The Dominicans, Mary Magdalene, and a New Charism for Women

I recently discovered that the Dominicans have a deeper Love and devotion for Mary Magdalene.  From the very beginnings of the Dominican Order Mary Magdalene has been recognised for her special place as True friend of Christ.  She is patron saint and protectress of  The Order of Preachers.

‘It is a joyous thought to realise that the whole Dominican Order has from the time of its foundation, sung during Easter Week the Victimae paschali laudes, which expresses the mission entrusted to it: “Speak, Mary, Declaring/ What you saw, wayfaring/ The tomb of Christ, who is /living/ The glory of Jesus’s resurrection/ Bright angels attesting/ The shroud and napkin resting/…  Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining/ Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning/ Amen.

“And all who heard her were in admiration at her beauty, her eloquence, and the sweetness of her message…and no wonder, that the mouth which had pressed such pious and beautiful kisses on the Savior’s feet should breathe forth the perfume of the word of God more profusely than others could.” (Blessed Jacobus de Voragine O.P. The Golden Legend, Readings on the Saints, William Granger Ryan translator, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, 1:376-77).

I found this beautiful meditation on Mary Magdalene when I was reading on-line one day. I Love everything in Truth that she stands for.  And I pray that one day her mystery which seems so unmysterious to me, inspires a charism that makes way and leads me and other women and men in discipleship, to become like herself the closest apostles of Christ.   May Mary Magdalene’s very humanity, ways of the spirit, and Love for Christ be our teacher and guide.

(whilst I have no desire for there to be women priest, I have every desire for there to be a formal contemplative/active ministry for women apostles within the secular parish.)

This was the Address delivered by the Revd Lucy Winkett, Minor Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral,
at the Go Tell! celebration of Christian Women, July 2000.

‘We are here to reflect together on our own place in the world as Christian women and to celebrate the ministry that we all – lay and ordained – share.

Christian women minister within and outside the faith community and have done from the beginning. It is the public identification and recognition that is part of our story today.

And it is such a public woman that we celebrate today; Mary of Magdala. For this talk, I should like to trace briefly the story of Mary Magdalene – her story – and explore how we can interpret her for ourselves, and then to suggest three themes that arise from her life and from the way Christian tradition has seen her.

Mary Magdalene – the woman who loved too much – the woman who’d been a prostitute but was saved from her past by Jesus. The woman who was slightly dangerous, sexy; a penitent temptress who had turned away from her many sins and found Jesus Christ more compelling. The woman who injects a different kind of passion into Holy Week.

Mary Magdalene has given her name to homes for fallen women, to the Magdalen laundries; popular as workhouses for women pregnant with the children of priests (with all the attendant imagery of sin and stain). She has given her name to a charity which currently exists to assist women who have had or who are having relationships with priests who have committed themselves to celibacy.

The penitent sinner, the reformed prostitute, has been the prevailing characterisation of Mary: and her part, particularly in the story of Holy Week is always in the context of a grateful fallen woman, probably in love with Jesus, devoted to him and devastated by his death, as a deserted lover would be.

There is, in fact, no clear Biblical evidence for this character Mary Magdalene the penitent sinner. The Bible introduces us to a woman Mary of Magdala about whom it tells us very little. We’ll return to her later – but first let’s look at this character of Mary Magdalene and how she became so deeply embedded in the Christian story.

Mary of Magdala has been for centuries conflated with other Gospel characters.

There is an unnamed woman in Mark’s gospel who comes to anoint Jesus Christ’s head. She has an alabaster jar of expensive oil and scandalises the disciples who argue that more good could have been done by giving money to “the poor”. Mark 14. 3-9.

There is an unnamed woman in Luke’s gospel who is described as “from the city” and “a sinner” who anoints Jesus Christ’s feet, washes them with her tears, kisses his feet and dries them with her hair. Luke 7. 36-50.

There is an unnamed woman from Samaria in John’s gospel – John 4 – whom Jesus talks to at the village well. She is told by Jesus that she is not living with her husband and that she has five husbands behind her. Despite modern scholarship suggesting that this was in fact political code for the alliances Samaria was making with Israel’s enemies, even if it is taken at face value and accepted as a description of the woman’s personal past, she is not named as Mary of Magdala.

