(Author’s note: There are many different versions of the life of Mary Magdalene. The Eastern Orthodox tradition teaches that Mary Magdalene was a different Mary than Mary of Bethany. Protestants have many different ideas about her identity, and secular historians have their views. Rather than compete with these theories. I simply offer for your consideration the tradition that was transmitted to me, a western Catholic of the Roman rite, about the life of Jesus’ most passionate disciple: Mary of Magdala).
The Catholic teaching about the identity of Mary Magdalene is based on biblical accounts, traditional accounts of events that don’t always make it into the Bible, the pronouncements of popes, theologians, saints, and scholars, and the visions of saintly women throughout the Church’s history.
There are many Catholic mystics throughout the ages who have had visions of Mary of Magdala. In her four volume opus Mystical City of God, Venerable Mary of Agreda identifies Mary of Magdala as the sinner in Luke’s Gospel who anointed Christ’s feet with precious ointment and her tears. This is the same Mary who is sometimes called “Mary of Bethany,” the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who on the eve of Christ’s passion used an alabaster vase to anoint him. Mary of Agreda elaborates:
“Although the other three Evangelists in relating this second anointment apparently differ as to some of the circumstances, yet I was not informed that they refer to different anointments (sic) or speak of more than one woman, but that they refer only to Magdalene, who was moved to these acts of devotion by inspiration of the Holy Ghost and by her own burning love toward Christ the Redeemer.”
In our day Maria Valtorta wrote down extensive visions of Mary of Magdala, expounded in detail on her relationship with Jesus, and her siblings Lazarus and Martha. While Valtorta’s five volume Poem of the Man God is controversial to some, her depiction of Mary of Magdala matches the visions of Mary of Agreda and Blessed Sister Emmerich, and squares with Sacred Scripture and the Magdalene tradition of the Roman Catholic Church.
What makes Valtorta’s depictions of Mary of Magdala credible, to me anyway, is the passionate nature of this woman of legend. The Magdalene loved with every cell and atom of her body. All her thoughts and actions derived from this fiery origin. She rebuked Peter to his face for his pride, and Peter had no response. He accepted the correction because he knew everything that came from Mary flowed from her love for Jesus.
Mary of Magdala’s place in the early Church is prominent. In the Bible, when the Evangelists list the holy women who followed Christ, Mary of Magdala is first named, as is St. Peter with the apostles. If Peter was first named because he was to be the Pope, then what was the status of the Magdalene?
Mary of Magdala's complete and utter devotion to Jesus was used by Christ’s enemies to mock her, to taunt her about her past life, to ridicule her conversion, and to make the lowest insinuations about her relationship with Jesus. Scorned lovers make bitter enemies. Mary of Magdala had even more enemies after her conversion than before.
Yet she also had more friends, real friends who accepted her conversion and took her in. In visions we see Jesus turning Mary of Magdala over to his mother, the Virgin Mary, who took the Magdalene under her wing, consoling her and fortifying her. This twin protection was proof against the world, and against some apostles and disciples who may have been skeptical of the strength of Mary’s conversion.
There must have also been concern about appearances: after all, the Master and his followers were already in enough trouble with the authorities without the addition to their ranks of a notorious sinner. Human considerations probably made acceptance of the Magdalene slow. According to Sister Emmerich, Mary of Magdala
“followed Jesus everywhere, sat at his feet, stood and waited for him everywhere. She thought of him alone, saw him alone, knew only her Redeemer and her own sins. Jesus frequently addressed to her words of consolation. She was very greatly changed. Her countenance and bearing was still noble and distinguished, though her beauty was destroyed by her penance and tears. She sat almost always alone in her narrow penance chamber, and at times performed the lowest services for the poor and sick.”
