July 22: Solemnity of St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

Well, technically, today’s feast of St. Mary Magdalene carries the rank of “memorial” only in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and the saint is given no title there – which can be considered an improvement on her title in the old calendar, where she was designated as “penitent.”  How a first witness to the resurrection became, in the church’s liturgical memory, primarily a repentant prostitute is a complex story, involving divergent traditions among the earliest Christian communities, struggles over authority, apostolicity, and gender, and a reception history that conflated different biblical women into a “Magdalene.”[i] Suffice it to stress here that the early centuries remembered here primarily as the “apostle to the apostles” (apostola apostolorum).[ii] The Eastern churches to this day celebrate her as the “eis-apostola,” the apostle-like one.  And even in the Western church, the memory of this woman’s apostolic stature was never quite lost.  The St. Albans Psalter, for example, probably commissioned by the anchoress and then prioress Christina of Markyate, depicts Mary authoritatively proclaiming the resurrection to the eleven remaining apostles.  This illumination invites viewers to imagine Mary as the twelfth apostle.

I have this image set in my prayer space today, where I gave thanks this morning for the feast day of the woman who was charged by Christ with proclaiming the good news of the resurrection to the “brothers.”  Mary’s subsequent proclamation has become part of the foundational witness of our faith: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).


[i] If you want to read more, see the chapter on Mary of Magdala in my Fragments of Real Presence.

[ii] Hippolytus first described Mary of Magdala as someone who is like an apostle to the apostles in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, 25.6-7.  Others — from Rhabanus Maurus in the ninth century, Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, to Pope John Paul II in the twentieth century — have followed Hippolytus in this.  See John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, # 16 n. 38.

Share:

24 comments

  1. Edited to correct my misreading.

    How a first witness to the resurrection became, in the church’s liturgical memory, primarily a repentant prostitute

    Admittedly, I haven’t looked at the breviary readings, but the Mass in the Tridentine Missal doesn’t focus entirely on the prostitute aspect. In the Collect it remembers a woman whose prayers were so powerful that they moved Christ to resuccitate her brother Lazarus dead for four days: “Beátæ Mariæ Magdalénæ, quæsumus, Dómine, suffrágiis adjuvémur: cujus précibus exorátus, quatriduánum fratrem Lázarum vivum ab ínferis resuscitásti”. The Secret speaks of her “glorious merits”. The Gospel reccounts a woman who, though a sinner, heard from the lips of the Lord directly, “”Fides tua te salvam fecit: vade in pace.”

    I think we can highlight differing aspects of a saint’s life without running down this or that liturgy of the Church. Male and female, we certainly all need models of repentance as well as witness.

    1. The post didn’t use the word “repugnant” anywhere. It used the word “repentant,” which accords with the gospel reading you mention. The examples you give demonstrate quite well the curious conflation of three Marys into one, as well as the relative absence of the “apostle to the apostles” image.

      Raising legitimate critiques about certain aspects of some liturgical practice doesn’t amount to “running down this or that liturgy of the Church.”

      1. O.K. so we agree that it is a criticism. My point is that there’s not really any basis to criticize. The Mass combines the various stories as being about one person and emphasizes some aspects (repentance, holiness, power as intercessor) over others. But this is just different, not neccesarily bad.

        Also, the Mass doesn’t actually say “prostitute”. Neither does the old Martyrology, which does mention that she was a witness to the Ressurection:

        At Marseilles in France, the birthday of St. Mary Magdalene, out of whom our Lord expelled seven demons, and who deserved to be the first to see the Saviour after he had risen from the dead.

        Have also now looked at the office. The First Nocturn of Matins is readings from the Song of Songs and the responsories are about her being a witness to the Resurrection e.g.

        R. Mary Magdalen and the other Mary went very early to the sepulchre.
        * That Jesus Whom ye seek, is not here; for He is risen, as He said He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him.
        V. And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre, at the rising of the sun; and, entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting upon the right side, who saith unto them
        R. That Jesus Whom ye seek, is not here; for He is risen, as He said He goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see Him.

