The Easter season brings St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, before the eyes of the whole Church. Many consider Mary Magdalene to be Mary of Bethany. St. Gregory the Great, among other Church Fathers, stated that this was so. Tradition in the West sided with this opinion for centuries. The collect for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene identified her as the sister of Lazarus up until the 1960s. Today even such noted scholars as Dr. Brant Pitre consider the likelihood that she is Mary of Bethany.
Consider the Scriptural evidence for this. Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus twice. This occurs in Luke 7: 36-50 for the first time. The second anointing is recorded in John 12:1-8, Matthew 26:6-13, and Mark 14:3-9. That these two anointings are separate events is evident from John 11:2 and 11:5: “Now it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet dry with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. . . . Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Mary, and Lazarus,” and from Luke 7:39, “Now when the Pharisee, who had invited him, saw it, he said to himself, ‘This man, were he a prophet, would surely know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’” After Jesus had just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, it would not make sense for Simon the Pharisee to wonder if Jesus knew who Mary was. Also consider that Jesus said of Mary of Bethany, “Mary has chosen the best part and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42), and “Wherever in the whole world this Gospel is preached, this also that she has done shall be told in memory of her” (Mt 26:13). Writing about the Resurrection which occurred just about a week after Mary anointed Jesus for the second time, Matthew wrote, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the sepulchre” (Mt 28:1). If Mary of Bethany’s recent anointing was to be told wherever the Gospel was preached, it is illogical that Matthew would have referred to Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (cf. Mt 27:56) as “the other Mary.” This title would have been reserved to the more well- known Mary of Bethany whom Jesus had so highly praised and who defended her action of anointing Him by saying, “Let her be that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
Meditate for a moment on the greatness of this woman and who she is for the whole Church. It is easy to imagine that before she met Jesus, Mary Magdalene had lost her sense of identity. She was possessed by seven devils (cf. Lk 8:2). Probably she wandered from one relationship to another, giving her body to man after man; enjoying all the pleasures that she could find, but at the end of each day feeling utterly empty. Her sister, Martha, and her brother Lazarus must have been very concerned about her. They must have told her about Jesus and how He forgave sinners. Most likely Mary did not want to hear this; she probably didn’t want to change her life since these empty relationships were all that she had and she was afraid to be silent and to have to face her own emptiness. Yet she would have had no peace. We can imagine that her friends mocked Jesus and that she would laugh at their jokes but then experience a deep confusing sadness. What was the turning point? Maybe one day she heard that Jesus would be preaching nearby and went to hear Him. Maybe that day he told the story of a man having 100 sheep and losing one of them and going to seek for that one and then rejoicing over it more than over all the other 99. Maybe it was this story that pierced her heart.
We know that sometime after she had begun to convert she heard that Jesus was at the house of Simon the Pharisee. She took a jar of ointment and went into the Pharisee’s house. She knelt down at His feet and began to kiss them and to cry on them and to anoint them with the oil that she had brought. Jesus looked at her with a look that made her feel completely understood. Simon and the others were ready to mock Jesus because they knew that Mary was a prostitute. Simon was thinking that if Jesus was a prophet then He would know who and what manner of woman this was who was touching Him. Jesus did know. He saw her deepest identity that had been for so long obscured and He told her, “Thy sins are forgiven….Thy faith has saved thee; go in peace.” (Lk 7:48, 50). Seven demons, who had held Mary captive, fled at these words of the Incarnate Word. And from then on Mary Magdalene began to accompany Jesus with the other holy women and she joined them in helping to provide for Him and His Apostles (cf. Lk 8:2). Those who knew Mary before probably began to mock her. But she had finally found Him whom her soul loved and she would not let Him go ever again. When Jesus came to their house in Bethany, Mary sat and listened to His word while Martha served. When Martha became upset and complained to Jesus, He said, “Mary has chosen the best part and it will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:42). While the world continued to regard Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, she was beginning to see in the eyes of the one she called “Rabboni” (meaning Teacher or Master) that her true identity was Daughter of the Father and even more amazingly—bride of Christ.
The story of St. Mary Magdalene and her journey from prostitute to bride of Christ is the story of the whole Church, the Bride of Christ. Each member of the Bride is called to make the same journey from whatever type of prostitution sin has mired him or her in– to the knowledge of being a son or daughter of the Eternal Father and the bride of Christ. There is no saint who can better show us this journey than the one who standing beneath the Cross became eldest daughter of the Church, then first witness of the Resurrection, and finally Apostle to the Apostles.
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