The false equation Mary of Magdala = woman with ointment = woman at the well = “loose woman” = prostitute has produced the composite figure Mary Magdalene.

The man generally credited with sanctioning this piece of Biblical imagination was Pope Gregory the Great who delivered himself of an opinion in 591 in Rome.

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected, according to Mark, And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear my brothers that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance, for as much as she had wrongly held God in contempt.”

In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church officially overruled Pope Gregory’s interpretation but it dominated Western interpretation and tradition – and still does.

By the 10th century Mary Magdalene the holy harlot was fully formed. Abbot Odo at Cluny Abbey wrote that after an existence devoted to ‘sensual pleasures’ Mary Magdalene helps, by a reformed life and zealous ministrations to the daily needs of Jesus, to rescue females from the condemnation Eve brought upon women at the beginning. The description of Mary of Magdala as the new Eve with the parallels of Eve’s disobedience in the garden of Eden, being redeemed by Mary of Magdala’s obedience in the garden by the tomb also associated both women with the sexual sin and temptation that only women bring into the world!

The contemporary scholar, Marina Warner writes

“The Magdalene, like Eve, was brought into existence by the powerful undertone of misogyny in Christianity, which associates women with the dangers and degradation of the flesh. “

And she illustrates the double edged nature of the character Mary Magdalene by adding “For this reason, she became a prominent and beloved saint. “1

The Roman missal in 1570 described Mary Magdalene on her saint’s day as “penitent”; this was her defining characteristic for exactly 400 years until 1970 when the label was removed.

In most paintings of the character Mary Magdalene she is depicted lying down, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, clinging to him in the garden, listening in Bethany, weeping at the cross.

Mary Magdalene is so often, as Ingrid Maisch calls her “the woman on the floor” – shamed, humbled, moved: she is often naked – or at least her breasts are uncovered – and there is a jar of ointment, a skull and crucifix – illustrating her immersion in the suffering of Christ and her own humiliation and shame. She is, according to the artists, despite her rehabilitation, “available”.

In preparing for this talk I asked several people who sit in both Anglican and Roman Catholic churches regularly what they knew about Mary of Magdala. All of them mentioned her licentious part, most thought she was the woman who kissed Jesus’ feet and only when prompted did they remember that she was the first to receive news of the resurrection.

Yet this view of Mary of Magdala is not substantiated by any of the New Testament writing about her. The stories associated with her: the two anointing stories, the Samaritan woman, even suggestions that she was the woman caught in adultery, listening to Jesus in Bethany, are all stories about unnamed women except the Mary in Bethany. The gospel writers all give Mary of Magdala a unique and prominent position in their accounts, they name her when she appears, and so it is now accepted in the believing community of the Church that these stories are not about Mary of Magdala. (She certainly can’t be the Samaritan woman at the well as Magdala isn’t in Samaria). These characteristics of a sinful past combined with current sexual power are not defining elements of the Biblical Mary of Magdala.

The Eastern Church has not suffered from this false picture of Mary; it is almost totally a Western misinterpretation. Ironically, since women do not take leadership roles in the Orthodox Church, plenty of writers associate Mary of Magdala not primarily with sexuality and penitence but as the bearer of the good news of the resurrection. Gregory of Antioch, writing in the 6th century, has the risen Jesus saying to the women on Easter Day “Proclaim to my disciples the mysteries you have seen. Become the first teachers of the teachers. Peter, who has denied me, must learn that I can also choose women as apostles. ” 2 This is writing from one of the early church fathers!

It is this picture of Mary of Magdala that is rooted in the Biblical story. So what do we know about her from the New Testament?

