Mary Magdalene, the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection, now has a feast day in her honor which we will celebrate July 22. Our Holy Father’s appreciation for this “Apostle of the Apostles” inspired him in this Year of Mercy to elevate her place in the church’s liturgical calendar from a memorial to a feast.
Much has been written and debated about Mary Magdelene’s identity. Theologian Elizabeth Julian urges us to “Go back to the New Testament. Find there the woman who is the thread of continuity between the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” (Stimulus Vol. 14, No. 4, Nov. 2006.)
Five years ago, during my studies in the Master of Pastoral Theology program, I wrote a reflection on John 20:11-18, in which Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus outside the tomb. That Scripture (along with verses 1-2) comprises the Gospel reading for her feast day this year. It is one of my favorite Scriptures because it helps me visualize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
In this Scripture, we see Mary Magdalene weeping in the garden outside Jesus’ tomb. Mourning the death of the man she called “Teacher,” her grief has been compounded by the inexplicable disappearance of Jesus’ body from his tomb. When she turns around, she sees a man she supposes to be the gardener.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” he asks. She explains the reason for her grief, but she doesn’t know he is Jesus; she thinks he’s the gardener! Only when he calls her by name, “Mary!” does she recognize Jesus. She responds in Aramaic by calling him “Rabbouni,” which means teacher. It seems as if she tried to hug him, based on his next response: “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father….”
Theologian Raymond E. Brown observes that Mary Magdalene’s faith response to the Risen Christ at the empty tomb reflects “John’s love for personal encounter with Jesus.”
I can imagine the tenderness with which Jesus spoke her name, “Mary.” He didn’t have to say anything else. He remembered her, and she remembered him. She wanted to embrace him, a natural response for two people who have a personal connection.
Some theologians have focused on this Scripture for the important mission Jesus entrusted to Mary Magdalene: to tell the disciples that he had risen from the dead and was ascending to the Father, his God and their God.
Why did he choose to tell Mary Magdalene first? Even before Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple? Was it because she never abandoned Jesus? She was with him through thick and thin and cared enough to check on his tomb? Because she sought him out?
Isn’t that what we need to do? Seek out Jesus in an intentional way in our daily lives? As Julian says, Mary Magdalene is “the devoted disciple, the courageous leader whose message Christians are called to proclaim with our lives whether people believe it or not: Jesus is risen!”
Jesus called Mary Magdalene by name and he calls us by name to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God through our witness at home, at school, at work, in church, at the grocery store and even in traffic.
We encounter Jesus every day of our lives: in the people we interact with, in the rising and setting of the sun, in the breaking of the bread during Mass, in our response to the needs of our brothers and sisters. I am grateful to Pope Francis for calling attention to a woman I would like to emulate.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)