We used to celebrate this day (Feast of St. Mary Magdalene on July 22) only as an optional Memorial. Meaning, the celebrant had the option at Mass either to commemorate the Saint or not. On June 10, 2016, Pope Francis elevated this day into a Feast Day on the same level of importance as the Feasts of the Holy Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul.
In doing this, Pope Francis affirmed the historical fact that there were women among the apostles, and most likely, their leader was Mary from the town of Magdala, otherwise known as the Magdalene, who, unfortunately, has been mistakenly caricatured as a former prostitute.
I have no intention of denigrating the women disciples of Jesus who may have been former prostitutes. A lot of widows during the time of Jesus ended up in prostitution in their desperate effort to feed their children. Remember this was a time when women were still totally dependent financially on their husbands.
They were among the people Jesus had a soft spot for, because he knew that they tended to be victimized and often ended up in prostitution. That is why the apostles made sure that the widows among the members of the early Christian communities were looked after by the deacons, precisely so that they would not fall back into prostitution.
There was one such character in chapter 7 of the Gospel of Luke. She sneaked into a party and gave Jesus what we might call today a “foot spa”. In Luke 7:38, the Gospel writer tells us “she stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.” This could only mean that the host had asked Jesus to recline the Roman way. Meaning, Jesus did not immediately see her standing behind him “at his feet”. But the fact that he did not stop her from giving him a foot massage had so scandalized the host about Jesus’ integrity as a rabbi.
Please take note that that woman had nothing to do with Mary Magdalene. The reference to her happens to be just a few verses away from the first reference to Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of Luke — at the opening of chapter 8, where Luke introduces the women disciples in the inner circle of Jesus. Unfortunately, one pope made the mistake of connecting these references together and equating the said prostitute with Mary Magdalene. It is probably one example of a fake news that almost came to be accepted as fact in Church history. She was not a prostitute, period.
I suspect that it was this equation that had caused the significance of Mary Magdalene in Church history to be diminished. Luke seemed to have known the background of Mary Magdalene well. In Luke 8:2 he identifies her as one of the women “who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” Specifically, about Mary, he says she was the woman “from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons”. A few days, ago, I told you that during those times, long before the age of modern psychology, people simply referred to those who showed symptoms of mental health issues as “possessed by demons.”
Scholars are therefore more inclined to believe that Mary Magdalene was a psychotic or mentally deranged, and that — thanks to Jesus’ intervention — her sanity was restored. Because she is always first in the list given by the evangelists, scholars are inclined to believe that she must have served as the team leader of the women disciples in the core group of the Jesus movement. In Luke 8, her other companions are identified as Joanna and Susanna, along with “several other women”. At the crucifixion scene, as told by all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene is consistently present. But there are variations in the identities of her women companions: in Lk. 24:10, her companions are Joanna and Mary, Mother of James. In Mk. 16:1, the third woman character is Salome instead of Joanna.
Why is it significant that Pope Francis had restored Mary Magdalene to her original importance as an “Apostles to the Apostles”? Because despite the radical move of Jesus to recruit women disciples in his movement, later Christianity would be overpowered again by the tendency to return to an androcentric and patriarchal culture that would deprive women of their important roles in the life of the Church and their participation in leadership and mission in the Church.
Actually, already in the time of Jesus himself, the very idea of a Rabbi having women disciples was not acceptable in Jewish culture. Remember that story in Luke 10, when Martha was banging her pots and pans in the kitchen and asking Jesus to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen? What was she reacting to? She was actually reacting to Mary her sister “sitting at the feet of the Rabbi,” meaning, aspiring to become a rabbi herself. Martha was verbalizing what the typical traditionalists of her time thought of women: that they were good only for kitchen chores and bearing children. Jesus was way ahead of his time; what he was doing was socially unacceptable.
Paul was being true to Jesus’ orientation when he said in Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
We have had many great women in Church history: St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare, St. Joan of Arc, St Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Hildegard of Bingen. Among contemporary women we have Faustina Kowalska, Dorothy Day, Helen Prejean, Chiara Lubich, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
We have our own great women Church leaders, pastoral workers, formators, social advocates and theologians in the Philippines. On this important feast day of this great Woman Apostle to the Apostles, St. Mary Magdalene, I can only wish and pray, that with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church would mature well enough to let go of her androcentric and patriarchal tendencies. May we become more and more disposed to recognize the many gifts and charisms God has bestowed on women in the Church, so that they could play their active roles and participate more fully, more meaningfully and more effectively in the apostolic life and mission of our local Churches and the Universal Church.
This is a homily delivered by Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan on the occasion of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, on July 22, 2020, Wednesday of the 16th Week in Ordinary Time.