A reader of my review of Mary Magdalene offers an impassioned defense for the medieval Western view of St. Mary Magdalene as a penitent with a notoriously wanton sexual past, a profligate adulteress or harlot:
Mary Magdalene is the sole woman saint on the universal Latin Rite calendar notable for repentance for sin. If Mary Magdalene isn’t a repentant sexual sinner we’re left with an absence of role models for repentant women and frightening implication that only virgins and married women can get to heaven or can be honored as holy. I have no use for this type of nonsense about Mary Magdalene.
In defense of this view of Mary Magdalene, the reader argues for the identification, also traditional in the West, of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (often thought to be the unnamed “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7):
Not only is the identification of the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany who also anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magdalene who also is seen with stuff for anointing and found at Jesus’ feet plausible (and on a practical level undeniably very spiritually valuable for female penitents to unite these rich scenes of relationship with Jesus in their own person—for me personally this is vocationally important), our liturgy places the feast of St Martha of Bethany in proximity to St Mary Magdalene’s, and we have no separate/duplicate feast of St Mary of Bethany. This is not evidence about the woman herself, but it is evidence that the reflection of the Latin Church is that it’s not outlandish to imagine that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same Mary.
What to say to all this?
There is no question, to begin with, that Mary Magdalene was a repentant sinner. Every single saint that has ever lived, with the exception of the Blessed Virgin, was a repentant sinner.
We aren’t talking about a mythological figure or a character in a story who can be whatever we deem convenient or beneficial. Mary Magdalene was and is a real woman from a particular village in Galilee who played a notable role in the greatest and most consequential events in human history. She is also a saint in heaven, an elder sister in Christ.
The one thing we know about Mary Magdalene’s past is that the Lord expelled seven demons from her. This indicates at least that she had a troubled past, likely implicating her in spiritually dangerous behavior of some kind.
A number of early Fathers pick up on this, alluding to Mary’s past life as a sinner. By itself, though, this gives us no indication whether her sins were carnal or spiritual, private or notorious.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, in an influential homily, allegorically interpreted the seven demons expelled from Mary Magdalene as the seven deadly sins. He also identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, whom he identified as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, further suggesting that the ointment or perfume used on this occasion was a token of her previous life of carnal sin.
Somewhere roughly between Risen and Last Days in the Desert in its narrative and interpretive sensibilities, Mary Magdalene presents an interpretation of Jesus’ ministry, passion and resurrection that seems in some ways — with important caveats — fairly traditional, viewed from a feminist perspective with some biblical justification.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.