  1. Luke 8. 2-3: she is introduced to us as one of a few women who obviously had money to support Jesus in his itinerant ministry. She has had seven demons go out of her – but these are not explained.Each age has tried to explain them: Medieval theologians interpreted them as the seven deadly sins, with emphasis on lust. Martin Luther interpreted them as seven devils. Modern theologians interpret them as convulsions, similar to the man who lived among the tombs, a form of disability. Others write of a goddess cult contemporary with Jesus, which had seven steps of initiation.[One important point here is that Luke who makes this comment about Mary of Magdala often describes women as needy and requiring healing contrasted with male disciples who choose to follow Jesus. It is possible that Luke’s only explanation for a woman being authoritative on matters of faith is that she is possessed or grateful, (e.g. the slave woman in Philippi. Acts 16.16-18)] (Esther de Boer p.50)
  2. Whatever the truth, the second thing we know for certain about Mary, is that she came from Magdala.Magdala was probably a prosperous trading town by the Sea of Galilee. It was probably on the modern site of Mejdel – Jesus would certainly have visited the town, it being six miles from Capernaum.The inhabitants of Magdala were probably farmers who cultivated the fruitful plain of Gennesar, and fishermen active on the Sea of Galilee. It is possible that fabric was sent to Magdala to be dyed.Mary, assuming she was a youngish woman when she travelled around with Jesus, would have heard about the terrible battle in Magdala during a rebellion put down by Romans in 53 B.C.E. when 30,000 prisoners were taken. The historian Josephus describes this costly encounter.She may well have still been alive during the later battle (67 C.E.) of which Josephus writes“The entire lake was stained with blood and crammed with corpses, for there was not a single survivor. During the days that followed, a horrible stench hung over the region.” 3Mary would have seen violence in her life and Jesus’ crucifixion was one part of that. She would have suffered from the Roman occupation of Magdala – a town with a reputation for bloody uprising.
  3. She was probably, almost certainly Jewish – as she is named by the Jewish name for the city (the Roman name was Tarichea), and she is the only woman who is not described and defined by her family: Mary, mother of Jesus; Mary, mother of James; Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.(Incidentally, the only reference to sexual licence is not in the Bible itself, but in a Rabbinic midrash on the Book of Lamentations, where Magdala is mentioned as somewhere where adultery is practised.)
  4. Mary of Magdala was almost certainly in the inner circle:-When the women are at the tomb on Easter Day, in Luke’s account (24.7-8) the angel says to the woman “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be delivered up…”If we look back in the gospel, we see that it was when Jesus was in a small intimate group that he did indeed say this (Luke 9. 18-22). It is clear then that Mary of Magdala was a disciple of Jesus, even without the title.

Why had Mary followed Jesus? Leaving aside Luke’s only explanation – of need or gratitude –

  1. She grew up in a city that had suffered and was yet to suffer terrible bloodshed – she could then have been receptive to Jesus’ non-violent message of “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
  2. In Magdala, Jewish and Greek culture lived side-by-side under Roman occupation. Different nationalities came to trade in Magdala – perhaps she was drawn to Jesus’ teaching on unity bonding people across external differences.
  3. The natural surroundings of Magdala were rich. Jesus’ nature metaphors and farming stories would have chimed in with her experience of a rich natural environment. 4

It is clear that she was close to Jesus and was a key figure in his inner circle. His imminent torture and execution must have caused her great grief. Yet a reclaimed picture of Mary of Magdala, rather than the composite “holy whore” Mary Magdalene, gives us a model of discipleship for our lives particularly through times of suffering, that is remarkable and unique.

Unlike the artists’ depictions of Mary across the centuries where she is bowed down and shamed, she is a woman who stands her ground and lives courageously.

She is “standing” watching as Jesus is crucified in both Luke and John’s accounts (Luke 23.49, John 19.25) and in the reading from John 20 we heard this evening, she is standing and she turns repeatedly, indicating that she is still standing. She is not “the woman on the floor” of art. She, along with Mary, Jesus’ mother, steadies her gaze on the suffering of the man she followed. She stays when other disciples fled or denied him. She was, in being present at Jesus’ crucifixion, undoubtedly in personal danger – although she might have hoped that as a woman she would be less prominent than if she had been a man.

Mary of Magdala is a woman of independent means who was faithful to Jesus beyond his death. The reading from John 20 is a core text for our reclaimed understanding of Mary of Magdala. Directly contradicting Paul’s instructions to Timothy in his first letter “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man: she is to keep silent.” (1 Tim 2.11-13)

Mary is given a new role. Jesus tells her

She is not to be silent, she is to speak.
She is explicitly to teach her brothers by speaking of her experience.
She is to be an agent of God’s revelation to the world. 5

“Mary of Magdala is a Biblical saint who speaks to us in our modern world:

There is a text, written at the latest in 150 C.E., discovered at the Nag Hammadi site, known as the Gospel of Mary. In it, Peter, Andrew, Levi and Mary of Magdala discuss the path of discipleship after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In this, and other early texts discovered this century, such as the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip; she is depicted as a person with great insight and an intense spiritual relationship with Jesus.

