First impressions can be hard to shake. For many of us, our first impression of Mary Magdalene comes to us through art and legend. We may have met her first as a harlot or prostitute saved by Jesus through forgiveness. That was the story passed on to us from the Middle Ages when stained glass images and homilies by famous religious leaders rolled together at least two stories from the same Gospel: that of Mary’s healing or exorcism (Luke 8:1-3) and one version of the unnamed woman who anointed the feet of Jesus, the woman whose reputation scandalized the Pharisee who was his host (Luke 7:36-50).
If we look closely at Bible passages about Mary Magdalene, we may be surprised to discover that there is nothing conclusive that identifies her as a harlot. Her encounter with Jesus could have been described using a familiar term for prostitute or harlot, but it was not. Most scholars believe that driving out demons refers to physical healing or an exorcism of evil spirits, or some believe it to be a healing from mental illness. In any case, we may need to form a new and broader impression.
Mary of Magdala is mentioned a dozen times in the four Gospels. She is listed among the women of Galilee who provided for Jesus and the Twelve during their travels (Luke 8:1-30). More significantly, in contrast to the 12 men chosen by Jesus to follow him, she remains with Jesus through his arrest, trial, passion and burial (Matthew 27:56-61; Mark 15:40-47; John 19:25). According to two Gospels, she is the first to give witness to the empty tomb and the first to encounter the risen Jesus (Mark 16:9-10; John 20:1-18).
The encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus in John 20:11-18 is so poignant and instructive that it bears closer examination. The scene begins in the empty tomb as Mary laments, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” Her confusion and sorrow must have been overwhelming, so much so that when she sees Jesus, she first assumes he is a gardener and asks where Jesus has been taken so that she can tend to him.
When the risen Jesus speaks her name, “Mary!” she recognizes him. We hear echoes of Jesus teaching his followers that like sheep know the sound of their shepherd, so will his disciples know the sound of his voice (John 10:4-6, 14). Mary Magdalene recognizes the voice of Jesus and, in the process, recognizes him as her risen Lord. She had conditioned herself to know his voice in the months, and perhaps years she followed Jesus.
And then we hear Jesus say something that at first may sound harsh: “Stop holding on to me.” Not only must Jesus be free to ascend to his Father, but she is being told to stop clinging to any false ideas she may have held about him, any delusions that he would be with them forever or become a king in the ordinary sense. Only by letting go can Mary be truly free to become the first apostle (one who is sent by God). She will use her freedom to proclaim the core truth of her life: “I have seen the Lord.”
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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