Mary Magdalene. No she wasn’t…

…what some people, including some intelligent Catholics who should know better, say she was.

Is this ever going stop? Are people never going to get it through their heads that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, not the woman caught in adultery, not a lunatic, not the sister of Lazarus, and not the woman who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair?  I mention this because her feast day is July 22, which falls on a Sunday this year.

The mistake actually was an early conflation of Mary from the town of Magdala; Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha; and an unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel, who bathed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Also contributing to the confusion were the seven so-called demons Jesus drove from Mary Magdalene.  Demons often were used to explain symptoms of illness, physical or emotional, in Mary’s time.

Pope Gregory the Great is often blamed for officially turning Mary Magdalene into a notorious woman in a  sermon, but others made the mistake centuries earlier.

However, the fact is this: there is absolutely nothing in the Bible to suggest Mary of Magdalene was anything but a lady.  In spite of the fact that hundreds of artists have depicted her, we don’t know if she was young or old, good looking or homely, married or single or widowed.  And she wasn’t Jesus’ wife. If she had been, surely that news would have made it into one of the four gospels!

What scholars do know is that Mary must have been a woman of some high importance because both her name and her town were identified in the gospels. That was unusual. We also know that she, the Blessed Mother, and a few other women had the loyalty and courage to stay with Jesus through his crucifixion, after most of his male followers had run away. Interestingly, the Eastern churches never identified her as a fallen woman.

In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church began to rectify matters. The feasts of Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala were separated, making clear that they were two different people.  In both the Roman calendar and Roman Missal, there are now no references to Mary Magdalene as a public sinner.  And in his  apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem (“On the dignity and vocation of women”), Pope John Paul II restored her ancient title, apostola apostolorum or apostle to the apostles.

Yet the mistakes about Mary Magdalene persist and, sadly, are perpetuated by some. I wish that Pope Benedict, who is such a great scholar and who currently is writing the third volume of his masterwork on Jesus, would promulgate a really strong official statement, clearing her once and for all.

Happy Feast Day, St. Mary Magdalene. I am proud to share a name with you.

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