Who is the thirteenth apostle?


Today, July 22nd is the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene, the woman most cited in the New Testament, and one of my favorite saints—if I were to choose! As we have not yet resumed our mid-week healing Eucharist with reflection upon the saints, or Images newsletter I wanted to share with you a few thoughts.

Let’s begin with her name: Mary (or Miriam) is a rather common name in the Bible. Yet her Aramaic epithet “magdala” is not, which means elevated, great, or watchtower; in some ancient texts she is referred to as “tower-ess” or “tower woman.” Perhaps too, “Magdalene” is an epithet given to her by Jesus. Magdala can also refer to a place or town, and indeed there was a town on the shores of Galilee known as “Magdala Nunaiya” or “tower of fish,” where she may have been born and raised.

Any of these possibilities suggest that Mary Magdalene was an unusually independent if not solitary woman who began following Jesus after he cast out seven demons from her. She is noted in all four canonical Gospels, and is one of only three enduring disciples and witnesses to the crucifixion at the foot of the cross. But her most critical role is at the Resurrection where she is alone at the tomb or with a group of woman (her companions vary). In either case, Mary Magdalene is the key figure in the story, and the one to whom Jesus first reveals his resurrection. The risen Jesus then sends her forth—a lowly woman—to proclaim the “good news” to the other disciples. Thus Mary Magdalene is the apostle—the one sent forth—to the Apostles. 

Yet despite, or because of, her prominent role in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene was cast early on as a sinful woman and prostitute, and it was not until 1969 that the Church officially recanted this unfounded characterization. In iconography, legend and myth, she is often portrayed passionately—her body moving and in motion, falling, reaching, turning, touching, on her knees—the transport of profound emotion in her anguished and tearful countenance. Her hair (and even body) is uncovered or loosed from its braid, suggestive of a desiring and sexual nature. Often seen in a red dress or cloak, she grasps and clings to the cross. But the color red is not a symbol of harlotry but of true love, or caritas. She is also depicted as the penitent confessed of sin; transformed, she cradles an egg and skull, symbols of new life and wisdom.

Mary Magdalene has been and remains a primary symbol of hope, for the message inherent in her story and imagery is that of transformation. Whether our own transformation be corporeal or spiritual, or both, like the Magdalene our surrender into God’s creative love is transfiguring and generative. May we be inspired by St. Mary Magdalene to become symbols of hope and new life in Christ and bearers of God’s love.  

Mother Kathleen 

Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and of mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed from all our infirmities and know you in the power of his unending life; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen. 

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