SHE could be the saint for our age—though not for the reason many think. Christians have long mistakenly thought St. Mary Magdalene was the same person as the woman of ill-repute who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears in the Pharisee Simon’s home (Luke 7:36-50).
That misimpression, wrongly affirmed in a 1591 sermon by no less than Pope St. Gregory The Great, seems to make the purportedly reformed and forgiven prostitute a sinner-turned-saint for our permissive age, full of sexual transgressions in lifestyles, media, and even in state policy and law.
In fact, scholars now see Mary of Magdala as one of several women disciples who supported Jesus’s ministry with their wealth and work. She herself might have had mental difficulties, with the “seven demons” Jesus cast out of her (Luke 8:2). And she is mentioned more times in the Gospels than any other human being, except the Blessed Virgin.
Of course, the greatest role Magdalene played in all four Gospels as well as in Christian history is as the first disciple to encounter the Risen Christ, who was then tasked with telling the Apostles and other disciples about the Resurrection.
Indeed, between the time Jesus appeared to her and her recounting of the event to the Apostles, Magdalene was the entire Christian Church professing faith in Christ. And the greatest medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas rightly called her “the Apostle to the Apostles.”
Living the simple, selfless life
With such a seminal role in the beginning of our faith, Magdalene should have received the honor given to the Apostles of having feasts in their names. That finally happened last month, when Pope Francis elevated her July 22 commemoration day from a memorial to a feast, the second-highest level of liturgical celebrations after solemnities reserved for the most significant events and personages.
So how is the leading woman disciple of Christ a saint for our time?
Besides sex, the other obsession of our time is money. Unlike so many today, Magdalene did not cling to her wealth and needlessly sought to amass more and more of it. Rather, she used it for Jesus and His mission.
Thus, instead of being enslaved by material things, she channeled them to good and godly purpose. And she also turned her back on the gilded living she might have had, and joined Jesus in His simple, prayerful life on the road, serving God and others.
In our self-centered materialistic time, Magdalene offers the example of selfless service to the cause of Christ.
‘I saw the Risen Lord’
Her second message for the modern, scientific age is the same one she brought to the Apostles: I saw the Risen Lord.
Interestingly, if she or anyone else told people that same message, she would probably get the same reaction of disbelief Mary Magdalene got from the Apostles.
In the biblical Israel, women were not given much value, and their testimony utterly disregarded. So Peter and John had to run to the tomb and see for themselves, rather than take Magdalene’s word as, well, Gospel truth.
Today, we, too, require verifiable proof, not just accurate accounts from unbiased witnesses, but scientifically validated affirmation. And even when events are captured on video, like the incorrupt remains of St. Padre Pio exhumed in 2008 four decades after his death, many in our time deny them if they can’t be explained scientifically.
Because of this widespread rejection of religious truths, even believers today hold their tongue instead of giving witness.
Hence, Magdalene’s simple yet firm retelling of her encounter with the Risen Lord, even in the face of disbelieving Apostles, is precisely what we need today.
We need to give witness to our faith, even if others dismiss, dispute, deny, and otherwise disbelieve what we proclaim.
Like Rose, one of this writer’s fellow lector-commentators at Santuario de San Jose Parish, in Greenhills. Yesterday, she told of how she was suddenly cured of excruciating back pains as soon as she landed in Israel during a pilgrimage last year.
Tearfully, she recounted, after years of not even being able to sleep on a bed or walk unassisted due to her pain, she found herself standing with no discomfort, even with her lumbar support girdle having fallen off without her knowledge.
Like Magdalene and Rose, we, too, must tell of our encounters with Christ, even if our world denies Him. Only then can it begin to believe.
Loving and seeking Jesus
A third Magdalene message for our time is contained in the mass readings for her feast last Friday. The first reading from the “Song of Songs” portrayed a bride pining for her beloved, who comes to her in the end. The Gospel reading tells of Magdalene sadly seeking the missing body of Jesus at the tomb, then encountering the Lord Himself.
Pope St. Gregory The Great’s homily expounds on Magdalene’s loving seeking, even when Peter and John had left the tomb:
“We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ, for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept. Burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him.”
Finding God in our life and world is just as hard as, if not harder than Magdalene’s search for the body of the Lord she loved. Often, God is silent, and we lack the faith, understanding, and love to see Him and His will.
But if we believe and persevere as St. Mary Magdalene did, we, too, shall be rewarded by the presence of Jesus Christ. Amen.