There are few figures in the Gospels that are as fascinating to me as Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 47; Luke 8:2, 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18) and yet we know little of her life before Jesus. Luke alone tells us that our Lord delivered her from seven demons (Luke 8:2). Maybe because of the sinful reputation of her hometown of Magdala (Migdal) or her eventual conflation with the sinner woman who broke the alabaster jar over Jesus’s feet (Luke 7:37), some have associated her with prostitution (see a fuller treatment of those interpretations in the Catholic Encyclopedia).
Today, as we celebrate her feast, I want to focus on her role in the resurrection narratives in the Gospel of John. Her encounter with Jesus and witness to the disciples gathered in fear, is given a substantial treatment by the Beloved Disciple (John 20:1-18). It’s a narrative wholly unique to John’s Gospel and one that he obviously didn’t want to be lost to the memory of the Church. Before we open up John 20, there is an important theme we need to mention that will be a key not only to understanding Mary Magdalene, but the whole Gospel of John, and the entire biblical story, in fact.
A Marriage Made in Heaven
That theme is the persistent image throughout the Word of God of God as a Divine Bridegroom and his people as his Bride. In the Old Testament, it can be traced through the Pentateuch, the Psalms and the Prophets. In the New Testament, it is most evident in the Johannine writings, especially the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation.
I would argue that all of the key female figures in the Gospel of John are bridal archetypes of the Church. That is, they are “universal signs” for the Church that is called into relationship with it’s spiritual spouse, Christ the Divine Bridegroom.
Among those women in John’s text, Mary Magdalene is second only to Our Lady as a sign of the Church (John 2, 19).
Take a moment to read John 20:1-18 with this theme of Bridegroom/Bride in mind. In this passage, you discovered that before the break of dawn we find a mourning Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Her grief is intensified when she discovers that the tomb of Jesus is empty and his body has disappeared. In haste, she alerts the apostles, and Peter with John have a foot race to the tomb to confirm her words. After seeing the empty sepulchre, the apostles return to the place where they were staying, but Mary remains, inconsolable. Weeping, she bends to look in the tomb again. The tomb is no longer empty. Two angel attendants are now visible, question her about her tears, and then someone stirs behind her. A gardener moving through the garden. We don’t have any details about what he may have been doing, but I like to imagine Jesus was pruning a grape vine (John 15), watering a young date palm, or fertilizing a fig tree. It wouldn’t be out of character for the Risen Lord, as we will see him in the next chapter, crouching over a charcoal fire, making breakfast for his friends (John 21).
In the conversation that follows, Jesus’s identity is first concealed and then revealed by a single word, “Mary.” Hearing her name, tenderly voiced by the Good Shepherd (John 10:27), she cries in response “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Then, “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). It’s one of my favorite moments in the Gospels. A powerful exchange between a disciple and her resurrected rabbi.
When I became Catholic, a deeper level to this moment was revealed. Attending daily Mass on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, I heard the optional first reading for her special day and a nuptial layer appeared. The reading is from Song of Solomon 3:1-4. It tells the story of a bride in desperate search for her lost bridegroom, “I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not…Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” This is how we find Mary in the opening verses of John 20, desperately seeking the Lord who is missing. Then vs. 3-4 helped me interpret one of the stranger moments in the Gospel when Jesus says in many English translations, “Do not touch me” or “do not hold me.” It is here that the Song of Songs continues to inform our sense of what is happening, “when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go.” (Song 3:3-4).
Jesus wasn’t holding Mary away at arms length, as I imagined, and many Christian paintings portray. In fact, she was embracing him, and he tells her she has to let him go now, and fulfill her mission: to be a witness of this encounter and and an “apostle to the apostles.”
Mary Magdalene therefore not only models the courageous and faithful disciple who remained with Jesus through his passion, but she reveals the Church as a missionary Bride to us. Each member of the Body of Christ, must encounter the Lord, as she did. We must embrace him with love (something we can do every time we receive a sacrament). But, no faith, no matter how powerful and personal is ever private. We cannot simply cling to Jesus for ourselves. He sends us forth, the Good News of our Risen Lord is meant to be shared and lived out by loving others with his tender love.
Through the intercession of St. Mary Magdalene, may we more fully accept Jesus’s invitation to intimacy through the sacraments and like her may we courageously and joyfully carry that invitation to all we meet.