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St. Mary Magdalene:  The Apostle to the Apostles

Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP

St. Mary Magdalene:  The Apostle to the Apostles

300th  Edition      July 2024

July 22nd is a special feast for us Dominican women and men.  It is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene.  Mary has always held a unique position in Church history. She is known as the “Apostle to the Apostles.”  She also holds an honored position in our Dominican heritage since she is the patroness of the Order of Preachers, the Dominican Order.  We Dominicans pray that we will be as truthful, faithful, and courageous as Mary was, as we continue to preach the Good News of mercy and justice to all those whose lives we touch.

The gospel stories are consistent.  Each one identifies Mary Magdalene as the first person to receive the news of the resurrection.  Wording and details differ, but the message is the same. Mary Magdalene was chosen by Jesus to be the first witness to his resurrection.  It is also clear that she was the first to be commissioned to proclaim the Good News (gospel) of his resurrection.   By doing this, Jesus identified Mary Magdalene as both a spiritual and temporal leader.

The gospels do not tell us much about Mary Magdalene’s background, but that is not surprising. The gospels were written from a faith perspective to tell the story of Jesus.  However, before I continue, I want to briefly, but boldly refute the incorrect characterization of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute.  The questions concerning Mary Magdalene’s life arose in the early centuries of the church because of the many “Marys” we find in the gospels.  Sadly, for centuries erroneous connections among these “Marys” were made.  However, in this last century with its serious study of scripture, Mary Magdalene’s reputation has been exonerated.

Yet, even though we do not have a lot of facts about Mary Magdalene’s life, there are significant legends and oral traditions that help us fill in the gaps.  To do this, we need to consult other sources to find out more about Mary Magdalene’s identity (1).  Some scholars suggest that Mary might have come from a small fishing village that is on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.  Another theory is that her name reflects obvious qualities for which she was well known.  Magda-lene is a derivative of a Hebrew root word that means “tower,” “strong,” or “fortress.”  This insight was reiterated in a letter that St. Jerome wrote in the Fifth Century.  “Mary Magdalene received the epithet ‘fortified with towers’ because of her earnestness and strength of faith, and was privileged to see the rising of Christ first even before the apostles” (2).  So Magdalene could refer to Mary’s hometown and/or the spiritual characteristics that she possessed.  She certainly was tall in moral stature, as well as a forthright, loyal friend and disciple of Jesus.

We don’t know exactly where Mary went to live after the resurrection.  The gospels don’t give us any information concerning her travels and preaching. Most of the legends that surround Mary Magdalene come from oral traditions which sometimes contradict each other.  One of the reasons for the diverse traditions is that many towns wanted to claim her presence and influence.   The townsfolks considered it an honor to have such an intimate connection with this great woman’s disciple.  Just think what it would mean to us if we lived and worked in the town where Mary Magdalene had ministered, preached, and prayed.  What would it feel like to walk in her footsteps, hear her stories, and stand where she stood when she preached in the early days of the Church?

Some of the traditions seem more reliable than others.  Many of them grew out of a deep sense of piety, but a few, no doubt, developed because it was “good for business” so to speak.  Relics of saints in the Middle Ages drew many pilgrims to towns and villages that would otherwise have been overlooked.  It might sound strange to us, but relic snatching and trading was a vibrant trade in those days.

One of the traditions from the Sixth Century says Mary left Jerusalem with John and Jesus’ mother and sailed to Ephesus.  There they lived together and Mary Magdalene preached the gospel.  Another legend says that Magdalene, Bartholomew, and Philip went to Ephesus and from there continued traveling on missionary journeys. Magdalene finally returned to Ephesus.  There is a tomb in Ephesus that claims to have her remains.

However, there are other popular legends that say Mary Magdalene went to southern France.  According to one set of beliefs Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, Salome, and Martha all traveled to France and landed in Marseille.  There Mary retired to fast and pray.  There is still a small grotto with a chapel that marks the place where she lived.  Even to this day, pilgrims go to visit the area (3).

In the Eleventh Century Vezelay, another town in France, claimed to have Mary’s relics and in this place, many miracles were performed in her name.  For over two hundred years thousands of pilgrims visited that town.  But in the Thirteenth Century, a prince called Charles of Salerno discovered that Magdalene’s relics were at the Church of St. Maximin. Again, at St. Maximin many miracles began to take place.  To honor Mary, they soon secured her skull in a crystal and gold reliquary.  On her feast day, the reliquary was taken out in procession for all to see and honor.

When we read these stories, we have to remember the culture and the times from which they come.  Miracles were attributed to many saints and oral folk traditions often filled in the missing links of the story.  Some of the stories were truer and better researched than others.  All of the claims can’t be true because as some scholars have stated, if all of the claims were true there would be five full corpses, plus many extra body parts that belonged to Mary Magdalene.

All of this sounds very strange to us, but in the Middle Ages, religious myths flourished.  It is easy to find similar pious stories of saints in all cultures.   Every nation has its religious traditions and stories.  If those who lived centuries ago erred on the side of hypothesis and imagination, we might err on the side of skepticism.  Perhaps the prudent line is somewhere in between.

What does all of this mean to us?  We honor and celebrate the saints because they remind us of what God’s grace did for them and can do for us.  Mary Magdalene was an extraordinary woman.  Her deep faith and undaunting courage kept her a loyal disciple even when her association with Jesus might have caused her harm, even death. Despite the guards at the tomb, she ventured out “while it was still dark,” to visit the tomb where Jesus had been buried.  The vision of an angel and the person who, at first, she did not recognize must have frightened her, but nothing kept her from questioning either of them.  She was tenacious and persistent.  After Jesus’ death, she traveled great distances and risked physical harm as she preached the gospel.  We have no specific information concerning her death, but there can be no doubt that she was faithful and loyal to the risen Christ to the end of her life.

Mary Magdalene’s extraordinary faith is told in each Gospel.  The Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, has the fullest narrative.  It would be well to reread the passage and pray with Mary that we too might recognize the risen Christ in his many disguises.  As Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, reminds us.

For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes, not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

You also might want to reflect on the following questions.  Why do you think Jesus appeared to Mary first before any other apostle?  What wisdom can we gain from her life and preaching?  What difference has her faithful life made in your life of faith?

IMAGE CREDIT: The Basilica of Mary Magdalene, in Provence, France sits in the foothills of the Baume mountains.

1.   A Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mary Magdalene, Lesa Bellevie, published by ALPHA: a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.  2005.  p. 9   This is a very practical and informative book on Mary Magdalene.

2.  Bellevie, p. 9.

3.  Many people have taken study tours to ancient Jewish/Christian sites and/or traced the footsteps of St. Paul.  A few years ago, I spent some time in southern France visiting the traditional sites where Mary Magdalene lived and preached.  The devotion and history I encountered in those places were quite inspiring.

4.  Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poem,  “As the Kingfisher Catch Fire”



Preachers of  Truth • Love • Justice