One of the sayings in the Gospel of Mary is that “the fetter of oblivion is temporal.” This is a saying that could well be applied to Mary herself. She has been trapped in church tradition that has very little basis in the Bible, and is contradicted by other contemporary writings.

In the Gospel of Mary, she addresses Peter, Andrew and Levi.

“They were grieved and wept greatly, saying “How shall we go to the nations and preach the gospel of the kingdom of the Human One? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”

Then Mary stood up, embraced them all, and said to her brothers –

“Do not weep and do not grieve, and do not make two hearts, for his grace will be with you all and will protect you. Rather let us praise his greatness, because he has prepared us. He has made us Human Being.” 6

For Mary of Magdala, it is her very humanity that is God’s preparation for suffering and for praise. She embraces her humanity in this way, and so it is doubly ironic that she has become a symbol for particularly women, but men too, rejecting what can loosely be called “the flesh” and preferring “the spirit”.

I am not of course claiming that these events actually happened as portrayed in the Gospel of Mary but that in her arguments with Peter, it is clear that in the 2nd century, issues of male/female leadership were live.

The ancient tradition of Mary of Magdala as apostola apostolorum (“apostle of the apostles”) is used today by Pope John Paul II. However, her place as a Biblical saint, as an apostle, as a woman who spoke with authority about what she knew of the suffering and pain of life, is still in doubt in churches today.

Mary of Magdala is a constant figure in Jesus’ last days. She is standing close by as he dies, and she visits the grave after his death. She is not “in hiding for fear of the Jews” as John describes the eleven disciples.

Mary of Magdala draws us closer to the events of Holy Week. She shows us

  • Solidarity with the dying Christ and thus with the suffering of humanity in our world today.
  • Sympathy, even empathy with those who are tortured and executed in our world today.
  • Fidelity to a person beyond death : she faces his death courageously and unflinchingly.
  • She is a public person, not hiding her allegiance to, or her grief for, Christ.
  • She displays imagination to overcome personal resignation and global fears that may have paralysed her : that is, she is receptive to the news of Jesus’s resurrection, and her interpretation of her meeting with the ‘gardener’ set her free, and set her feet on solid ground.
  • She displayed endurance and courage when her good news and her new insights had to be defended – when she was not believed.7

A central question of any culture or community is; Who has the power to tell the story of God? As the tradition of Mary Magdalene has been handed down, she has been handed over; to betray her has been easy, as she has, with Mary the mother of Jesus, fulfilled two stereotypes of women: virgin and whore. Only last Sunday I heard a man describe Mary Magdalene as the fallen woman with a hint of excited pity. She is still proclaimed prostitute.

So what does this re-claiming Mary Magdalene mean? Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we made a mistake about her past; we can put it right now. Is it just a matter of scholarship?

No it isn’t; because just as the tradition about Mary Magdalene as holy whore led women and men to believe in a particular way about their respective roles, so this reclamation can infuse and inspire Christian women today.

Mary Magdalene spoke publicly about what she knew to be true, about her own experience of faith.

Down the centuries, a few women have followed her; Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila being three of the headline names – and the truth is that women’s experience of God, prayers, thoughts and dreams has always been there but not spoken out or recorded as authoritative in the way that men’s experience has.’ ~ by Revd Lucy Winkett.


What an inspiration these women are, and how important it is for us to follow the call which they too followed, as an example to girls, women and men alike.  Like Mary let’s be the visible and true beloved of Christ.

A formal female presence in todays Parish/diocese within the Catholic Church is so passionately required, one of a contemplative/active ministry which supports the different gifts of those dedicated enough to take up their call, regardless of whether it be lay or consecrated, in order to keep the message of the Gospel relevent and alive in today’s world.

Mary Magdalene beautiful sister Pray for us, that by God’s Will and by your beloved inspiration, a universal diocesan/parish charism for women may unfurl, and that by your example we may share in your devotion, your witness and your ministry.

Amen †


About mags

Beloved apostle of His Soul x
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1 Response to The Dominicans, Mary Magdalene, and a New Charism for Women

  1. Stephanie Jill Rudd says:

    Superb post, powerful and from within. “She stays when other disciples fled or denied him”- it does us all good to be reminded of that…she is beautiful.

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