        Her being a sinner is mentioned, but not her being a prostitute as best I see.

  2. One wonders on what basis the Tridentine missal conflates Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany into one and the same person.

    1. This conflation, though it may not be historically well-grounded, is much older in tradition than the “Tridentine missal”. For instance, as Father Z mentions today, the 3rd century writer Hippolytus in his Commentary on Song of Songs identifies Mary Magdalene with both Mary of Bethany the sister of Martha and Lazarus and also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

      In regard to “the memory of this woman’s apostolic stature”, we find the following note in the St. Andrews Daily Missal of the 1940s:

      “Then, when like the spouse in the Canticle, she went to find where they had laid her Divine Spouse, Christ called her by her name, and gave her the mission of telling His disciples of His Resurrection. This is probably why the Credo is said today [in the Mass of St. Mary Magdalen, Penitent] as in the Masses of the Apostles.” (Though not in the Masses of other saints of the same rank as hers.)

      Of course, we don’t still have the actual “Tridentine missal” still in use today (it having been revised occasionally from 1570–when it was essentially identical to the Roman missal of a century earlier–up to the revisions of 1951, 1955, and 1962). Unfortunately, perhaps, the Credo in the Mass of St. Magdalen did not survive the cut in the substantial 1962 Roman Missal simplifications (for which, as I recall from a reading long ago, a certain Msgr. Annibale Bugnini seems in his autobiography to claim significant credit).

      1. from what I remember, Josef Andreas Jungmann pointed out (in a footnote in Missarum Solemnia) that the Creed was recited for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene because in medieval times it wa sthought that the Creed should or could be recited if a saint whose feast day it was had been present at one of the events mentioend in the Creed.

      2. St Mary Magdalene’s association with the Creed may go much deeper than this. The earliest version of the creed that we have is probably the one St Paul quotes in 1 Cor 15: ” I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures;that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve…” When the evangelists narrated these events, they identify MM and some other women as the ones who witnessed these events, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

        While this passage establishes that apostles are those to whom the Lord appeared after the Resurrection, the Gospels establish that the women, with MM always listed first, are the witnesses to the whole of this creed.

    2. The conflation is an ancient one, already in full force in the sermons of Pope Gregory the Great (+ 604) and certainly visible in the Legenda Aurea. Thus, the point in my post was about something much larger than the “Tridentine” liturgical calendar, never mind its individual biblical readings for the feast.

      1. Thanks, Teresa for your above Jungmann cite and this comment. Any biblical scholar would support the conflation and then the “rediscovery” of Mary of Magdala – it is one of the results of increased catholic biblical study which has now begun to impact liturgy, theology, and spirituality.

  3. Benedicta Ward has a chapter on St. Mary Magdalene: the Biblical Model of Repentance in her Book Harlots of the Desert: a Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources.

    Ward points out that the church fathers conflated many of the women of the NT especially the Marys. However she also points out that this was because of their greater interest in spiritual than in historical interpretation.

    Mary Magdalene, for the evangelists and for the Fathers, is not just an historical character or characters; she is the new Eve; the first sign of the reversal of the fall of Adam. She is also because of her great love, the woman in the Song of Songs, and she is, for the same reason, the Church as well as the individual soul redeemed from sin

    As Ward points out, the conflation continued when Magdalene was conflated with Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute whose story circulated in East in the sixth century, and migrated to the West. Mary of Egypt became the Liturgical Icon of Repentance whose life is read as part of the Lenten Office in the East.

    While the more recent emphasis upon Magdalene as the Apostle to the Apostles restores an obvious neglect, the emphasis upon Magdalene as the new Eve may be equally or more relevant to many of us.

    She can, of course, be both. Obviously Peter and Paul were also great sinners who repented.

    1. Ms Ward’s work is important because it gives some background for the monk who became Pope, Gregory the Great. He is so often cited as the source of the confusion of persons, but the confusion goes much farther back.

