Today is the Feast of Mary of Magdalene, who was healed by Jesus of seven evil spirits (Lk 8:2, Mk 16:9) and who was the first person to find the empty tomb. She stood at the foot of the cross, and, in the longer ending to Mark, she is the first to see the risen Christ. She is St. Mary of Magdala, the Penitent, and July 22 is her feast day.
Early in the church, ignominious lore was spun about her that cast her as a harlot, conflating her with another woman in the Bible, the one who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears. We can thank early Fathers Bede and Gregory for helping craft this image of Mary. Frequently, Mary Magdalene is also considered to be Mary, the sister of Lazarus, also known as Mary of Bethany. It is very doubtful all of these women could have been one person. What is without question is that Mary Magdalene's devotion is apparent in sacred story and that she was a prominent person in the early Christian movement. She was known in the early Church as the "apostle to the apostles." In several extracanonical gospels, she appears as a vital member of Jesus' inner circle. Quite amazing!
The Eastern Church never conflated Mary of Magdala with Mary, Lazarus' sister or the Mary, who anointed Jesus. Thus, Mary Magdalene's reputation is not the same in the Eastern Church as in the Western Church. The Eastern tradition tells a post-Resurrection story about Mary traveling to visit Emperor Tiberius. The tale, handed down for hundreds of years, is told in numerous ways. One version depicts the two at dinner, during which she proclaims, "Christ is risen!" The emperor scoffs and says that a person could no more rise from the dead than the egg on the table turn red. It did. To this day, Easter eggs are painted a brilliant red in honor of this Resurrection miracle.
Mary has suffered a great deal in the Western tradition. The Church has tried to sideline her for being a prostitute, an adulteress, a harlot. Even so, Mary has remained a vital figure within the Church. Despite the ravages of sexism, Mary of Magdala has never been supplanted as the apostle to the apostles.
Here's to Mary, who teaches us that we may become something beyond our wildest imaginings, that those who have suffered are the first to experience Resurrection, and that even the Church cannot stand in the way of faithful witness.
The Smithsonian Magazine wrote a wonderful article about Mary Magdalene a few years ago. Learn more about the woman whose feast day is today.