22 July 2018

Saint Mary Magdalene: a call
for all to ‘reflect more deeply
on the dignity of women’

Mary Magdalene at Easter … a sculpture by Mary Grant at the west door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 22 July 2018,

Saint Mary Magdalene (Trinity VIII)

9.30 a.m.: Morning Prayer, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, Co Limerick.

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion 2), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Song of Solomon 3: 1-4; Psalm 42: 1-10; II Corinthians 5: 17-22; John 20: 1-2, 11-18.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

There is a new biblical drama film, Mary Magdalene, released earlier this year [2018]. The script is by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett, the film is directed by Garth Davis, with Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus Christ.

The film had its world premiere in the National Gallery, London, on 26 February 2018, was screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival two days later, and went on general release in March.

In a review in the Guardian [27 February 2018], Peter Bradshaw said the movie ‘sets itself a bold task: to rescue Mary Magdalene from an age-old tradition of patriarchal condescension and misinterpretation. And yet it winds up embracing a solemn, softly-spoken and slow-moving Christian piety of its own.’

Of course, Saint Mary Magdalene is an intimate witness to some of the most important events in the life of Christ, including his Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection. But she has been wrongly recast in popular tradition as a ‘fallen woman’ and a ‘prostitute.’

Saint Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name 12 times in the canonical gospels, more than most of the apostles. Her epithet Magdalene (ἡ Μαγδαληνή) probably means she was from Magdala, a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Saint Luke (Luke 8: 2-3) lists Mary Magdalene as one of the women who travelled with Jesus and helped support his ministry ‘out of their resources,’ indicating she was probably quite wealthy. The same passage also states that seven demons had been driven out of her, a statement which is repeated in the longer ending of Saint Mark’s Gospel.

In all four gospels, she is a witness to the crucifixion of Christ, in the three Synoptic Gospels she is also present at his burial, and all four gospels identify her, either alone or as a member of a larger group of women, as the first witness to the empty tomb, and the first person to testify to the Resurrection. For these reasons, she is often referred to as the ‘apostle to the apostles.’

Mary Magdalene and the women who arrive at the tomb on Easter morning, ‘the first day of the week,’ are known in the Eastern Orthodox tradition as the Holy Myrrh-bearers (Μυροφόροι).

Mary and these women run to tell Saint Peter and the other disciple – presumably Saint John the Evangelist – that they suspect someone has removed Christ’s body. The ‘other disciple’ may have been younger and fitter, for he outruns Saint Peter. The tidy way the linen wrappings and the shroud have been folded or rolled up shows that the body has not been stolen. They believe, yet they do not understand; they return home without any explanations.

But Mary still thinks Christ’s body has been removed or stolen, and she returns to the grave. In her grief, she sees ‘two angels in white’ sitting where the body had been lying, one at the head, and one at the feet. They speak to her and then she turns around sees Christ, but only recognises him when he calls her by name.

Saint Peter and Saint John have returned without seeing the Risen Lord. It is left to Mary to tell the Disciples that she has seen the Lord. Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the Resurrection. In Saint John’s Gospel, the Risen Christ sends Mary Magdalene to tell the other disciples what she had seen. Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles.

The word apostle comes from the Greek ἀπόστολος (apóstólos), formed from the prefix ἀπό- (apó-, ‘from’) and the root στέλλω (stéllō, ‘I send,’ ‘I depart’). So, the Greek word ἀπόστολος (apóstolos) or apostle means one sent.

In addition, at the end of this morning’s reading (verse 18), Mary comes announcing what she has seen. The word used here (ἀγγέλλουσα, angéllousa) is from the word that gives us the Annunciation, the proclamation of the good news, the proclamation of the Gospel (Εὐαγγέλιον, Evangélion).

Mary, in her proclamation of the Gospel of the Resurrection, is not only the apostle to the apostles, but she is also the first of the evangelists.

