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St Mary Magdalen (22 July)

Today (22 July) we celebrate St May Magdalen, who has been called ‘apostle to the apostles’ (apostolorum apostola) for she was the first to see the empty tomb and proclaim the joyful tidings of the Resurrection to the Twelve.

St Mary Magdalen is, however, a most confusing figure. From much of Christian history, three Biblical characters have been merged together: Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus) and the woman caught in adultery in St Luke’s Gospel. St Mary Magdalen was thus cast as a reformed prostitute and adulteress, a model of penitence for future generations. As such, she has been much depicted in art; at times it was even fashionable to be painted as the ‘Magdalen’ – those who posed in this way included four of Charles II’s mistresses and Nelson’s former sweetheart, Lady Hamilton.

In recent decades, the merger of these different Gospel figures has been less pronounced and Mary Magdalen is seen primarily as a close disciple of Jesus, one of the few to accompany Him to Calvary and the first witness of the Resurrection.

Tradition holds that she ended her life in the south of France, preaching the Gospel in the area of Marseille and Aix and living as a hermit. We will never know for sure if this is what happened but how fitting that the first witness of the Resurrection and the apostle to the apostles should want to spend the remainder of her days contemplating this great mystery and consorting with angels? In the words of Rabanus Maurus she ‘so loved Christ and was so greatly loved by Christ’.

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