation in the message of the ‘new life’ first proclaimed by women” and it is their witness, love, and courage we are called to imitate.[6]


St. Mary Magdalene, pray for us.


[2] Here, I want to add a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I stress that Mary Madgalene was not a prostitute not because prostitutes somehow have less human dignity than others but because there is no evidence to support her as such. In the eyes of God, as it should be in the eyes of humanity, it is not ‘bad’ to be poor, a leper, a widow, an orphan, a foreigner, or a prostitute—modern society seems to have evolved on most of these except the last two, and let’s not forget that to be “foreign” in the time of Jesus implied difference of race as well as nationality.

[3] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Feminist Theology as a Critical Theology of Liberation,” Theological Studies. vol. 36:4 (Dec. 1975): 625.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 626.

[6] Ibid.