Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles
Mary Magdalene, Good Friday and COVID-19
Mary Magdalene knew a thing or two about grief. And today on Good friday, we are not only remembering Jesus’ death, the void, pain, and the fear associated with the unknown that his disciples felt, but we are also feeling a sense of loss and a fear in our own lives. We are all experiencing a version of grief. The isolation, perhaps a loss of financial security, and a loss of control or familiarity of routines that once provided us comfort feel very real and are a reason to grieve. COVID-19 has swept through the world with a vengeance and many people are left reeling in the uncertainty of it all. Some of us are fearful for family and friends or ourselves. Some of us are worried about finances, our future, or are wrestling through depression, feeling overwhelmed or enduring newfound anxiety. Almost all of us find ourselves in some mix of the above, nothing feels very clear and we are left grieving and wondering what has happened and what will happen next.
This is exactly how Mary felt at the cross, at Jesus’ feet once again, stubbornly refusing to leave his side as he endured tourture and death. Mary, alongside three or four other women, remained with Jesus during this crisis while the majority of Jesus’ loyal disciples had fled, fearful of the Roman and Jewish authorities (John 19:26-27, Matt. 26:31,56).
Mary is the only woman who consistently appears throughout the gospels as a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. She is an incredibly important eyewitness, perhaps the main witness. She is very likely the primary source for the accounts recorded in the Gospels which give us a picture into the events of holy week (Luke 1:2, 4).
Mary Magdalene was the first to Jesus’ grave, she was the first to see Jesus risen and the first to testify to Jesus’ resurrection. Her life has incredible significance and importance for Chrisitans. Early church fathers as well as Thomas Aquinas are recorded as calling Mary the “apostles of the apostles”, a title that was reinstated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 after her story had been misconstrued with another Mary. It is for this reason that we must tell Mary Magdalene's story and keep re-telling it, until people know it correctly.
The Real Mary Magdalene
Mary of Magdala was a woman whose legacy has been twisted up in history with numerous other Mary’s (there are six or seven in the New Testament alone) who have stories worthy of their own telling. At the time of Mary’s life, twenty five percent of Jewish women in Palestine were named Mary so in some ways, it's easy to see why Church teachers throughout history have gotten so confused. Mary Magdalene was not the “prostitute Mary,” she was not the Mary that anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped it with her hair, she was not the sister of Martha and Lazarus. She was her own Mary, a woman rescued and set free in life by Jesus from a life of torment, oppressed by the evil that consumed her and she was a student and disciple of Jesus (Luke 8:2).
Mary Magdalene was a woman of means, she, alongside other women funded and supported Jesus’ ministry. She was a part of a group of women who traveled alongside Jesus and the other disciples, supporting, serving, and caring for material needs for the group (Luke 8:1-2). Mary along with the other women who traveled with her were all disciples of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was a first hand witness of Jesus’ life on Earth. She was there for Jesus’ torture and death on the cross. And she was the first person to witness Jesus’ resurrection. She was chosen by God to be the one who heard “He is Risen” proclaimed by the angels of the Lord, news she had the privilege to bring to Jesus’ followers after his death. The Gospels mention Mary Magdalene thirteen times! She is an important woman to know and the Gospel writers made sure we didn’t overlook her significance.
Apostle to the Apostles
Mary’s courage and love for Jesus gave her strength to remain by his side as he was crucified. The crucifixion on the hill called “skull” (in Aramaic) was a violent and horrendous place to be and was particularly dangerous for women and followers of Jesus. As most of the male disciples fled the danger of the authorities, a small group of women stayed with Jesus and endured the crisis of the crucifixion, risking their lives, grieving and holding space in the trauma, next to the cross with their Lord. After Jesus had died, and after the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene (and another Mary), are the first to Jesus’ tomb, where they felt an earthquake as the angel rolled the stone away (Matt. 28:1-2). They are the only recorded witnesses to this miracle. Mary receives the angel’s proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection and she becomes the first to declare Jesus’ promises fulfilled. The Gospel of John records that after finding the empty tomb, Mary runs to find Peter and John, as they return to the tomb, Peter and John believe in the resurrection but return home however Mary remains at the tomb, grieving. (John 20:2-11). Mary then sees the angels and turns to encounter what she mistakes as the gardener, she begs to see Jesus’ body once more (likely to prepare his body as was customary in burial and as a process of grieving). To her astonishment Jesus reveals himself as he calls her by name, “Mary”. Her joy overflows as she is enthralled by his presence and the good news of his resurrection. Jesus asks her to go and declare the good news (John 20:11-18).
Mary’s future and model for us today
Mary is the first messenger and first apostle, and she can accurately be called the first Christian. She is a woman whose story is deeply embedded in scripture and whose influence has greatly shaped the church and our faith. Orthodox tradition of historical storytelling has recorded even more of Mary’s life through the spiritual practice of hagiography, (biographies of saints), which records her apostolic work after Jesus’ resurrection.
Orthodox tradition records Mary Magdalene advocating for Jesus beyond the chapters of the bible and into the history of the church. The famous story of the egg that turned red in her hand is one example of how her bold faith and apostolic gift confronted a worldly power to make Jesus’ power known. Even today, most of us unknowingly dye easter eggs as a direct result of the story of Mary’s red egg. Mary’s influence is immeasurable and her modeling of a faithful follower of Jesus, unafraid of difficult and dark places, reminds us that we are not alone in our uncertainty, grief, and fear. Mary’s story reminds us of the victory after the storm passes and of the hope that remains while we are in the midst of the unknown.
- Were you aware that Mary Magdalene was never a prostitute? At what point did you learn the difference between these women’s stories (if you had)?
- Considering that Mary was the last at the cross, first at the grave and first to witness Jesus at his resurrection, what does this tell you about how Jesus views women?
- Were you aware that Jesus had both male and female disciples? What does this tell you about the importance of both genders for ministry?
- Read John 20: 11-18. How does Mary model spreading the good news of Jesus’ resurrection for us today?
About the Art:
A balance of cool blues and warm reds make up the palette for Mary’s modern icon. Her background of egg shaped ovals changing from white to red is a nod to the Easter story of the red egg transformation that the Orthodox church celebrates. The triangular pattern that surrounds her portrait is reminiscent of a pattern that would be found on a jar of myrrh. Mary is often represented in icons as holding a jar of myrrh in one hand and a red egg in the other. Although we do not have an indication of the age of Mary during her time as one of Jesus’ disciples, some speculate that she was actually on the older side given that she was independently wealthy. Her ability to be a patron of Jesus’ ministry indicates that she must have inherited something or perhaps had acquired her dowry after a previous husband had died. Mary is depicted here as a woman who is wise to the suffering of the world but not crushed, she has hope and she is courageous because of her hope.
- Karla Zazueta, “Mary Magdalene: Repainting Her Portrait of Misconceptions,” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed, Glahn, Sandra (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic, 2017), 272.
- Zazueta, Mary Magdalene, 270.
- Zazueta, Mary Magdalene, 270.
- Wilda Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 96
- Zazueta, Mary Magdalene, 258.
- Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible: The Women We Thought We Knew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2005), 193.
- Zazueta, Mary Magdalene, 264.