I have often heard opponents of women’s ordination arguing in words like ‘Christ only chose men for his 12 apostles.’ But that was before the Resurrection. After the Resurrection, an apostle is one who is chosen and sent with the message of the Resurrection. That is Saint Paul’s claim to call himself an apostle (see I Corinthians 9: 1-2). That is what makes Saint Mary Magdalene the first apostle in the post-resurrection era.

A relic of Saint Mary Magdalene’s left hand is said to be preserved in the monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

According to Greek tradition, she 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 these two women.

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 in a place that is otherwise an all-male enclave.

An early sermon by Hippolytus of Rome (ca 170-235) refers to Mary Magdalene as a ‘second Eve’ who, through her obedience, compensates for the disobedience of the first Eve. He also explicitly identifies Mary Magdalene and the other women as ‘apostles.’

Saint Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-395) identifies Mary Magdalene as ‘the first witness to the resurrection.’

Elaborate mediaeval legends in western Europe tell exaggerated tales of her wealth and beauty, as well as her alleged journey to southern France.

In the Middle Ages, she was seen as an erudite, educated and wise woman, giving her name, for example to Magdalene College, Cambridge, and to Magdalen College, Oxford.

Magdalene College, Cambridge, where Archbishop Rowan Williams is the Master, was founded in 1482 as a Cambridge hostel for Benedictine student-monks. It was refounded by Lord Audley in 1542 and dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. That choice of name may have been tinged with a touch of vanity, for the pronunciation of its name as ‘Maudleyn’ contains within it the name of Audley.

Magdalen College, Oxford, was founded earlier in 1458 and would later become the college of Oscar Wilde, John Betjeman, CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney.

But sometime in the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene was conflated in western tradition with the unnamed ‘sinful woman’ who anoints Christ’s feet earlier in Saint Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 7: 36-50). This gives rise to the widespread but inaccurate belief that she was a repentant prostitute or a promiscuous woman.

This caricature of Mary Magdalene probably reached its low point in the musical Jesus Christ Superstarwith Mary’s song ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ with its startling lines:

He’s a man, he’s just a man,
and I’ve had so many men before,
in very many ways …

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

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship formalised the decision in a decree called Apostolorum Apostola (‘Apostle of the Apostles’).

Archbishop Arthur Roche said 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.’

He 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.’

This means Saint Mary Magdalene has the same type of feast as any of the apostles and makes her a ‘model for every woman in the church.’

As we think about Saint Mary Magdalene this Sunday, and the way she has been maligned and traduced in the past, we may wonder why. Why was she forgotten so long as the apostle of the apostles and the ‘model for every woman in the church’?

Why did we give her name to the ‘Magdalene Laundries’ in Ireland that demeaned and belittled innocent women, depriving them of love, education, dignity and basic human rights?

Indeed, Saint Mary Magdalene, in the way she has been maligned over the centuries, represents so many women whose beauty, truth and witness have been denied by the Church for oh so long.

We must never do this again, not only to women, but to any group in the church, because of gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, culture or the other excuses that lead to discrimination, oppression and exclusion. For every time we do this, we are in danger of denying the Resurrection and of denying the Risen Christ himself.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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

John 20: 1-2, 11-18 (NRSV):

1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”.’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

The Second Court in Magdalene College, Cambridge … founded in 1482 and refounded in 1542 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical colour: White


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 and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Penitential Kyries:

Lord, you are gracious and compassionate.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

You are loving to all.
and your mercy is over all creation. Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Your faithful servants bless your name,
and speak of the glory of your kingdom.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Introduction to the Peace:

We are fellow-citizens with the saints,
and of the household of God,
through Christ our Lord,
who came and preached to those who were far off
and those who were near. (Ephesians 2: 19, 17)


God give you the grace
to share in the inheritance of Saint Mary Magdalene and of his saints in glory:

Saint Mary Magdalene depicted as one of the myrrh-bearers above the entrance to Magdalen College, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


288, Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son;

606, As the dear pants for the water;

592, O Love that wilt not let me go.

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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)

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