Apostola apostolorum

There is a difference of opinion in Eastern and Western tradition regarding St Mary Magdalene. In the writings of St Gregory the Great and the Latin tradition more generally, the Magdalene is a major figure in the New Testament, the “apostle of the apostles” and, according to St Catherine of Sienna, the greatest saint after Our Lady. In the East, the texts held by Western fathers to refer to St Mary Magdalene are divided up between four different women. The Eastern tradition holds that the woman who stood at the foot of the Cross and was then the first witness to the Resurrection is a different woman to the sister of Lazarus who anointed Jesus on the Saturday before Holy Week. The East holds that the woman who anointed Jesus in Galilee in Luke 7:37–50 is not the same woman as Mary the sister of Lazarus or the woman recorded in Mark 14:3–9 and Matthew 26:6–13. Thus, for example, St John Chrysostom arrives at four different women. This is because he believes, quite rightly, in the inerrancy of Scripture, and takes Mark 14 and Matthew 26 to be stating that the anointing they describe occurred two days before Passover (Spy Wednesday). As John 12:1–8 explicitly says the anointing by Mary (the sister of Lazarus) took place six days before Passover, he assumes it must be a different event. But in fact, Matthew and Mark never say that their anointing took place two days before Passover. They say rather that Judas’s betrayal of the Lord took place then, and then they describe the event which triggered it. So that gets us down from four to three.

Our false friends, the modernist biblical critics, want to get us down to two. They assume that all the anointings recorded in the four Gospels are garbled versions of the same event. They seek to establish that some event of the sort may have happened but when and how and with what significance is irrelevant and irrecoverable. What really matters is the story’s significance to the early community blah blah blah….

Proceeding on the basis of the inerrancy of Scripture, we know the following facts:

1. A sinful woman of the city anointed Jesus’s feet at the house of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee as a sign of her repentance and love for the Lord in Luke 7.

2. Mary Magdalene, named as such, appears first in Luke 8 (immediately after the account of the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Galilee) where she is among a group of women said to travel with and financially assist the Lord. She also appears at the Crucifixion and is the first witness to the Resurrection. She is also presumably among “the women” in the upper room praying with the apostles before Pentecost.

3. Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus sits at the feet of Jesus in Luke 10:38–42 and is told she has chosen the better part. She is then somewhat offended in John 11:1–45, when Jesus does not come to her home in Bethany in time to save Lazarus (unlike Martha, she remains within the house when the Lord arrives). She then witnesses her brother’s resurrection from the dead. Finally, she anoints the Lord’s feet in John 12. In Matthew 26, she also anoints the Lord’s feet, while in Mark 14 she is said to have anointed His head (Matthew and Mark specify that this occured in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper).

To suppose that the woman in Luke 7 is not Mary the sister of Lazarus is implausible. On both occasions, the anointing is of the feet (on the second also of the head) of the Lord. On both occasions the anointing takes place during a meal at the house of a man called Simon. If these are not the same event (and they are not) then there is a dramatic re-enactment of the original event in the same context. It is quite reasonable to suppose that, just as the first anointing represented repentance, so the second represents the renewal of the same sentiment in the wake of Mary’s doubt of the Lord after the death of her brother.

This leaves us with the possibility of either one or two women: Mary Magdalene witness to the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and Pentecost, from whom the Lord cast out seven devils (Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2); and Mary of Bethany, who twice anointed the Lord, chose the better part and witnessed the resurrection of her brother. It is clear that if Mary of Bethany is the woman of Luke 7 (and it seems she is) then she was once a notorious sinner. In the West, it has been assumed that the casting out of seven devils coincides with Mary’s moral conversion, reemphasising the identification of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.

This is the state of the question. But perhaps there is a crucial hint concealed in John’s account of the anointing at Bethany. It is often assumed that the women returned to the tomb on Easter morning in order to anoint the Lord’s Body because it was not anointed on Good Friday because of the Sabbath. But the New Testament never says this. In fact, John tells us.

“Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”

John 19:38–40

There is no sign here that the Lord’s Body was not properly anointed. Indeed, Luke tells us the women witnessed this event.

“The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”

Luke 23:48–56

It is clear the women were unable to anoint the Lord themselves but it is also clear they “saw the tomb, and how his Body was laid” and we know from John that the Lord’s Body was indeed anointed “according to the burial custom of the Jews”.

Why then did Mary Magdalene and the other women return to the tomb after the Sabbath to anoint the Body of the Lord if they knew it had already been anointed?

Because Jesus told her to.

In John 12, when Judas objects to Mary (“of Bethany”)’s anointing of the Lord on the Saturday before Holy Week, Jesus replies, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). This is a remarkable comment if Mary never did anoint the Lord’s Body on the day of His burial. But we know Mary Magdalene could not do so because the Sabbath came too quickly. Nor could she fulfil the Lord’s command on the evening of Good Friday by assisting Joseph and Nicodemus, because she did not have time to obtain the ointment that the Lord had told her to keep for His burial. This is why Mary, even though she had witnessed the anointing by Joseph, returned when the Sabbath was over to repeat the ritual.

Clearly these events make sense only if Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same person.

But does this mean that Mary failed in her mission, arrived late, and was never able to accomplish the task assigned her? I would argue not. Drawing on the teaching of St Catherine of Sienna, Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life, argues that the apostles entered into the three stages of the spiritual life at three crucial moments in the New Testament.

They entered the purgative way with their original call by Jesus. Then, after passing through the dark night of the senses when they abandoned Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, they entered the illuminative way when they met Him after the Resurrection. Finally, after passing through the dark night of the spirit when the Lord Ascended into Heaven, they entered the unitive way on the morning of Pentecost.

Perhaps the unified Western view of the Magdalene leads us to see the same events in her life. For her conversion (and so entry into the purgative way) clearly comes with the first anointing recorded in Luke 7. What if the dark night of the senses came with her apparent abandonment in John 11 when the Lord did not come to rescue her brother, and her entry into the illuminative way with her second anointing of the Lord at Bethany? What then of the third anointing, why does it appear never to occur?

When Jesus greets Mary in the Garden outside the tomb she is told, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (John 20:17) It is not clear why she may not touch Him as the Lord allows the eleven to touch Him later. But even stranger is the reason He gives: “I have not yet ascended to the Father”. Why will it be permissible to touch Him when He is inaccessible to our bodies in the Empyrean Heaven, but not on Easter Sunday or the forty days thereafter when His risen Body is on earth?

I would suggest that Jesus tells Mary not to touch Him because He has not removed from her the command to anoint His Body, which is still to be fulfilled. The reason why the Lord leaves the earth at the Ascension is because “it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). He does not want His disciples to be too attached to His visible presence. He wants them to join Him in spirit before He raises their bodies from the tombs. It is this second loss of the Lord’s physical presence that leads the Apostles into the second dark night and prepares them for the coming of the Spirit and the entry into the unitive way. But this final perfection is preceded by nine days of prayer, and it is during these nine days after the Ascension that the New Testament indicates for the last time that Mary Magdalene is present. “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” (Acts 1:14)

Thus Mary Magdalene (the one and only apostle of the apostles) accomplishes the third anointing of the Lord’s Body and enters into the unitive way, not through the physical anointing of His sacred Flesh, but through procuring by her prayers — united to those of the twelve and the Mother of God — the anointing of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, through the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them on the morning of Pentecost itself.

Apostle of the apostles, pray for us!