There is a great deal of confusion about Saint Mary Magdalene. The fact that Mary was one of the most common feminine names in first century Judea does not help to clarify anything at all. Here is what we know for absolute certain about St. Mary Magdalene. Prior to the Passion of Our Lord, the Magdalene is only mentioned by name once. St. Luke includes here in a list of disciples who followed Jesus along with the Apostles. The Physician states,
“Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.” (8:1-3)
St. Mary Magdalene was mentioned by name as being present at both the Crucifixion and burial of Our Lord (St. Matthew 27:56, 61; St. Mark 15:40, 47; St. John 19:25). Furthermore, the Saint is best known for being among the very first witnesses of the Resurrected Jesus Christ. All four Evangelists make specific mention of St. Mary Magdalene going to the tomb on the morning of the first day of the week to anoint the body of Jesus for a proper burial. In each account, the Magdalene returns to tell the other Apostles, who disbelieve her account. In St. John’s Gospel, having followed Saints Peter and John back to the tomb and remaining there once they have returned to their own homes, the Magdalene encounters the Risen Jesus and must be directed “do not cling to me”. (20:17) She returned to the Upper Room and, regrettably, once again the Apostles refused to believe her testimony.
Now we turn to the confusing parts. In a sermon in 591, Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon where he said that Mary of Bethany was the same woman that St. Luke mentions in chapter 7. The unnamed sinner of St. Luke 7 anointed the feet of Jesus with her own hair in the same fashion that Mary of Bethany does so in St. John 12:1-3. Drawing some conclusions that were later deemed to be unfounded, the Pope decided that these two women were actually one and, taking it one step further, the Pope also declare that St. Mary Magdalene and St. Mary of Bethany were the same person. Gregory the Great referred to her as a prostitute and extolled her as one of the greatest examples of a repentant heart and amended life in the entire Gospel. Thus, in the Western Church, St. Mary Magdalene became known as a repentant prostitute who turned her life around and became one of the most esteemed followers of Christ. The Eastern Church never came to the same conclusion. In fact, Eastern Orthodox tradition says that the Magdalene was so pious and devout throughout her entire life that Satan believed God might conceived the Messiah in that Mary and that Satan sent the seven demons to torment her just in case. Regardless of her occupation beforehand, she was, after all, the first person, man or woman, to actually see the Risen Jesus!
There is a lesson for us even in our confusion about who the Magdalene was before she came to know Christ. The lesson it that it does not really matter! This may be an irritating prospect to the one who has lived “as a saint” for their whole life, but to the sinner who has come to know Jesus, it is hope and salvation. What if the Magdalene were a prostitute before her exorcism? Jesus saved her. He took her sins away and washed her whiter than the whitest linen. What if she had lived her life in the saintliest way imaginable? St. Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) In the same epistle, the Apostle also informs us that “There is none righteous, no not one.” (3:10) Even if everyone else around her believed that she were truly a saintly woman, she too had sin in her life; everyone does. So what then? Jesus saved her. He took her sins away and washed her whiter than the whitest linen.
St. Paul explains this process quite beautifully in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. He asks a question and then responds with his own answer:
“Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (vv. 3-11)
Essentially, what St. Paul is saying is that when we are baptized, the sinner that we were is crucified with Christ. Those sins which we committed in life are atoned for on the Cross, yes, even the ones that had not yet been committed when he died! When we are baptized in to Jesus Christ, our sins are put to death and we rise alive in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!
Ultimately, it does not matter if the world called you a saint or a whore before you came to Jesus. What does matter is that, after coming face to face with Jesus Christ, He calls you His child. Who you were died on Calvary’s Cross. The question was never “what did you do?” Now, having seen the Risen Lord, the question is “What will you do now?”
Almighty God, whose blessed Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of body and mind, and called her to be a witness of his resurrection: Mercifully grant that by your grace we may be healed of all our infirmities and know you in the power of his endless life; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.