The First Witness

St. Mary Magdalene painting

From the beginning of Christianity, St. Mary Magdalene has sparked interest, even controversy. She was blessed with a unique role in Christian witness, being the first to see the Risen Lord on that first Easter morning.  She is patron of repentant sinners and of the contemplative life and her feast day is 22nd July.

The name Magdalene connects her to a settlement named Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, near the present Israeli town of Migdal where a first century synagogue was unearthed in 2009.  She is named as one of Jesus’ followers by Luke but there is no further reference to her in the Bible to tell us anything of her life after Christ’s resurrection.

The person of Mary from Magdala stood prominently in the Easter narrative. In all of the gospels, Mary (along with other women) went to anoint the body of the deceased Jesus and fulfil the burial rites. She witnessed the empty tomb and saw the angels who carried the Good News at the tomb. In Matthew 28:9-10 and John 20:14-17, Mary encountered the Risen Lord in the area of the tomb. Her witness sparked the faith of others, especially the Apostles. This is why she is sometimes called the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Mary Magdalene reacted to the sight of the empty tomb by running to the Apostles first. When she had related her concerns, Peter and the “beloved” disciple returned to the tomb to confirm her story. The empty tomb was enough for the beloved to believe the Good News (John 20:8). But, in 20:11, the narrative shifted to Mary alone. Even when she saw the two angels, she continued to grieve. The reaction of the heavenly messengers and the Lord was a simple question: Why do you weep? Jesus addressed Mary by her first name, a sign of intimacy. She responded in the language Jesus spoke, Aramaic. (Is this one of those details that makes the story ring true in a historical sense?) With the announcement of Ascension, Jesus told Mary to announce the Good News to His disciples

Mary Magdalene did have a leadership position among the women and in the community of early followers (see Luke 8:1-3 who listed Mary as the one freed from seven demons and first among the rich women who implicitly helped to finance the ministry of Jesus). She was also the first witness to the resurrection. For these reasons, this woman holds a primary place in Christianity.

If we put ourselves in Mary’s shoes, how does her experience give us insight into our faith?