Mary Magdalene: Empowered Leader, Teacher, Apostle
by The Rev. Mary Hardy
Mary of Magdala appears in all four New Testament Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as the courageous woman who allowed Jesus to heal and transform her into the fullness God created her to be. Their relationship was a close, trusting companionship in spreading Jesus’s teachings and in honoring each other’s gifts. Mary Magdalene’s strength and her devotion to Jesus allowed her to transcend the restrictive roles of women in that day to become leader of the women who traveled with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem. Whenever scripture speaks of these female disciples on the road with Jesus, Mary Magdalene heads the list. In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8), Mary Magdalene is named first, along with Joanna and Susanna, as prominent figures in that inner circle of leadership, serving Jesus “out of their means,” and sharing the tasks of spreading the gospel along with the male disciples.
When other disciples were running away in fear, Mary Magdalene stands firm as a steadfast friend and partner with Jesus in their shared ministry. She stays with him, witnessing his death on the cross. Remaining with him in his death, she witnesses his resurrection. In all four gospels she is identified by name as the first witness of the resurrection. In John 20:1-18, in the Easter garden, the Risen Christ calls Mary Magdalene by name, “Mary,” and commissions her as first witness and first apostle to go and announce publicly his resurrection: “Go and tell my brothers….” The meaning of “apostle” is “one sent by God.” Mary Magdalene runs to the disciples, who are in hiding, with the good news of resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!” Then she tells them the things he said to her. The Early Church called her “Apostle to the Apostles.”
We do not know for sure what happened to Mary Magdalene after the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, an early Christian text that scholars date around the time of the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene is the strong spiritual teacher of the male apostles after Jesus’s death. Because Mary Magdalene has fully integrated the teaching she received from Jesus – to stay in close communion with Jesus in that heart space within which death cannot touch – she is able to embrace and encourage the fearful and sequestered as she conveys this teaching about Jesus’s ongoing presence. She commissions them, as the Risen Christ commissioned her, to go out and spread the gospel.