Happy Easter! The reality of the glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to our Catholic faith and something to be joyfully celebrated. Today, I want to reflect on how the story of the first Easter highlights the dignity of women through the person of Mary Magdalene.

Before I begin, I would like to establish that Jesus’ entire ministry revealed the dignity of women. First and foremost, his public ministry started at the behest of his blessed mother at the wedding feast of Cana, even after telling her that his “hour had not yet come” (Jn 2:4). From the very start, we see a 30-year-old man attentive and obedient to his mother in a patriarchal society. While he is the one doing the ministry work — in this case, changing water into wine — we see the feminine genius quietly and subtly orchestrating things behind the scenes, not seeking the spotlight for herself.

Then, during the remainder of Jesus’ ministry, passion, and death, we see the gospels filled with examples of women being included. We see him healing women like he did for the woman who had been crippled for 18 years, and he did it on the Sabbath no less, which was breaking another societal rule (Lk 13:10- 14). We see him saving the woman caught in adultery from being stoned to death, as was customary at the time, and mercifully inviting her to change her sinful ways (Lk 8:3-11). We also see Jesus having a private and intimate conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. He reveals to her that he is the prophesied messiah, and the disciples are shocked to find the two of them together (Jn 4:7-27). We see him form close friendships with women, such as Martha and her sister, Mary (Lk 10:38-42). As Jesus travels in his ministry, he is not only accompanied by his male disciples, but also by several women, like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. They not only followed him, but also funded his ministry with material resources (Lk 8:1-3). After the death of Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, Mary fell to Jesus’ feet. Her weeping stirred up a great deal of emotion in his own heart and he raised Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:28- 44). Finally, at his crucifixion, when all the apostles except John fled in fear, we see women, including Mary Magdalene, keeping vigil and supporting him through his death (Mt 27:55-56).

While not selected as one of the twelve apostles, Jesus still shared a special relationship with Mary Magdalene. He had driven seven devils out of her, which facilitated her conversion (Lk 8:2). Many scripture scholars believe that the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet and anointed them with oil was Mary Magdalene and that she was acting in gratitude for how he had changed her life (Lk 7: 36-38). Mary Magdalene adored Jesus, followed him, provided for him, sat at his feet to listen to his every word, and stayed with him through his passion and death.

Mary’s love and devotion found its ultimate reward early in the morning on the first Easter. Jesus died right before sundown on Friday, which meant the Sabbath was about to begin, and adequately caring for Jesus’ body would not be possible until the Sabbath was over. He was buried hastily, which undoubtedly caused Mary Magdalene much distress as she waited for time to pass. She was so anxious to go and tend to this man she loved so much that she started out to the tomb before sunrise (Jn 20:1). Her rush to tend to him, combined with the apostles still hiding in fear, resulted in Mary being the first to discover the empty tomb. Of course, Mary was confused and frightened, thinking that his body had been moved or stolen by people who did not love Jesus, and she wept.

In this private, intimate, and emotional moment, Jesus revealed his resurrected body to Mary before anyone else. I will note here that many theologians believe that Jesus first revealed himself to his mother, likely at home, which would explain why she was not among the women rushing to anoint his body in the tomb. However, his first documented revelation was to Mary Magdalene, which remains historically and theologically significant. Jesus could have gone anywhere and presented himself to anyone, yet he chose to share this moment with Mary Magdalene. Then, when she did not recognize him at first, all it took was for him to say her name to open her eyes to the reality before her (Jn 20:16). The good shepherd calls his sheep by name, and they recognize his voice, and it is with Mary that we see how this works (Jn 10:2-4).

As if this beautiful moment were not enough for Mary to treasure in her heart forever, Jesus elevates her dignity even further. He tells Mary to be the one to go to the apostles and deliver the good news (Jn 20:17). Like his mother at the wedding feast at Cana, Mary is entrusted with the quiet and subtle, yet profoundly important, honor of ushering in the miracle of the Resurrection. For this reason, the Church has honored Mary Magdalene with the title of “Apostle to the Apostles” and she is the only person – woman or man – with such a title.

In studying Mary Magdalene’s role in Jesus’ mission, St. Thomas Aquinas concluded that despite her earlier sinful life, she had been elevated to an angelic dignity by the end, saying:

Note the three privileges given to Mary Magdalene. First, she had the privilege of being a prophet because she was worthy enough to see the angels, for a prophet is an intermediary between angels and the people. Second, she had the dignity or rank of an angel insofar as she looked upon Christ, on whom the angels desire to look. Third, she had the office of an apostle; indeed, she was an apostle to the apostles insofar as it was her task to announce our Lord’s Resurrection to the disciples. Thus, just as it was a woman who was the first to announce the words of death, so it was a woman who would be the first to announce the words of life. – Lectura super Ioannis, caput 20, lectio 3

Before concluding, there is one more point regarding how significant it was that Jesus entrusted a woman with announcing the Resurrection. If the gospel writers had been writing a fictional story to create a cult following, they would not have used a female character as the first to encounter the risen Christ. We have extensive writing from the Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus, born in Jerusalem in 37 AD, who stated that women’s testimony should not be trusted.

But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the levity and boldness of their sex. Nor let servants be admitted to give testimony, on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment. – Antiquities of the Jews, Book 4, Section 19

Jesus would have known this about the culture in which he lived and he still gave Mary this honor, highlighting her dignity as a woman, and the authors of the gospels preserved it, knowing how it would call the truth of the events into question. While our modern culture likes to claim that scripture is antiquated and that women were suppressed, we can counter that it was women who were granted some of the highest honors and roles in Jesus’ mission and the establishment of the early Church.

If you would like to read more about St. Mary Magdalene with extensive scriptural support, I recommend an excellent book called St. Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love by Fr. Sean Davidson.

This week, reflect on how you can love Jesus more deeply, using Mary Magdalene as a model. In what concrete ways has Jesus responded to your devotion by elevating your dignity and giving you special gifts to use for his greater glory?

Pray the Chaplet of St. Mary Magdalene here or here.

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