During the Jubilee Year of Mercy in 2016, by request of Pope Francis, the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene was elevated in the liturgical calendar to the level of a feast day. The greatness of this saint, who was already acknowledged by St. Thomas Aquinas as Apostola apostolorum — the “Apostle to the Apostles” — is now celebrated on July 22 as a feast day on the same liturgical level as the other Apostles. Mary Magdalene has been given this eminent title of “Apostle” because of her unique and singular privilege of being the first to have witnessed the Risen Christ.
Why has her feast been given this dignity? It is because the Church wants to give special attention to this woman, who showed an immense love for Christ and who was immensely loved by Christ. We see in the Gospels that Mary Magdalene was chosen and loved by Christ with an exceptional love. The Gospels recount that Jesus freed her of seven demons. We do not know what kind of demons tormented Mary, but it is clear that she was given back her life through this powerful act of healing. Jesus gazed at her, he had compassion on her, he exercised his divine power upon her. Casting away every evil, he forgave her, he healed her: in a word, he loved her.
In the Resurrection passage it is evident how that first act of merciful love completely transformed Mary Magdalene, making her Jesus’ most faithful disciple:
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb… For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned home.
But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her. (Jn 20: 1-3.9-16)
The first characteristic of Mary Magdalene that the Gospels underline is her faithfulness. After the death and burial of Jesus, as soon at the Law permitted it, before the rising of the sun, we see Mary going to the tomb to seek the man whom she loved. John writes of Mary alone at the tomb, a sign of her insistent desire to be near the body of her beloved. During the entire passion and even at the cross she didn’t leave Jesus, and even now, when all the evidence indicates that Jesus is dead and his story is over, she is present. She goes alone to the tomb and upon finding it open, runs back quickly to tell the disciples, Peter and John. They follow her and discovering the tomb empty, decide to return home. Mary still doesn’t leave, but remains there, near the tomb. I can imagine Peter and John trying to convince her: “Come on, Mary, let’s go home. You need to rest, you’re exhausted. You should get something to eat.” Reasonable advice! But Mary is not following her reason, rather she is following her heart and her heart tells her to stay. The same faithfulness that brought her to stay at the foot of the cross is now urging her to stay at the tomb. Amid her tears, she catches a glimpse of two angels dressed in white standing inside the tomb. They speak to her, asking her why she is crying. Mary does not seem to be too impressed by the sight of angels, in fact, in her whole-hearted desire for Jesus, she is not at all interested in them. She replies that she is looking for her Lord. Neither the infernal vision of Calvary nor the heavenly vision of angels are capable of distracting Mary Magdalene from her sole purpose: to be with Jesus. Mary wants her Lord, as she specifies to the angels, and nothing and no one will stop her from reaching Him.
After her conversation with the angels, Mary turns. She sees Jesus standing there, but she does not recognize him. It is important to remember that Jesus is always present with us in our sufferings, in our disappointment and confusion. Even if we are not able to recognize his presence, He is there. Jesus is not unaware nor powerless in front of our suffering; he is standing, that is, he is there, strong and ready for action.
Now it is no longer angels, but Jesus who shows interest in Mary, asking her, “Woman, why are you crying?” Before He had sent messengers, now He himself speaks to her directly. Even if Jesus knows well what Mary is experiencing, He wants to hear it from her. He wants her to be able to express everything in her heart. Jesus asks her to express her desire so that her heart may open to receive the gift that He is about to give her, the fulfillment of her desire beyond her wildest imagination: to be reunited with her Beloved.
Mary does not recognize Jesus — she mistakes him for the gardener. The mention of “garden” should remind us of another story that occurred in a garden, the garden of Eden. The sacred author recounts that “God walked in the garden” and called out to man: “Where are you?” In this we see the Lord’s intentional interest in man. However, Adam and Eve had sinned, and in their shame had become afraid of God and hid from him. In this new garden, Mary does not hide when God calls her. She is not afraid because she knows that she is forgiven and loved. “Perfect love drives out fear” (1 Jn 4:18) and therefore Mary opens her heart.
At this point, Jesus considers Mary ready to receive the revelation that will forever change the history of humanity. He calls her by name: “Mary!” The Gospel message is always passed on through relationship. It is not merely information or philosophy, but rather a relationship of love with Jesus Christ. The evangelist writes that the woman turned to acknowledge Jesus, but in reality she had already turned around to look at the man whom she thought to be the gardener. This second “turning” of Mary is in the sense of an interior conversion which now allows her to recognize her beloved Jesus.
Jesus entrusts to Mary the mission of relaying to the disciples his message: this is the reason for her title “Apostle to the Apostles”. What makes her mission of evangelization possible is not only the words she received from Jesus. It is rather the experience of the Risen Lord. Mary Magdalene saw Jesus, she heard his voice, she probably touched his body (this would explain why Jesus tells her to stop holding on to him!). It was the complete experience of the Risen Lord that became the message of life and hope that Mary shares with her brothers: “I have seen the Lord! And this is all he told me!”
The garden of Eden, from a place of life had become a place of death. Now, the garden of the tomb, from a place of death is transformed in the place of life. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the new Eve and the mother of all the living in Christ. Alongside her, there is another woman, Mary Magdalene, through whom the message of new and eternal life is transmitted. The latter was not conceived without sin, on the contrary, the Gospels make clear that Mary Magdalene experienced greatly the effects of sin in her body, and yet, precisely because she was unconditionally forgiven and loved, she became the first Apostle.
- Remember when and in what way you concretely experienced the merciful love of Jesus in your life. What were the “seven demons” from which He freed you? How has He transformed you? How has He loved you with a special and singular love?
- Strengthened by the experience of the Risen Lord in your life, try to share a message of life and hope with someone close to you. It may be by being a witness like Mary Magdalene: “I have seen the Lord in this way…. and he told me….”.