Well, technically, today’s feast of St. Mary Magdalene carries the rank of “memorial” only in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar and the saint is given no title there – which can be considered an improvement on her title in the old calendar, where she was designated as “penitent.” How a first witness to the resurrection became, in the church’s liturgical memory, primarily a repentant prostitute is a complex story, involving divergent traditions among the earliest Christian communities, struggles over authority, apostolicity, and gender, and a reception history that conflated different biblical women into a “Magdalene.”[i] Suffice it to stress here that the early centuries remembered here primarily as the “apostle to the apostles” (apostola apostolorum).[ii] The Eastern churches to this day celebrate her as the “eis-apostola,” the apostle-like one. And even in the Western church, the memory of this woman’s apostolic stature was never quite lost. The St. Albans Psalter, for example, probably commissioned by the anchoress and then prioress Christina of Markyate, depicts Mary authoritatively proclaiming the resurrection to the eleven remaining apostles. This illumination invites viewers to imagine Mary as the twelfth apostle.
I have this image set in my prayer space today, where I gave thanks this morning for the feast day of the woman who was charged by Christ with proclaiming the good news of the resurrection to the “brothers.” Mary’s subsequent proclamation has become part of the foundational witness of our faith: “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).
[i] If you want to read more, see the chapter on Mary of Magdala in my Fragments of Real Presence.
[ii] Hippolytus first described Mary of Magdala as someone who is like an apostle to the apostles in his Commentary on the Song of Songs, 25.6-7. Others — from Rhabanus Maurus in the ninth century, Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century, and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, to Pope John Paul II in the twentieth century — have followed Hippolytus in this. See John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, # 16 n. 38.