St. Mary Magdalene (1st century)
Feast Day: July 22
The story is in St. Luke's Gospel. An unnamed woman, a
notorious sinner, bearing an alabaster jar of perfumed oil
enters unannounced into a house where Jesus is a guest.
Without saying a word to the host or to the apostles or even
to Christ Himself, she breaks open the jar and pours the
scented oil over the Lord, washes His feet with her tears,
then dries them with her long hair. For nearly 1,700 years
tradition has identified this penitent woman as St. Mary
Magdalene. Ever since artists have depicted St. Mary holding
a beautiful urn, which has lead perfumers to take Mary as
their patron saint.
Was Mary Magdalene a notorious sinner? The short answer is,
"No." It was Pope St. Gregory the Great who popularized the
idea of conflating three separate Marys in the gospels into
one. According to Pope Gregory, Mary Magdalene was the
unnamed sinner who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, and Mary,
the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the Mary who was the
first to see the Risen Christ.
Who was the real Mary Magdalene? The Gospels tell us she was
one of the women who traveled with Christ and the apostles.
St. Luke says Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary, but he
does not say that she was promiscuous let alone a prostitute
(another bit of "common knowledge" that has attached itself
to poor St. Mary).
We know from the Gospels that with the Blessed Mother, St.
John, and several other women who remained faithful to Jesus,
Mary Magdalene followed Our Lord to Calvary and witnessed his
death and burial. On the first Easter morning she encountered
the Risen Christ in the garden but did not recognize Him
until He spoke her name. Then the Lord sent her to tell the
apostles that He had risen from the dead.
Because St. Mary Magdalene was granted the privilege of
announcing the Resurrection, St. Hippolytus (circa 170-235)
gave her the title, "Apostle to the Apostles." In June 2016,
Pope Francis confirmed the title St. Hippolytus gave her
centuries earlier by elevating the day the church celebrates
St. Mary Magdalene from a simple memorial to a feast - a
distinction which now she shares with the Twelve Apostles.
As with so many of the Lord's disciples, legend steps in
where the New Testament leaves off. The most persistent
tradition claims that after the descent of the Holy Spirit
upon Our Lady and the apostles and disciples, Mary Magdalene,
Martha, Lazarus, and Maximinus (one of the Lord's 72
disciples) traveled to the south of France where they
preached the Gospel. Later Mary Magdalene retired to a cave
east of Marseilles to live the rest of her life as a hermit.
Pilgrims have visited the Holy Cave at least since the fifth
century, and they still come to venerate the woman who was
the first witness to the Lord's resurrection.
Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This
Saint Will Change Your Life.