(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 varying ideas about the identity of Mary of Magdala. Secular historians have their views, as do novelists. What follows is not an attempt to compete with other theories. I offer for consideration the traditions transmitted to me, a western Catholic of the Roman rite, about Jesus’ most passionate disciple, Mary of Magdala).
Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus from the dead was a gauntlet thrown in the face of Jewish religious authority. The Pharisees were capable men. They realized events had reached a point where Jesus could not be allowed to continue his ministry. He had become more than inconvenient; he was a genuine threat to the Sanhedrin’s authority, and a force that could upset the delicate balance of power between the Roman and Jewish authority.
His entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) confirmed the peril. Jesus was becoming more provocative, and he had the people on his side. The Pharisees feared it was only a matter of time before Christ completely usurped their authority. Caiphas delivered the ultimatum: one man must die for many.
The heart knows things differently. It is likely that Mary Magdalene spent Christ’s last days in agony of what she knew would happen to her Savior. Blessed Sister Emmerich saw Jesus speaking of Magdalene to his mother: “She loves unspeakably, but her love is still encompassed by the body, therefore she has become like one quite out of her mind with pain.”
Sister Emmerich also saw Magdalene imploring Christ not to go to the Mount of Olives, for fear of being arrested. And she saw Christ, in his agony in the garden, reaching out in thought and spirit to his Mother and Magdalene, “for he knew,” according to Sister Emmerich, “that her (Magdalene’s) love for him, after that of His Mother, was greater than that of anyone else. He saw what she would have to suffer for him in the future, and also that she would never more offend Him.”
Matthew, Mark, and John all mention Mary of Magdala being present at the Crucifixion. We know from Scripture that the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John, and Mary Cleophas were also there. It is unlikely they materialized at Golgotha to witness only the end of Christ’s life. The gospel is silent on this point, but it is likely that at least the Blessed Virgin, St. John, and Mary Magdalene traveled Jesus’ path of sorrow where they were able to. Sister Emmerich and Maria Valtorta saw the three witnessing Christ’s scourging, part of his way of the cross, and his Transfixion.
Then they witnessed the death of Jesus. John says they were standing, but surely at the moment of death all knelt before the inscrutable providence of God. Perhaps it occurred to Mary Magdalene that, although her love for the Master was a tempest, the Lord’s love for souls was infinitely more extravagant than her love for him. She shuddered at the sound of hammer on nails, but now the nails were being driven out of the Master’s hands and feet, and he was gently laid in the arms of his mother. Sister Emmerich relates a touching scene where Mary gently washes all her son’s wounds, while Mary Magdalene
“remained at Jesus’ feet, bathing them for the last time, more with her tears than with water, and wiping them with her hair…she repeatedly wiped and anointed them, but only to bedew them again with her tears, and she often knelt long with her face pressed upon them.” Luke and Matthew tell us that Mary of Magdala observed the burial inside the tomb, and then remained sitting outside after the heavy rock was moved over the entrance.
Then Magdalene and the other holy women “went back and prepared aromatics and perfumes. And on the Sabbath they rested, in accordance with the commandment (Luke 23:56).”
The aromatics and perfumes were prepared for a final anointing of Jesus’ body. No one (except Jesus‘ mother) was anticipating a resurrection. Magdalene’s love for Jesus impelled her to visit him one last time. She knew that under Jewish law a tomb was permanently sealed after the third day. So, “on the very first day of the week,” St. John tells us, “very early, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. And she saw that the stone had been removed.”
Another dart pierced the heart of Mary. She assumed the Pharisees had stolen the Master’s body, perhaps to desecrate it. She ran to Peter and John with the lament: “The Lord has been taken out of the tomb; and we do not know where he has been laid.” (How did Mary know the tomb was empty? According to Luke, Mary was accompanied by the other holy women, who must have investigated the tomb and found it empty. Then Mary, being the youngest, ran to Peter.)
Peter and John verified the tomb was indeed empty, and returned (probably to Bethany), walking together in silence, John nursing a spark of hope. Mary, who either accompanied or followed them, remained outside the tomb weeping. After a while she looked in the tomb, and beheld two angels in white sitting where the Master’s body had lain. “Woman, why weepest thou?” the angels asked. Strangely, Mary seems not to have been surprised at the presence of angels. Her answer almost sounds weary: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.”
Mary’s mind and heart were so focused on Jesus that she turned away from the angels. Now she faced a man she did not recognize - perhaps a gardener? - who asked her again: “Woman, why weepest thou? Who seekest thou?” Mary implored the man: “Sir, if thou hast taken him away, tell me where thou hast laid him: and I will take him away.” Brave words, although how Mary would transport Jesus was unexplained.
The spell was broken with the word: “Mary.” The scales fell from her eyes as she heard the voice of her beloved Jesus calling her name. She did not swoon. She rejoiced, and her heart leapt, pounding as if it had never been wounded. “Rabboni!” she cried. We can guess what she did next: made her way for Jesus’ feet, which caused him to say, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren…”
On winged feet she flew to the apostles with the triumphant declaration: “I have seen the Lord.”
The earliest tradition concerning Mary of Magdala’s life after the resurrection has her moving to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin (and for a time, St. John) and dying there. The Greek Church maintains that her relics now rest in Constantinople.
A more popular, although later, tradition has Mary, Martha, and Lazarus being put in a boat without a sail or rudder, and cast out to sea by vengeful Pharisees. Providence guided the small craft safely to France. Landing in Marseilles, the three converted Provence, then Mary lived alone in a cave in the wilderness of St. Baume. For the last thirty years of her life she held vigils, fasted, did penance, and contemplated her Lord. Once more Mary had chosen the better part.
It is said that Mary was fed on the music of the celestial choirs in heaven, to where she was raised seven times a day by angels. As she neared death a hermit priest discovered her, and at her request, summoned St. Maximin, who gave the Mary of Magdala Viaticum on the day after Easter, which was the day of her death.
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, Cork University 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.