“Lazarus, Come Forth”
Little is known of Lazarus, but he was one of a select few declared by Sacred Scripture to have been “loved” by Jesus. Sister Emmerich saw Lazarus as:
“Very refined in his manners, his whole demeanor earnest, quiet, and marked by a dignified affability; he spoke little, and his bearing toward Jesus was full of loving devotedness…Jesus treated Lazarus with marked confidence... ”
“Lazarus was a tall man, grave and gentle and very self-possessed in manner. Moderate in all things, even his familiar intercourse with others was stamped with a something that wore an air of distinction. His hair was black and he bore some resemblance to Joseph, though his features were sterner and more marked.”
A month before Christ’s last Passover Lazarus became critically ill. Jesus was across the Jordan, healing the sick at the spot John the Baptist had baptized him. He received a message from Martha and Mary: “Lord, he whom thou lovest is sick.” The sisters did not ask Jesus to return; they realized the danger if he returned to Judea. Their brief message was one of hope - the Lord had healed people at a distance before; surely he would do the same for a beloved friend. And St. John puts the status of the family at Bethany clearly: “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus.”
Jesus replied to them, “This sickness is not unto death but for the glory of God: that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” But by the time Mary and Martha got this reply, Lazarus was dead. One can sympathize with their grief - and their confusion, for they most certainly interpreted Jesus’ message to mean that Lazarus would recover, not die. While their love for Jesus was undiminished, surely they wondered: “Had the Master been mistaken?”
Two days later Jesus announced he was returning to Judea. The apostles reminded him of the Jew’s recent attempt to stone Him there. He replied, “Lazarus, our friend, sleepeth: but I go that I may awake him out of sleep.” The apostles replied that if Lazarus was only sleeping, he would surely awake without Jesus’ help. Then Jesus told them Lazarus was dead, adding, “but let us go to him.” The apostles gave up. Thomas spoke for many of them when he said, “Let us go also, that we may die with Him.”
When they arrived at Bethany Lazarus had been dead four days. When Martha heard Jesus was approaching, she went out to meet him: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It was less a reproach than a confession of Martha’s still imperfect faith. Christ used Martha’s greeting as a short catechism, which, given the timing, seemed almost secondary to Lazarus’ death. But it evoked from Martha a stronger, more perfect expression of faith that rivaled St. Peter’s: “Yea, Lord, I believe thou art Christ, the Son of the living God, who art come into this world!” Here is a side of Martha too often overshadowed by her reputation for practicality and efficiency.
Martha returned to the estate and found Mary of Magdala surrounded by mourners: the family at Bethany was influential, and the Jewish aristocracy - including Pharisees - came to Bethany to pay their respects. “The Master is come, and calleth for thee,” Martha whispered in her sister’s ear. Mary shot out of the room: St. John describes her as leaving both “quickly” and “speedily.” Upon reaching Christ she “fell down at his feet, and saith to him, “Lord if thou had been here my brother would not have died. (John 11:32)”
Christ’s response to Mary of Magdala was markedly different than his response to Martha. Seeing Mary weeping on the ground, her arms clasped round his feet, the Master said not a word; but St. John (11:35) tells us that Christ “groaned in spirit”, and that “Jesus wept.”
Jesus had the normal, human response to the grief of a beloved friend. Tears streamed down his face, and finally he spoke: “Where have you laid him?” Having displayed his human nature, the Master would shortly display his divine nature in stunning fashion. But he does not dominate the scene yet. Of course he knows where Lazarus is, but he allows Mary, Martha, and the other mourners to show him the tomb.
Lazarus’ body was in a cave, with a large rock slab placed over the opening. The crowd, expecting Jesus to pay his respects and continue mourning with them, were startled at his next words, which were a command: “Taketh away the stone.” No one knew what was coming, including Martha, who protested: “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” The Master insisted, and the stone was removed. Then in a loud voice Jesus commanded: “Lazarus, come forth.”
The crowd must have felt they were in a dream. What on earth was Jesus doing? There was movement in the darkness. An unsteady figure appeared at cave’s mouth. The dead had responded to the cry of the Lord.
Mourners gazed in wonder and terror. Tossed between shock, amazement, and joy, Mary and Martha saw something beyond their imagination come true before their very eyes. Their brother was alive again.
