The various empty tomb and appearance stories which we read during Easter week are often times contradictory. One story says that the women appeared at the tomb after sunrise while another says it was still dark. Various Gospels record that one, two or three women went to the tomb. One Gospel records that there were two young men or angels at the tomb while another says there was just one. However, there is one element which is consistent throughout the tradition; namely, Mary Magdalene is part of each of the stories.
Down through the centuries, Mary Magdalene has often been identified as the "sinful woman" or the woman caught in adultery that was forgiven by Jesus and told to sin no more. She is often characterized as a repentant prostitute. One religious congregation made up of such women even called itself the Magdalenes. We have seen an effort lately, however, to "redeem" or "save" Mary Magdalene from this characterization. The evidence of the Gospels tells us two things about Mary: she had been possessed of seven demons and was cured by Jesus, and she was the first to hear the news of the resurrection. There is no mention of her name in connection with a woman of sin. We should not, however, be surprised by the fact that Mary Magdalene, the woman possessed by seven demons, should be confused with the woman caught in adultery. Possession by demons or sickness were often associated with sin. Keep in mind that the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with what Scripture scholars call the “theology of reciprocity.” At the same time, there is some gender bias present as well. When St. Peter tells Jesus to “depart, for I am a sinful man,” few if any would suggest that he was promiscuous or licentious.
Iconography depicts Mary Magdalene holding an egg which has long been the symbol of the resurrection. On her liturgical memorial, the Gospel of the resurrection is proclaimed. Each of the Gospels records that she was among the first group (John identifies her as the first person) to hear the news of Jesus's rising from the dead.
The misidentification of Mary as the adulterous woman or as a prostitute is also understandable because of the fact there were only a very few "first names," male and female, that were used during this period of human history. (There were two disciples named James, two named Simon, and two named Judas.) The name "Mary" or "Miriam" was one of the most prevalent female names. There are at least four different women named Mary who appear in the Gospels: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha) and Mary, the wife of Clopas. Sometimes the Gospel simply refers to the “other” Mary. Take your pick.
In today’s Gospel we hear a poignant story of coming to recognize Jesus. Mary Magdalene is the first to do so among all the disciples. Mistaken identity is one of the hallmarks of the resurrection appearances. Jesus identifies himself simply by calling Mary by name. Her eyes are opened as she hears his voice. Once again, this fits very nicely with the contention throughout the Scriptures that true disciples of Jesus learn by hearing the Word of God.
As the first witness of the Resurrection, Mary Magdalene's place in the Gospel is certainly deserving of our attention and veneration. She stands as one who proclaims the new life won in Jesus and as the first to hear and believe the Good News.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator