The Church will celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene on July 22nd. Mary Magdalene, known as the “Apostle to the Apostles,” holds a special place in Christian history. Her humble faith and love for Jesus have made her an enduring symbol of devotion. All four Gospels mention her, and she plays a significant role in Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection. On her feast day, we remember her profound roles as the first witness to the resurrection. We also acknowledge her crucial part in spreading the Good News of the Risen Christ.
About Mary Magdalene
As her name suggests, Mary Magdalene likely hailed from Magdala, a fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We first encounter her in the opening verses of Luke 8. Jesus, accompanied by his twelve disciples and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases, traveled to nearby towns and villages. They preached and proclaimed the Good News about the Kingdom of God. Among the women listed was Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. Luke notes that all these women, including Mary Magdalene, supported Jesus and his disciples with their own resources (Luke 8:1-3).
Later, Mary Magdalene was among the small group of women at the foot of the cross (Matt. 27:55-56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). She was present as Jesus died. As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body, wrapped it in a long sheet of clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb. He rolled a great stone across the entrance and left. As all this happened, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sat across from the tomb, watching (Matt. 27:61).
Mary and the Resurrection
Early Sunday morning, as the Sabbath ends and the new day dawns, Mary Magdalene and the other women go to the tomb with spices they had prepared to anoint Jesus’ body (Matt. 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-12). Upon finding the tomb empty, angels inform them about Jesus’ resurrection. The angels instruct them to share the good news with the disciples. In Matthew, while the women are on their way to inform the disciples, they encounter the risen Lord. He reassures them not to be afraid and instructs them to go to Galilee, where they will find him.
In John’s account, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned at the empty tomb that morning (John 20:11-18). As Mary prepares to leave, she has an incredible interaction with the risen Christ, whom she thinks is the gardener. But when Jesus calls her name, she immediately recognizes him and realizes he’s alive! Jesus instructs her to go and deliver a message to his “brothers.” Mary Magdalene finds the disciples and exclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” before passing on his message.
Finally, in Acts 1:14, after Jesus ascends to the Father, the apostles return to the upper room in Jerusalem to await the promised Holy Spirit. Luke mentions that they, along with the women, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and his brothers, were constantly praying. Mary Magdalene was among those present when the Holy Spirit descended.
Confusion Around Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene’s significance in Christian tradition goes beyond her historical role. Various interpretations and legends have sprung up about Mary Magdalene over the centuries. Many of these are not supported by biblical evidence. These imaginings have contributed to much controversy, affecting her presence in Christian art, literature, and devotion.
What Happened to Mary?
There is disagreement about Mary’s life after the Church began. The Eastern tradition says she retired to Ephesus with Mary, the mother of Jesus, where they lived their lives. In Western Europe, conflicting legends developed about her burial. Legends claimed she traveled to the south of France with different people and lived as a penitent ascetic in a cave in Provence. During the Middle Ages, various churches arose, each with a unique legend and claiming to possess relics or tombs associated with Mary Magdalene.
Mary and the Sinful Woman
In 591 AD, Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) preached a controversial sermon about Mary Magdalene. In his address, he merged Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the “sinful woman” who washed Jesus’ feet. Despite the Bible never specifying the sin of the “sinful woman,” Pope Gregory asserted it to be prostitution. This influential sermon established a link between Mary Magdalene, prostitution, sinfulness, and penitence, which the Western Christian tradition widely embraced.
Despite this, no biblical evidence or early tradition associates Mary Magdalene with prostitution. The Gospel accounts only mention Jesus delivering her from seven demons, without specifying her occupation or any sinful behavior. In contrast, the Eastern Church never merged Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany or the “sinful woman.” Instead, it continued to honor her as a virtuous woman.
Thankfully, a growing movement to restore Mary Magdalene’s image as a faithful disciple in the Western Church has arisen. It emphasizes her significance within early Christian communities. Even Pope John Paul II issued a corrective statement on Mary Magdalene to right the wrongs done to her reputation. In his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the Dignity and Vocation of Women”), dated August 15th, 1988, he said,
The Gospel of John emphasizes the special role of Mary Magdalene. She is the first to meet the Risen Christ, hence she came to be called “the apostle of the Apostles”. Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness of the Risen Christ, and for this reason, she was also the first to bear witness to him before the Apostles. This event, in a sense, crowns all that has been said previously about Christ entrusting divine truths to women as well as men.
Traditions of Mary Magdalene
Over time, both the Eastern and Western churches have developed practices around Mary Magdalene. While some of these practices are rooted in scripture, others are based on later legends. Nonetheless, each has significantly shaped how Christian practice remembers her.
The Myrrh Bearers or the Three Marys
The Church has always revered Mary Magdalene as one of the faithful women present at the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Consequently, Christian art has depicted and commemorated these women since the 3rd century.
The Eastern Church refers to them as “The Myrrh-Bearers” because they carried myrrh to anoint Jesus’ body on the morning of the resurrection. Their celebration occurs on the third Sunday of Pascha (Easter), known as the “Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women.” Hymns and readings focus on their encounters with the risen Christ and their role in spreading the Good News of the resurrection. Icons of the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb are prominently displayed in Eastern churches.
The Western Church refers to them as “The Three Marys.” In several Catholic countries, especially Spain, the Philippines, and Latin America, processions on Good Friday include images of the three Marys (in Spanish, Tres Marías). Some regions in France and Italy also celebrate the Feast of the Three Marys.
The Miracle of the Red Egg
The Eastern Orthodox Church associates dyeing eggs red for Easter with Mary Magdalene. According to legend, after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Mary Magdalene traveled to Rome to share the Gospel with Emperor Tiberius. She gave the emperor an egg and explained to him that the egg was a perfect symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. The emperor was skeptical, responding that it was impossible for someone to rise from the dead, just as it was impossible for the egg in Mary Magdalene’s hand to turn red.
The egg miraculously turned red at that moment, shocking everyone who witnessed it. This miraculous event is said to have convinced the emperor of the truth of Mary Magdalene’s message, and he allowed her to continue her missionary work.
How to Celebrate the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene
Firstly, read the Gospel passages about Mary Magdalene, particularly John 20:1-18, where she encounters the resurrected Jesus. Additionally, explore other books about St. Mary Magdalene’s life. After reading these, take a moment to thank God for this devoted, faithful woman who first shared the Good News with others.
In connection with Mary’s association with the miracle of the red egg, consider making red-boiled eggs using the recipe for naturally dyed eggs found here.
Additionally, you may also choose to light a myrrh-scented candle or myrrh incense.
In keeping with Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ body with spices, create something spiced, such as spice cupcakes.