There are just twelve references to the woman known by the name Mary Magdalene in the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. When read consecutively, they can produce a sense of confusion and even shock in the reader who has come to develop an image of Mary Magdalene without actually closely examining the Bible. Where is the penitent sinner? The sister of Lazarus and Martha? The prostitute? The adulteress? She is nowhere to be found by the name of Mary Magdalene in the pages of the New Testament. Cleared from the conflations with stories of other women (some who are also named Mary), the portrait of the Magdalene painted from the words of the Gospel writers is very, very different than our inherited images of the penitent sinner with long, flowing hair and a sensually sobbing (and often bare) bosom.
While the Gospel writers are notoriously at variance with one another about many of the details of Jesus’s life, death and ministry throughout their narratives, all of the stories around Mary Magdalene coalesce around only three unified themes: she was a faithful follower of Jesus; she was present at the crucifixion; she was a privileged witness of the resurrection. While the writers are at odds about who else-- and if anyone else- -was present at the tomb, they are unanimous about her presence. In the words of Biblical scholar Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene is “one of the most consistent, stable elements in the New Testament resurrection narratives as a whole”.
The Canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John differ on most of the details of the Resurrection narrative. Who was there, what time of day it happened, what exactly transpired: all of those details deviate substantially from one telling to the next. What is consistent are the references to Mary Magdalene's presence, where she is named in every single Gospel account. She is there at the cross, faithful and devoted while the male disciples have fled in fear. She is there, faithful and devoted, as she witnesses Jesus's horrific suffering and agonizing death. She is there, faithful with love, as his body is taken down from the cross. Faithfully, she arrives first at the tomb to prepare Jesus's body for burial. Is it any wonder that in response to such courage and faith and devotion, Mary Magdalene is the disciple chosen to be the first witness to the Resurrection?
In our modern world, the word passion usually means an intense (and often sexual) feeling of love and desire. Five hundred years ago, it also meant suffering, particularly the suffering of those who die for love of God. The Passion of Jesus was the seed of renewal for Western drama.
Beginning in the 5th century, theater was banned by the Catholic Church. It had been associated with the Greek god Dionysus and was thought to be pagan and morally dangerous. For five hundred years, the only publicly performed and sanctioned "drama" to be found throughout continental Europe was the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Marriage at the altar by a priest. Beginning in the tenth century, however, elements of staged drama began to creep back in to Western Europe. The monks of St. Benoit-Sur-Loire in France are generally credited with creating the first dramatic production of the Easter story. In an attempt to make the experience of the Easter service more emotionally charged and meaningful, certain parts of the Resurrection story were enacted. In a darkened church, a fire was kindled, torches were lit and three women, led by a singer playing Mary Magdalene, arrived at a prop standing for an empty tomb. In the most elaborate forms of this proto-drama, choirs on opposite sides of the church doors sang back and forth to one another with the following paraphrase from the Gospel of Luke:
Angels: "Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O followers of Christ?"
Mary and companions: "Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, O Heavenly Ones."
Angels: "He is not here, He has arisen as He foretold: Go, announce that He has arisen from the grave."