On July 22, we celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Pope Francis, in recent years, did two things to elevate and clarify our devotion to this follower and friend of Jesus. First, he elevated the day from a memorial to a feast, bringing our observance of Mary on par with the apostles in honor. Second, he created a new memorial to honor Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany on July 29, distinguishing the two Marys, of Magdala and Bethany, which have often been confused throughout history.
Who was Mary Magdalene? Magdala was a fishing village along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, about five miles to the south of Capernaum, Peter’s hometown. This means that Mary would have encountered Jesus during his ministry in the area, from which he also called the twelve. Mary was one of the most common names for women at the time of Jesus. There were other Marys among Jesus’s followers: his mother, Mary of Salome, Mary mother of James, and Mary of Bethany. Many people connect her to the woman caught in adultery or the woman washing the feet of Jesus, but we cannot make these connections with certainty.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name thirteen times in the Gospels. Twelve of these instances deal with her standing at the foot of the Cross or encountering Jesus on Easter Sunday. Only Luke contains an additional reference: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Jo-anna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3). From this passage, we can confirm that Mary encountered Jesus in Galilee and joined the group of the disciples traveling with Jesus.
This is what we can learn from Mary’s role in the Gospels: 1) she was freed from demonic possession, 2) she became a disciple of Jesus, accompanying him in his ministry, 3) she stood at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady and St. John, and 4) she was the first recorded person to see Jesus on Easter Sunday, proclaiming his resurrection to the other disciples.
Mary Magdalene has become a key model of repentance. She found healing in coming to know Jesus, leaving everything behind to follow him. We know she came to a great love because she had the courage to approach the Cross. She wanted to suffer with Jesus and console him in his Passion. She was not content with that and also came to the tomb as soon as she could at the end of the Sabbath. She wanted to cling to Jesus immediately when she saw him, but he told her she couldn’t do that anymore because he had not yet ascended. When he takes his seat at the right hand of the Father, she would have to find him in prayer and the Eucharist.
For us as men, Mary models how we too can find freedom in Jesus. We need to bring our sins and oppression to him for healing. We too need to put Jesus first and follow him in everything we do. We need to stand by him in suffering and seek him in his resurrected victory. Jesus will guide us in the highs and lows, never abandoning us and helping us to find him even when we can’t recognize his presence immediately. Like Mary Magdalene, Jesus will lead us to freedom and love.
Dr. Staudt serves as Director of Content for Exodus and as an Instructor for the Lay Division of St. John Vianney Seminary. He is the author of How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization (TAN), Restoring Humanity: Essays on the Evangelization of Culture (Divine Providence Press) and The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today (Angelico Press). He holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Ave Maria University and B.A. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (St. Paul, MN). He and wife, Anne, have six children and he is a Benedictine oblate.