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July 22 Mary Magdalene

Today in 2016 Pope Francis passed a decree declaring a major feast day in honour of Mary Magdalene to be celebrated annually on July 22nd. This was an upgrading of what was already an obligatory memorial to a feast day and a specific preface was added to the Mass to refer to her explicitly as the "Apostle to the Apostles" A reference to her crucial evangelical role as being the first person to witness the empty tomb of Jesus on Easter Sunday morning.


It is widely accepted among secular historians that, like Jesus, Mary Magdalene was a real historical figure. Nonetheless, very little is known about her life. Unlike Paul the Apostle, Mary Magdalene has left behind no writings of her own and she was never mentioned in any of the Pauline epistles only in the Gospels which were all written a little after Pauls letters. As well as a prominent pole in the gospel narratives as being present at the crucifixion when Jesus had been abandoned by his apostles . In Johns Gospel she returns alone to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday and the risen Jesus actually appears to Mary Magdalene alone after his Resurrection. She first mistakes him for a gardener, but when she realises it is him. Jesus instructs her to tell his disciples of his return. Thus she becomes the apostle to the apostles, and for Jesus to entrust a woman with such an important message, at a time when women weren’t admitted as witnesses in court was radical. The role of Women in the early church is discussed in the pod of Apr 4.

Mary Magdalene also became a central figure in later Gnostic Christian writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary. In these extra-biblical texts she is portrayed as being Jesus's closest and most beloved disciple and the only one who truly understood his teachings. In this apocryphal tradition it results in tension with Peter, who is the rock on which Jesus will build his church, however Peter is jealous of special teachings supposedly given to her. 2000 years later Peters successor, Pope Francis upgraded her liturgical celebration. There is still some confusion about where else she might have appeared in the Gospels. In Luke there is an unnamed woman, identified as a sinner, who bathes Jesus’s feet with her tears, dries them and puts ointment on them. In the fifth century Pope Gregory I conflated her with Mary Magdalene in a sermon saying: "This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out." However this was not what Origen when writing against Celsus a 2nd-century Greek philosopher.

The Eastern Church, also maintained the three women as probably three separate figures/persons. Some modern theologians, often operating with a feminist hermeneutic, argue that this was an attempt to smear Mary Magdalene as being a reformed prostitute. This seems historically not to be a just accusation as there was a wider confusion with Mary of Bethany, and later in the 16th century, the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell penned a tract called Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears, in which he describes Mary Magdalene crying over Lazarus (confusing her with Lazarus’s sister, Mary of Bethany). Also Gregory who was canonised by popular acclaim, as a Doctor of the Church is acclaimed for his teaching and considered a saint by multiple denominations. Even the reformer, John Calvin said that Gregory was the last good Pope and He is remembered for the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome, sending the Benedictine monk Anselm to Canterbury.

After the liturgical reforms of Vatican II in the twentieth century, Paul VI, made some discreet alterations to the reading for the then memorial of Mary Magdalene. Until then the proscribed reading was from the Gospel of Luke in which an unnamed woman enters a house where Jesus is a dinner guest and abases herself to him, washing his feet with her tears and wiping them dry with her hair. “And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven”. However in 1969 Paul VI replaced this with a very different reading from chapter 20 of the gospel of John in which Jesus reveals himself first to Mary Magdalene at the resurrection. He called to her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” and then he called her name, saying “Mary”, and recognising him she “saith unto him, Rabbuni; which is to say, Master”. Mary of Bethany's feast day and that of her brother Lazarus is now on July 29, with the memorial of their sister Martha

However Mary Magdalene has remained an intriguing figure for wider culture, at the start of the second millennium in western Europe writers began developing elaborate fictional biographies of Mary Magdalene's life, in which they heavily embellished upon the vague details given in the gospels. Mary Magdalene's wealth and social status became heavily exaggerated. Under the influence of stories about other female saints, such as Mary of Egypt painters in Italy during the ninth and tenth centuries gradually began to develop the image of Mary Magdalene living alone in the desert as a penitent ascetic, soon in demand these paintings spread to Germany and England. Around 1050, the monks of the Abbey of la Madaleine, in Burgundy claimed to discover her actual skeleton and 200 years later the bones were brought before the king of France himself, who venerated them. But thirty years later, the King of Naples claimed to have discovered another purported burial of Mary Magdalene also in France, but this time in Provence. Claiming to have found the shrine intact, with an explanatory inscription stating why the relics had been hidden, they developed a pilgrim site, with a new Gothic basilica on the site. The the king did a deal with the townspeople that in return for providing accommodation for pilgrims, they were exempt from taxes. Thus Provence gradually displaced Burgundy in popularity and acceptance.

Because of the legends saying that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute, she became the patroness of "wayward women", and, in the eighteenth century, moral reformers established Magdalene asylums to help save women from prostitution. Despite the Vatican's rejection of this view of Mary as a repentant prostitute, it only grew more prevalent in popular culture and she is portrayed as one in Nikos Kazantzakis's 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ and Martin Scorsese's 1988 film adaptation of it. Similarly in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. It was only in the recent film Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara that she no longer was portrayed as a repentant prostitute, while also combating the conspiracy statements of her being Jesus's wife or sexual partner. Instead, the film portrays her as Jesus's closest disciple and the only one who truly understands his teachings.


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