"Noli Me Tangere" (Do Not
Touch Me) by Titian, 1511-12
Magdalene: Witness to the Risen Lord
by Jeanne Kun
Renaissance and Elizabethan Englanders called Mary Magdalene the “Mawdleyn,”
a version of her name that gave rise to the modern word “maudlin,” which
describes someone who weeps sentimentally. “Reformed prostitute”
is the definition of “Magdalene” given by the Concise Oxford Dictionary.
But do these images describe the true Magdalene of the gospels? Or has
history falsely labeled – and thus badly maligned
– this devoted follower of Jesus?
Most likely, the surname Magdalene indicates Mary’s hometown. In first-century
Palestine, Magdala was one of the largest towns around the Sea of Galilee.
Archaeologists today identify it with the excavated ruins of Magdal, located
not far from Tiberias, where the hills reach down to the lakeshore.
Plagued by evil spirits, Mary Magdalene was healed by Jesus (Luke 8:2).
Consequently, some have concluded that she was emotionally unstable, a
volatile personality – and wouldn’t it then
follow? – of questionable virtue. Adding to
this impression, several early biblical commentators identified her with
the unnamed penitent who anointed the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50). While
there’s no evidence at all in the gospels that Mary and the repentant woman
were the same person, Mary Magdalene nonetheless became the stereotype
of a reformed sinner. Actually, there’s no reason to think she had led
an immoral life or been a prostitute. Rather, it’s much more probable that
she suffered from epileptic seizures or a mental disorder. In other scenes
described by Luke, Jesus’ casting out of evil spirits resulted in people
being healed of epilepsy (9:38-42), the inability to speak (11:14), and
curvature of the spine (13:10-13).
Among the women who accompanied Jesus in
Mary Magdalene was among the women who accompanied Jesus in his public
ministry. Perhaps some of these women were relatives of Jesus. They may
have been wealthy, supporting Jesus and his disciples with their resources.
Some were young, and others were middle-aged and had sons who also followed
this itinerant rabbi. But all these women had one thing in common: Their
hearts had been deeply touched by Jesus, and as a result, their lives were
Mary was probably among the crowd of followers who praised Jesus as
he triumphantly entered Jerusalem. Did she, like many others in the holy
city, expect him to deliver Israel from the Roman occupation? Less than
a week later, Jesus was seized in Gethsemane, and his closest male disciples
“deserted him and ran away” (Matthew 26:56). Perhaps they ran to find Mary
Magdalene and the other women who followed Jesus to tell them of the master’s
We know from the gospels that there were women present at Golgotha:
“There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed
Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene
and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of
Zebedee” (Matthew 27:55-56; see also Mark 15:40-41; Luke 23:49). It is
noteworthy that while many of the sons had fled, the mothers remained.
John adds, “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s
sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).
Mary Magdalene and her companions watched as Joseph of Arimathea and
Nicodemus removed Jesus’ body from the cross and laid him in the tomb (Luke
23:50-56; see also Matthew 27:59-61 and Mark 15:46-47). After the sabbath,
they returned to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices (Matthew 28:1;
Mark 16:1; Luke 24:1, 10). No thoughts of resurrection were in their minds.
They hadn’t understood Jesus’ prophecies that he would be “raised on the
third day” (Matthew 17:23; see also Mark 9:31). In their grief, these women
simply sought to do one final service of love for him whom they had followed
so faithfully, even to his grave.
The first witness to the risen Christ
Mary Magdalene is the only woman named in all four gospel accounts
of the resurrection. However, in John’s Gospel, Mary is the first witness
to the risen Christ, and her moving encounter with Jesus conveys the pure
joy she must have felt as she recognized her master.
Mary came to the tomb early on the first day of the week, as soon as
the sabbath had ended. Distressed at not finding Jesus’ body there as expected,
she ran to tell Simon Peter that it had been removed (John 20:1-2). On
her return to the empty tomb, two angels questioned why she was weeping.
However, consumed by grief, she persisted in her assumption that the body
had been taken away—perhaps stolen by grave robbers (20:11-13). When Jesus
himself stood near her, Mary even mistook him for the caretaker of the
garden where the tomb was located (20:14-15).
How is it that Mary – who knew the one
who had freed her from her demonic affliction so well—failed to recognize
her beloved Lord? Perhaps her tears blinded her. She may have been so overwhelmed
by sorrow that she was deceived by her own expectations, with no room in
her heart to comprehend any other possibility than that of finding his
corpse. Or maybe Jesus’ resurrected body was so totally and gloriously
transformed that he was unrecognizable.
As if to probe Mary’s desire for him, Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?”
(John 20:15). Was she searching for the Lord or, with her limited understanding,
for her preconceived image of him as she assumed him to be? When he said
“Mary,” it was to his voice speaking her name that she finally responded
with joyful recognition (20:16). The noted French writer Henri Daniel-Rops
described this meeting vividly:
Then the unknown man spoke one word, “Mary,” and she looked
at him, transfixed. . . . This one word sufficed to reawaken in the Magdalene
the ardor and certainty of her faith. What Christian has not dreamed of
hearing it, the word with which, from all eternity, God calls each one
of us, but which the deaf do not hear. (Jesus and His Times)
With this single word, Jesus freed Mary again, this time from the hopelessness
that had taken hold of her when she watched him die on the cross. The liturgical
prayer known as the sequence, recited at Mass on Easter Monday, poetically
imagines Mary’s early morning visit to the garden where Jesus was buried:
“‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?’ ‘I saw the tomb of the now
living Christ. I saw the glory of Christ, now risen. Christ my hope has
When Mary heard her name, she turned and saw the Lord. In a surge of
joy and relief she exclaimed, “Rabboni!” – an
ecstatic pledge of her faith in Jesus and in his resurrection.
Called to share in the resurrection life
Mary Magdalene, the first to see the risen and glorified Lord, is most
remembered for her Easter testimony. Present among the Galilean followers,
at the crucifixion, and at the empty tomb, she was an eyewitness to the
ministry, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps she and the
other women who shared the suffering at Golgotha and the joy of the resurrection
supported one another in the coming years – and
shared their memories with the believers who made up the early church.
Some early writings state that Mary Magdalene later went to Ephesus with
John and the mother of Jesus and was buried there.
In the Latin Church Mary Magdalene is known as apostola apostolorum
or “female apostle to the male apostles.” When she proclaimed “I have seen
the Lord!”, she was the first to convey the good news to the band of men
who had been the closest to Jesus (John 20:18; see also Mark 16:9-10).
Mary had accompanied Jesus from village to village, from Galilee to Jerusalem.
With ardent love and perseverance, she had even followed him to Golgotha
and the tomb. Her faith and constancy were rewarded on that first Easter
morning, and she continued to follow Jesus as her risen and victorious
Lord. Like Mary Magdalene, we too are called – each
of us by name – to follow this same Lor,d
and to share in his resurrection life.
article is from My
Lord and My God! A Scriptural Journey with the Followers of Jesus,
by Jeanne Kun. Copyright © 2004 by The Word Among Us Press. Used with