July 22 – Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene (I Cent.) came from Magdala, a non-bustling non-metropolis on the shores of Galilee. She first turns up in Luke’s Gospel as one of the women who, along with the Twelve, followed our Lord through the highways and byways of first-century Palestine. The women supported Jesus materially, while there is no mention that the Twelve even carried their dishes to the kitchen.

Mary is described as having been rid (by Jesus) of seven demons. Their names are not mentioned, but we can be pretty sure they were not Dopey, Sneezy, or Bashful. She next turns up as one of the women at the foot of the cross (Gospel of John), or watching the crucifixion from a distance (Matthew and Mark). You will recall that aside from the Beloved Disciple (traditionally John), Christ’s male followers spent that day imitating hens’ teeth.

Finally, Mary was among the three Myrrh-bearing women who came at the break of dawn to the tomb of the Life-giver. She was the first to see our Lord after his resurrection, and was commissioned by him to tell the Twelve he had risen. For this reason she is called “Apostle to the Apostles” west of the Adriatic, and “Equal to the Apostles” east thereof. I don’t know what she’s called in the middle of the Adriatic.

Legend says that after our Lord’s ascension, she appeared before Emperor Tiberias, using an egg as a visual aid to describe the resurrection. In some traditions the egg was red before she got there (some suggest it sat at the foot of the cross and soaked up his blood). In the more interesting tradition, she held aloft a white egg, and when Tibby made a wisecrack comparing rising from the dead to eggs spontaneously turning red, it turned red. This is the origin of red Pascha (Easter) eggs, of course—not that cock-and-bull story about a rabbit. Don’t even start me on chocolate.

Traditions about where she went after that are even more varied. Some say she lived out her days in Ephesus. Other say Alexandria, or Syria. Still others say she went to Provence in Gaul with Martha and Lazarus, and ended her days in a cave in the Alps, where she drew beautiful animals on the walls. (I added that last part.) She is included with Martha and Lazarus because she has been conflated with their sister Mary—an ancient tradition in the west going back at least to Gregory the Great (Sep 3). He also equated the two of them with the sinful woman who wiped our Lord’s feet in the Gospel of Luke. This particular tradition never made it up the Bosporus, and was tacitly repudiated in the Catholic Church’s calendar reforms of 1969. (The fact that one of the Marys is from Bethany and one from Magdala, two cities that aren’t even on the same bus route, may have tipped the scales.) Nevertheless, Mary Magdalene as a sensual woman or repentant whore still dominates her image in popular culture, as seen in any number of movies, books, operas, oratorios, comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, or what have you. Doubtless you can bring several to mind without trying.

One medieval legend says she was jilted by her fiancé John (subsequently the Evangelist), and in anger turned to a life of sinful indulgence. Jesus then called her to repentance, to make up for stealing her fiancé. My source downplays this legend. I can respect that.

The two churches with the most widely-honored claims to be her final resting place are in Istanbul and La Sainte-Baume, France. In addition to all the people you would expect, she is the patron saint of tanners and glovemakers.