This is a reflection on the readings for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, The Mass of Easter Day.
It’s hard to imagine the devastation Jesus’ disciples must have felt the day he was crucified. While we read the Gospels with post-Resurrection lenses, knowing what happens after Jesus’ death, they experienced it in the moment with the weight of finality. Not only had Jesus died, which would be enough to derail their belief in him as Son of God, but he was publicly executed by crucifixion. This was a form of torture and death that Roman officials used against many Jews and enslaved people, with the intent that it would further traumatize anyone else thinking about causing trouble for the empire. Jesus’ followers were understandably terrified in addition to mourning his death.
It is against this backdrop that Mary Magdalene’s faithfulness and key witness to Jesus’ death and resurrection stand out.
Mary Magdalene has developed a questionable, even negative, reputation over the centuries. This inaccurate portrait of her develops from a homily of Pope St. Gregory the Great, in which he states his belief that she was the “sinful woman” in Luke 7 who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears. Gregory’s homily was not intended to malign her but to extol her as an exemplar of penitence by identifying her with an unnamed character in the Gospels. His idea eventually became cemented in the liturgy and in the broader mindset of Christians.
Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene later became known primarily as a sinner more than a penitent, even as a temptress and a prostitute. Many Catholics today view her with suspicion, or worse.
The Gospels paint a very different picture. She features mostly in the Passion narratives, but Luke 8 tells us that “accompanying [Jesus] were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources” (Luke 8:1-3). Sometimes it is thought that Mary Magdalene was especially sinful because she had had seven demons cast out, but demon possession was neither caused by nor a mark of sinfulness. It is possible that she had a significant illness that people of her time believed was caused by demons. This passage also says that Mary Magdalene was wealthy, part of a group of wealthy women who helped fund Jesus’ ministry. This is really all we learn about her until Jesus’ death on the Cross.
Jesus’ crucifixion was traumatic for his followers in more ways than one, so according to the Gospels only a few, such as Jesus’ mother, remained with him until he died. Mary Magdalene’s fortitude and faithfulness are shown there, at the foot of the cross, where she saw her Lord put to death as a criminal. In each of the four Gospels, a group of women is said to witness Jesus’ death on the cross, and in the three Gospels that provide names, Mary Magdalene is always listed as one of them (for example, John 19:25).
In Matthew and Mark, when Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” are there, and they witness his body placed in the tomb (Mt 27: 60-61; Mk 15:47). According to accounts of her from the Gospels, she witnessed both that he truly died and where he was buried.
Mary Magdalene remained Jesus’ faithful follower even after he died, when she could have given up out of fear of the consequences of being associated with a condemned criminal. In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is alone when she goes to the tomb and discovers it is empty. Other Gospels report that she saw where his body was buried, and her words in today’s reading imply that she believes someone must have taken his body because she knew where it had been. She tells Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him” (Jn 20:2). Peter and John then also witness the empty tomb, but none of the Gospels say they had seen his body placed there like Mary Magdalene had.
At this point in the narrative even Jesus’ body is gone—one more blow to the mourning followers of Jesus. According to John’s Gospel, Peter and John return home, but Mary Magdalene—faithful to the end—remains at the tomb, distraught and crying. Jesus then appears to her, and (after she mistakes him for the gardener!) he speaks her name: “Mary!” She recognizes him, saying, “My teacher.” This is the final piece of Mary’s witness: according to the passion narratives in the Gospels she witnesses every critical moment from Jesus’ death to his resurrection. She is at the cross when he dies, then observes his burial and the closing of the tomb. In John’s Gospel, remarkably, she alone is the first to discover the empty tomb, and she is the first to encounter Jesus after the Resurrection. “Above all, in John 20, she is the human figure who holds the events together.” Mary Magdalene is our star witness, the one who saw each of these crucial moments at the center of the Christian faith with her own eyes. How stunning it is, then, that she is ignored or even maligned by some Christians!
One might expect that Jesus would appear first to someone who played a more significant role in the book. After all, Mary Magdalene doesn’t show up in this Gospel until the end. From the viewpoint of the four Gospels, we only know that she had seven demons cast out of her and that she funded Jesus’ ministry. Why would Jesus appear to her first?
The simplest answer is that she was present. Saints are often known for doing extraordinary things. Mary Magdalene shows that something as ordinary as perseverance in staying close to Jesus, even in the midst of mourning and fear, can also be used by God for extraordinary purposes.
This Easter, as many of us are away from loved ones and possibly have not yet returned to Mass, it may feel like we are far away from Jesus too. Yet Mary Magdalene shows that faithfulness in the face of grief and trauma can lead to an unexpected encounter with Jesus and a profound purpose. In her case, Jesus told her to go tell the other disciples about him. So she went, Apostle to the Apostles, saying “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18).
 Gerald O’Collins, SJ, and Kendall, Daniel, SJ, “Mary Magdalene as Major Witness to Jesus’ Resurrection,” Theological Studies 48, no. 4 (1987): 645.