      In some of the gnostic gospels it is hard to determine if the Mary mentioned is Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany. What Karen King and many others call “the Gospel of Mary Magdalene” is sometimes called “the Gospel of Mary of Bethany.” Or consider the implications of Wikipedia’s description of the Pistis Sophia ” the Gnostic teachings of the transfigured Jesus to the assembled disciples (including his mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Martha).” What is the likelihood that Martha would be included and not her sister Mary?

    2. My chapter on Mary Magdalene, referenced above in teh initial post, also suggests that we might be able to hold different historicla emphases around mary of Magdala together — but I suggest something along different lines from Benedicta Ward, a more “wordly” way” maybe.

  4. In traditionally male-centered cultures, where women are denied individuality, all women are one of only a small handful of types. Usually:
    -the mother
    -the whore
    -the crone
    -the virgin

    Usually Mother, Crone, and Virgin get conflated into a single character. Thus we have in classical mythology we have Hecate, and in Catholicism we have Mary (Virgin, Mother, Queen of the Universe).

    So there are really only two women. The good one (Virgin, Mother, Crone/Queen) and the bad one (whore/witch).

    It’s really no wonder that a number of different women would be collapsed into a single idea of a “Mary Magdelene.” It’s a testament to the redeeming quality of Christianity that the whore is repentant, rescued (saved) by the Prince (of Peace).

    My question is…
    If Apostles are Bishops, and MM is the Apostle of the Apostles, where is the succession of Bishop’s Bishops?

    1. as to your question about where the apostolic succession is with reagrd to Mary Magdalene as Bishop of Bishops {that’s a new one!} — I guess that will have to remain an apostolic mystery.

  5. Mary Magdalene as the new Eve– I though the BVM was considered by early Christian writers as the new Eve

    1. Here is an example from St Ambrose:

      “For Mary worshipped Christ, and therefore is appointed to be the messenger of the Resurrection to the apostles, John 20:17-18 loosening the hereditary bond, and the huge offense of womankind. For this the Lord wrought mystically, that where sin had exceedingly abounded, grace might more exceedingly abound. Romans 5:20 And rightly is a woman appointed [as messenger] to men; that she who first had brought the message of sin to man should first bring the message of the grace of the Lord.” On the Holy Spirit 3,11,74

  6. For those of you interested in the details, including the full bibliographic reference for the Jumann footnote mentioned above, see my book, hot of the press: Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History (Ashgate, 2011), 157-160.

  7. In a few days we will memorialize of St Martha. She embodies one of the characteristics of St Mary Magdalene, who “had followed him when he was in Galilee and ministered to him.” Mk 15:41

    But remembering St Martha on the octave of MM’s day points out one of the problems in the calendar. If we are careful to distinguish MM from Martha’s sister, Mary of Bethany, (and we should be), then we have a sanctoral cycle that does not acknowledge the woman who was canonized by Jesus: “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mk 14:9 This declaration is enough to justify the practice of memorializing saints, but would not be enough to have us memorialize this woman? She deserves a memorial of her own to fulfill these words of Jesus. (and that does not mean adding her to St Martha’s day, as if these two sisters do not each deserve their own memorial)

    As I have noted before, this woman and her anointing of Jesus at Bethany used to be remembered repeatedly during Holy Week. Monday of Holy Week still might be considered Mary of Bethany’s memorial, even though it is not part of the way we remember other saints.

    The short form of the Lazarus gospel highlights the problem. Mary is relegated to a single reference, “Mary stayed home.” Her important act is recounted on a Sunday only every 3 years. If she is also distinguished from MM, and given no alternate place, we are moving even farther from the memory of her.

  8. You are right, that is a problem. We probably could celebrate a whole week of “women saints who remained un-named, non-canonized, and forgotten.” Fortunatley, there is the feast of “All Saints,” which — as I have argued before on this blog — will have more women than men gathered under its umbrella term.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *