15 July 2021, The Tablet

Mary of Magdala - Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala - Apostle to the Apostles

Mary of Magdala
Piero di Cosimo Between 1490 and 1495. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome


In 2016, Pope Francis elevated the memorial of St Mary Magdalene, traditionally observed on 22 July, to the status of a feast day. A cloud of confusion is finally being lifted from the woman who gets up before sunrise to visit the tomb of the Jesus, while the men are sleeping

Over the last 30 years, there has been a plethora of books restoring the reputation of Mary of Magdala from repentant prostitute to leading woman disciple. She is always mentioned first among the women followers, and her title as the “Apostle to the Apostles” is founded firmly on the commission given her by the risen Jesus. But though this is now familiar ground among theologians, it has not seeped through to the broad range of Christian believers.
After my article in the 27 March issue, some Tablet readers wrote to me to say they had always thought the woman who anointed Jesus was Mary of Magdala. You can see why. After all, almost every painting of the anointing is titled “Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus”. The pictures need to be renamed. John’s Gospel says Jesus was anointed by Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, but for centuries Rome insisted that the two women were one and the same. Now at last, the Vatican has admitted its mistake, and this February it took another step to clarify that the two women were distinct.

Paul VI had already begun to correct the record in 1969, with new directions for Mary of Magdala’s memorial on 22 July. She was no longer described as a “Penitent”. The collect no longer said that, “her prayers moved thee to restore her brother Lazarus to life”, but rather that, “your Son first entrusted to Mary Magdalene the joyful news of his Resurrection”. And the Gospel was no longer Luke’s account of a sinner anointing the feet of Jesus, but was changed to Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus.

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