22 July 2017

Saint Mary Magdalene,
‘Apostle of the Apostles’

The Church of Aghia Magdalini or Saint Mary Magdalene, in Nea Magnesia, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

On the way back down the mountains from the Monastery of Arkadi to the coast of Rethymnon in Crete last week, I stopped briefly to see the small church in Nea Magnesia that is dedicated to Aghia Magdalini or Saint Mary Magdalene.

This is one of only two churches dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene on the island of Crete.

Nea Magnesia is 12 km east of Rethymnon, near Skaleta and off the road to Panormos. Today it is fast becoming part of the resort facilities building up east of Rethymnon. But in the 1920s, this village was first settled by Greek-speaking people who had been expelled from their homes in western Anatolia.

They arrived in Crete with their Greek language, traditions and culture and dedicated their church to Saint Mary Magdalene, whose feast in the Church calendar, east and west, falls today [22 July].

Aghia Magdalini is an impressive Russian-style church on Dagli Street in Chalepa, Chania (Photograph: Despoina Fotaki, 2017)

The other church in Crete dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene is an impressive Russian-style church on Dagli Street in Chania, with an onion dome and surrounded by a beautiful garden in the district of Chalepa. The church was built in 1901-1903 by Prince George, the High Commissioner of Crete.

The church was funded by the Czarist Russia and was opened in 1903 in the presence of Queen Olga, Prince George, Bishop Evgenios of Crete and a small number of invited guests.

I regularly pass Chalepa on my way to the and from the airport. With its imposing mansions and luxury villas, Chalepa is a beautiful part of Chania, east of the city on the coastal road to the airport and Akrotiri.

Chalepa was the venue for some of the most important political events in Crete in the 19th century. Here Prince George had his palace as the High Commissioner or governor of the semi-autonomous Cretan state in the closing days of Ottoman rule, and here too the Great Powers had their consulates.

But Chalepa was also the home of Eleftherios Venizelos, who played a decisive role as Prime Minister of Greece during a critical time in Greek history in the early 20th century.

The family house was built by his father, Kyriakos Venizelos, in 1877. Today, the family home houses the Eleftherios K Venizelos National Research and Study Foundation, which plans to turn the house into a museum.

According to Greek tradition, Saint Mary Magdalene evangelised the island of Zakynthos in 34 AD on her way to Rome with Saint Mary of Cleopas. The village of Maries on the island is said to be named after both Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Mary of Cleopas.

A relic of her left hand is said to be preserved in the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos, where she is revered as a co-founder of the monastery.

During the Middle Ages, Saint Mary Magdalene was regarded in Western Christianity as a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman, but these claims are not supported in any of the four Gospels.

Instead, the Gospels tell us she travelled with Jesus as one of his followers, and that she was a witness to his Crucifixion and his Resurrection, Indeed, she is named at least 12 times in the four Gospels, more times more than most of the apostles. Two Gospels specifically name her as the first person to see Christ after the Resurrection (see Mark 16:9 and John 20).

Μη μου άπτου, ‘Noli me Tangere,’ an icon by Mikhail Damaskinos in the Museum of Christian Art in the former church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Last year [10 June 2016], Pope Francis recognised Saint Mary Magdalene and her role as the first to witness Christ’s resurrection and as a ‘true and authentic evangeliser’ when he raised her commemoration today [22 July] from a memorial to a feast in the church’s liturgical calendar.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship issued a decree formalising the decision, and both the decree and the article were titled Apostolorum Apostola (‘Apostle of the Apostles’).

Archbishop Arthur Roche, secretary of the congregation, said that in celebrating ‘an evangelist who proclaims the central joyous message of Easter,’ Saint Mary Magdalene’s feast day is a call for all Christians to ‘reflect more deeply on the dignity of women, the new evangelisation and the greatness of the mystery of divine mercy.’

Archbishop Roche said that in giving Saint Mary Magdalene the honour of being the first person to see the empty tomb and the first to listen to the truth of the resurrection, Christ ‘has a special consideration and mercy for this woman, who manifests her love for him, looking for him in the garden with anguish and suffering.’

The decision means Saint Mary Magdalene has the same level of feast as that given to the celebration of the apostles make her a ‘model for every woman in the church.’

An icon of Saint Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection, Μη μου άπτου (Noli me Tangere) by Mikhail Damaskinos, is one of the important exhibits at the Museum of Christian Art in the former church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in Iraklion.

This icon dates from ca 1585-1591. Initially it was in the Monastery of Vrondissi and was transferred to old church of Saint Menas in Iraklion in 1800.

But perhaps the most inspirational icon of Saint Mary Magdalene I saw in Crete this month is a new icon by Alexandra Kaouki in her workshop near the Fortezza in Rethymnon.

A modern icon or Aghia Magdalini or Saint Mary Magdalene by Alexandra Kaouki in her workshop in Rethymnon (Photograph © Alexandra Kaouki, 2017)

Readings (The Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Ireland, and Common Worship, the Church of England): Song of Solomon 3: 1-4; Psalm 42: 1-10; II Corinthians 5: 14-17; John 20: 1-2, 11-18.


Almighty God,
whose Son restored Mary Magdalene
to health of mind and body
and called her to be a witness to his resurrection:
forgive our sins and heal us by your grace,
that we may serve you in the power of his risen life;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of life and love,
whose risen Son called Mary Magdalene by name
and sent her to tell of his resurrection to his apostles:
in your mercy, help us,
who have been united with him in this eucharist,
to proclaim the good news
that he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Church of Aghia Magdalini or Saint Mary Magdalene, in Nea Magnesia, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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