Who is our Patron Saint?

from Catholic Update, May 2006 www.americancatholic.org

Saint Mary Magdalene is, it can be argued, the second-most important woman in the New Testament. Within the four Gospels, hints of Mary Magdalene's importance in the early Church can be discerned. She is named 14 times, more than most of the apostles.

The assembled Gospel references describe Mary Magdalene as a courageous servant leader, brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death and beyond. She is the only person to be listed in all four Gospels as first to realize that Jesus had risen and to testify to that central teaching of faith. This is a spectacular first indeed!

Other Gospel passages can confuse us, because other women also named Mary and some anonymous women, to boot, can seem to merge several women into one. This phenomenon - fusing several stories into one composite - is called conflation.

One Mary, the Mother of Jesus, retains her unique status and reputation as the number-one woman in the Gospels. But other women - Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, a woman who anoints and one identified as an adulterer - are mistakenly fused into one sensual young sinner.

Pope Gregory, who became pope in 590 A.D., clinched Mary's mistaken reputation as sinner when he delivered a powerful homily in which he combined Luke's anonymous sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50) with Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. But contemporary biblical scholarship, encouraged by Vatican II and accessing resources never dreamed of in the sixth century A.D., confirms that there were several Marys.

What new insights lead biblical scholars to separate Mary the sinner from Mary Magdalene? Here's some of their reasoning.

  1. One person and one place - such as Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Arimathea, Simon of Cyrene, Mary of Magdala - are connected frequently in the Gospels. Mary of Magdala (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) is actually named more often than Mary the Mother of Jesus. Scholars conclude, using this kind of analysis, that when a woman named Mary is not called the Magdalene, that's not who is intended. According to this rationale, she is not the "woman with the alabaster jar" (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 7), even though artists over the centuries have assigned her that identity. But Mary is more than just a pretty picture.
  2. Mary Magdalene is portrayed as woman whom Jesus delivered of "demons." It's those demons that still tempt readers to think Mary a fallen woman. In Luke 8, some Galilean women are described journeying with Jesus, together with the Twelve. They include "some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities [and] Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out."
  3. Today's scholars, more and more, embrace the earlier view of St. Augustine, in the fourth century, who said, "The Holy Spirit made Magdalene the Apostle of the Apostles." It was Jesus himself who said to her, "Go to my brothers and tell them, 'I am going to my Father and your Father…'" (Jn 20:17).
  4. Apostle has multiple meanings and most of them apply to Mary Magdalene with ease. She is one sent on a mission. She is an authoritative person sent out to preach the Gospel. She is first to advocate an important belief. Or to put those in other terms, she points the way as disciple, partner and evangelist. Preceding all of that, of course, she is an eyewitness to the wonders of Jesus among us.

The Red Egg

The Tradition of dying Easter eggs can arguably be dated back to St. Mary Magdalene herself. While eggs were most likely dyed for decorative purposes, this practice was quickly adopted by the early church as a symbol representing the Resurrection of Christ (the egg itself representing a closed tomb containing new life, ready to burst forth from it). Traditionally, eggs were died red by early Christians in the Eastern Church. There is some debate, however, about why eggs were died the color red.

Some argue that red was symbolic of the blood of Christ shed on the cross. One story, however, intimately involves the person of Mary Magdalene. As the story goes, Mary in her travels after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, found herself in Rome with an audience with the emperor, Tiberius Caesar. Typically, a person who was granted an audience with the emperor would present him with a gift. According to the legend, Mary Magdalene presented the emperor with a white egg, saying “Christ is risen.” Tiberius, not believing that Jesus had actually risen from the dead responded, “How could anyone rise from the dead? It would be more believable if this egg were to turn red,” and as he spoke, the egg turned red in his hand.

There are other versions of the story in which Mary Magdalene simply gives the emperor a red egg symbolizing Christ’s Resurrection and his blood that was shed. Whatever the real story is, this is the reason why Mary Magdalene is so often depicted as holding a red egg, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Catholic tradition of Iconography.