Everyone was so stunned that Jesus had to finally suggest that Lazarus’ bindings be loosed so he could walk freely. As soon as the miracle was over the Master resumed his role as beloved friend of the family, full of consolation and helpful suggestions. The Gospel account ends at this point, and we are left to imagine the joy of the family at Bethany, reunited with Lazarus and the Master. What a wonder filled occasion that must have been.
The Second Anointing
Mary of Magdala had not known the Lord would raise her brother Lazarus from the dead, but she seems to have had a foreboding that what happened to her brother would also happen to her friend Jesus. In fact Lazarus’ return from the dead may have been a sign Jesus gave to his friends that he would also return from the dead - and soon, for the time of the Passion was at hand.
The night before Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), everyone had a supper meal at Bethany. Martha was serving Christ, Lazarus, and the apostles, who were reclined around the table. Mary may have been at the Master’s feet or, if convention was followed, she was not present until she entered the room with an alabaster vessel of precious perfume. John describes it as “a pound of perfume, genuine and costly nard,” with which she “anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3).”
The details of the Bethany anointing are virtually identical to the anointing of the sinful woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house (Luke‘s gospel). At Bethany there was also a critic of Mary’s act. The critic at Bethany was not a Pharisee: it was Judas the apostle, who complained that the expensive perfume could have been sold and the proceeds used to help the poor. Judas seems to have rallied some of the other apostles to share his indignation at the waste. His objection was a plausible one to the ears of poor fishermen like the apostles, who were lucky to earn the equivalent of Mary‘s perfume in a year of hard work.
From their reaction to Mary’s act it may be assumed that she emptied the entire alabaster vessel in her anointing, so much so that she again used her hair to wipe the anointed feet of the Master - but with one difference. Her first anointing included the tears and sobbing of a repentant sinner. Here at Bethany she did not weep.
The fragrance of Mary’s devotion to Jesus permeated the room, and it evoked enmity. Once again Mary was silent in the face of criticism, and once more Christ defended her. It was not a mild defense. Christ did not say: yes she wasted perfume, but her intentions were good. No. “Leave her alone,” he ordered Judas and the others. “Why are you making trouble for her? In pouring this perfume on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.”
Jesus and Mary of Magdala both knew he was about to die, but the apostles still could not believe it. And Jesus may have been lonely for sympathy, judging by his next words:
“You will always have the poor among you. But you will not always have me.”
This statement has since been used to shrug off poverty, but that was not Jesus’ intent (in my opinion). Rather, it is another appeal to the Apostles to accept that he was about to suffer and die, and to console their lonely, persecuted, misunderstood Master as Mary of Magdala had just done. One can almost hear his unspoken words: My friends, please believe I am about to leave you, and let our friendship strengthen Me for what I must do.
Then Jesus returns to Mary’s act of homage, and makes a prophecy:
“Amen, I say to you: Wherever the Gospel is preached in all the world, this also which she has done will be told in memory of her.”
And so it has come to pass.
Scriptural quotations taken from The Holy Bible Douay-Rheims Version, John Murphy Company, 1899.
Raymond Leopold Bruckberger, O.P., Mary Magdalene, Annotated Edition, Translated by H.L. Binsse, published by Pantheon, New York, 1953.
Helen Meredith Garth, Saint Mary Magdalene In Mediaeval Literature, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1950.
Mary of Agreda, Mystical City of God, translated by Fiscar Marison, 1902, published in 1912.
Dr. Peter Ketter, The Magdalene Question, Translated by Rev. Hugo C. Koehler, The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, 1935.
Alfred O’Rahilly, President of University College, Cork, The Family at Bethany, CorkUniversity Press, 1949.
Mary Magdalen in the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, 1774-1824, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2005.
The Life of Saint Mary Magdalene and of her Sister Saint Martha, A Medieval Biography translated and annotated by David Mycoff, Cistercian Publications, 1989.