Red Hot Sinner

Have you ever been to Jerusalem? When you step out in early morn there is a chill in the air and by noon it’s so hot that you can hardly breathe and all you want to do is find a place that isn’t in the sun. This was Mary’s Magdalene’s world. She is probably “the most advertised” sinner in the bible. When you ask even the most biblically ignorant if they know who she is they will tell you something like: “Yes, that’s the prostitute.”   Well, maybe!   It seems that people tend to morph all the sinful women of the bible into one character and call her Mary Magdalene. There is no scholarly evidence to prove that the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned is Mary Magdalene. In a like manner, there is no real evidence to support that the woman weeping on Jesus feet and wiping them with their hair is Mary Magdalene. These are speculations, but there are things that we do know about Mary Magdalene that are clearly stated in the bible.

Mary is the woman from whom seven demons were cast out! Seven is the biblical number of perfection and it is interesting that Mark’s (16:9) mention of her specifies the number. Whatever her sin was, it was “whole hog”, a major infraction and “red hot” so to speak.   This could have well been working as a prostitute in the seedier precincts of Magdala, a port city. She was clearly a single woman with no mention of husband and family. Was she alone because she was an adulteress? Was she crazy? Maybe, but the biblical descriptions of her give no mention of either. Clearly it was unimportant. But seven is the number of creation. If Jesus cast out seven demons from her, then she was also seven times healed and seven times blessed. This is as dramatic as Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.

We also know that from the point of meeting Jesus that she kept company with the group of women who tended and followed Jesus and the disciples. Many of them were rich and provided for the group out of their own pockets (Mk 15:41). But The Magdalene, there was something about her that was “different”.   The “respectable women” who followed Jesus were always part of the group and never really singled out; they are named and specified by their status in society, i.e.; Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary the Mother of James and John. The Magdalene has no stature assigned to her. However, her story of conversion and extraordinary love of Jesus speak loudly in her actions and are completely detached from her past, checkered or not.   Magdalene witnessed without many words and she was undeterred when her words were ignored. She had a laser like focus on the Master. She must have loved him in an extraordinary way!

To expand on Mary Magdalene’s story we have to work backwards. The story of her healing and conversion comes last in the narrative of Jesus’ time on earth.   Her exorcism is only mentioned in the narrative about Jesus’ final agony. Odd, isn’t it? Her healing must have occurred somewhere at the beginning or middle of His ministry. There is no text to suggest she was a “Johnny come lately” to the movement. But her conversion had to be profound, whatever her background. Before Jesus breathed his last she is clearly mentioned as one who was present at the foot of the cross: “Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and John, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” (Mt. 27:56)   We also know that the Beloved Disciple was present there. This may seem like a poignant narrative of Jesus death but let us recall the circumstances regarding this scene.

At the height of his ministry, Jesus had thousands of followers. The Gospels tell us that on at least two occasions of ministry there were 5,000 present and then 7,000 present. The count in each case did not include women and children. And yet, at his death we have mention of this tiny little group. What choice did each of them have to make in order to be there? Courage in the face of danger, the reality of putting your life at risk! Even his closest friends did not show their faces or accompany him at the final hour.

The women were braver than all of them put together. This tiny group demonstrated exceptional tenacity. However, many of the women present had husbands and status, John was the lone man, but what about the Magdalene? She had no one and was clearly identified as one who was exorcised, not normal. Her courage is beyond belief, with no one to rely on or speak for her if she were arrested. Yet she clearly chose to remain in this place of peril. She is later identified again as one of the women who were bringing spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus body. She would not leave him. The next recorded information follows. On the third day, she is there present at the tomb again. She is distraught because his body is missing and she boldly questions the guards to tell her where they have taken him. Remember this is a woman by herself and the guards have been given orders to make sure that there were no disturbances at the tomb because of political reasons. It would have been simple for them to kill her under the guise of “following orders”. She must have know that. But her fervor is not diminished. She remains at the tomb hoping to get a clue to his disappearance, so that his body can be properly prepared, honored. She will not leave him.

The final and unmistakable affirmation of Jesus’ love and respect for her then occurs: “…he appeared first to Mary Magdalene.” (Mk 10:9) We know the story, she is weeping so that she only recognizes the approaching man as a gardener. The revelation for her comes as he speaks her name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni’, which means Teacher.” (Jn 20: 15-16) Have you ever been in a crowd of people while trying to meet someone? If you have, then you know that even when you can’t see them, if a loved one speaks your name it is instantly recognizable. The tangible fruit of your love, at your core, you recognize the way someone speaks your name. She replies with an affectionate nick-name and with what must have been unspeakable joy. As we know, God is God and how he chooses to do things is at his total will in time and space. His choice to reveal his resurrection was to this woman who was “exorcized of seven demons”. He could have appeared in public, to a crowd, to the cowering disciples, to his Mother, to the Emperor. But no, his choice is the Magdalene. His love and trust for her must have been enormous no matter where she “came from”. He even completes his respect for her by charging her as the one to carry this message to his disciples.

In an odd set of circumstances, she does as she is told and unbelievably enough is completely ignored: “When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.” (Mk 16:11)   No one knows exactly what the significance of this occurrence is but it brings questions to my mind: Was Mary Magdalene generally disrespected by the disciples? Was she dismissed because she was “just a woman”? Did some of his followers discount her because she was a sinner, crazy, a prostitute?   Once again The Magdalene is in the heat of it! She stirs controversy and even when she honors the Master with love and courage that no one else had, she is discounted. But nothing stopped her, she loves him beyond all logic, she will do his will no matter the consequence, she will lay down her life and dignity for him. Mary was much loved by Jesus. She came from a place that is still clouded with controversy. But one thing is certain, her conversion from most reviled to much loved was real. Jesus amazing decision to deliver the news of his resurrection to the world through Mary Magdalene was real.

Do you believe that you are most sinful, unforgivable, unredeemable, unchangeable, reviled, disrespected person, because of your past or present behavior? You’re not. Just like Mary Magdalene you have the same potential to become much loved and much trusted by Jesus himself. Turn to Mary Magdalene and ask how it’s done. She’s the unchallenged, undeniable expert. Mary Magdalene’s feast day is July 22.


Kathryn M. Cunningham

Kathryn M. Cunningham

Kathryn holds a Master’s in Education from Saint Xavier University. Most recently she completed Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies from The Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. This recent degree was part of a “retirement project” after teaching for 35 years. She has also worked as a spiritual director, music minister,council member and prayer team warrior. Kathryn has a deep interest in catechesis for the people in the pews. As a “sort of” convert she finds the wisdom of the Church a source for encouragement, joy and survival in a world not sure of anything. Her writing has appeared in diocesan publications and on-line sites, most recently for Zenit. To learn more about Kathryn check out her thinking at:">

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