Finally, this centuries-old case of mistaken identity is being rectified. Mary's true biblical portrait is being resurrected, and this "apostle to the apostles" is taking her rightful place in history as a beloved disciple of Jesus and a prominent early church leader.
"We're trying to right a 2,000-year-old wrong," says Christine Schenk, C.S.J., executive director of FutureChurch, a Cincinnati-based church-reform organization that launched nationwide observances of Mary Magdalene's feast day, July 22, two years ago. The idea quickly grew from a handful of celebrations to nearly 130 prayer services last year at Catholic parishes, college Newman centers, schools, retreat houses, hospital chapels, convent motherhouses, and small faith communities.
"People see this as a positive, constructive way to show they support women's equality," says Schenk, who believes that reclaiming Mary Magdalene's reputation as an early church leader will have implications for women's leadership in the church today, including the ordination of women.
Many cradle Catholics are shocked to learn that there is no biblical evidence that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute or public sinner. She is mentioned 12 times in the New Testament--making her the second most mentioned woman in the Gospels, after the Virgin Mary. Unlike most other women in the Bible, she is not identified in relation to another person; she is not anyone's mother, wife, or sister. Instead, she is simply called Mary of Magdala, a title that implies some prominence in the city of Magdala, a center of commercial fishing on the northwest bank of the Sea of Galilee. She left her home to follow Jesus, and it is believed she was among several well-off, independent women who financially supported Jesus' ministry.
"It's really remarkable that all four Gospels have the same story," says Scripture scholar Mary Thompson, S.S.M.N., adjunct professor of religious studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, N. Y., and author of "Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader" (Paulist Press, 1995). "You can be sure that if it had been possible to eliminate those women who went out from the empty tomb, [the Gospel writers] would have done it" because of the prevailing attitude toward women in those times, she says.
So how did Mary of Magdala become a prostitute several hundred years after her death? The short answer is that she has been confused with several other women in the Bible, most significantly with an unnamed sinner in Chapter 7 of Luke. In that story, a woman bathes Jesus' feet with her tears, anoints them with ointment from her alabaster jar, and dries them with her hair. When the Pharisees object, Jesus admonishes them and forgives her "because she has shown great love."
The confusion may have come from the proximity of that passage to one that identifies Mary of Magdala by name as a follower of Jesus who had seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2). The waters get even muddier when the unnamed sinner gets lumped in with yet another Mary--Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus' sister--who also anoints Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair, as described in Chapter 12 of John's Gospel. It's possible that the shared symbols of incense and tears have historically united both women with Mary of Magdala, who was among the women who brought jars of perfumed oil to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body.
Many feminist theologians believe that Mary Magdalene's reputation was deliberately altered to suppress women's leadership in the church in those early centuries. "To have silenced and suppressed the tradition with respect to the most prominent woman in Christian circles isn't an accident," says Jane Schaberg, a professor of religious studies and women's studies at the University of Detroit-Mercy who is writing a book on Mary of Magdala.
Interestingly, the Eastern church took a different tack with Mary Magdalene. A legend in the Eastern tradition has Mary of Magdala traveling to Rome and appearing before the court of Emperor Tiberius. When she tells Tiberius about Jesus' death and resurrection, he challenges her story, saying no one could rise from the dead any more than an egg in a dish on the table could turn red.
With that, according to the legend, Mary picked up an egg and it turned bright red in her hand. To this day, icons of Mary Magdalene often depict her holding an egg, and Eastern Christians still color their Easter eggs a bright red.
In the West, however, the image of Mary Magdalene as sensual temptress is deeply entrenched. Even today, the prostitute image continues to be reinforced by popular culture. Few can forget Mary Magdalene singing, "I don't know how to love Him" in the '60s musical, and later the movie, "Jesus Christ Superstar." The sexy saint stirred up even more controversy in Martin Scorsese's 1988 movie, "The Last Temptation of Christ." Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film included a sex scene between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, actually a dream sequence of what might have happened if Jesus had not been crucified.
But 20th-century artists aren't the first to be misled into portraying Mary Magdalene as a temptress. In paintings throughout history, she has sometimes been pictured bare-breasted and, more often than not, clothed in red, the color of passion.
Today, the feast-day celebrations sponsored by FutureChurch and Call to Action, another progressive Catholic organization, are one way many Catholics are getting reintroduced to Mary of Magdala. "I've long been an admirer of Mary Magdalene," says Janelle Lazzo of Kansas City, Mo. "I thought if Jesus loved her that much with her various shortcomings, my own might not look so bad to him either."
Through her local Call to Action chapter, Lazzo helped organize and presided at a Mary Magdalene prayer service on her feast day at St. Francis Xavier Church in Kansas City. The service featured a proclamation of the resurrection account from John, inclusive-language hymns and prayers, and time for personal sharing among the 60 or so gathered.
Some Catholics say feminists are hijacking Mary Magdalene's story to serve their own agendas. A 1998 article in the ultraconservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer described the church reformers as "heretics" and said they were "distorting the historical figure of Mary Magdalen[e] in their crusade for a laywoman-run church."
But Schenk and others insist they are merely trying to right a centuries-old wrong--a correction that happens to provide a positive role model for contemporary women in the church. "Mary of Magdala didn't ask anybody whether or not she could lead. She simply led," says Thompson. "And that's what women have to do today. Just do it."