This Saturday, July 22, is the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalen (Magdalene), one of the most important figures (other than Jesus) to appear in the Gospels. Not much is actually known about her at all, though, and in some ways the Gospel accounts are not much help. There may be as many as seven different women named Mary in our four Gospel narratives; there may only be three or four. Scholars and others argue over whether Mary Magdalen and Mary of Bethany are the same person and, if so, is that Mary the same "sinner" Luke describes as the woman who washes the feet of Jesus. This last idea has been helped along over one school of thought around the origin of the name "Magdalen" and also by a sermon given by Pope Gregory 1 in the 6th century. (From this homily arose the notion of the Seven Deadly Sins, taken from the seven demons Jesus cast out of Magdalen.) There are other, wilder ideas about Mary Magdalen that have persisted throughout the ages, most recently in novels by Dan Brown.
Regardless of any of these ideas or traditions, there are some things about Mary Magdalen that we do know. She is mentioned more times than nearly any other of Jesus' disciples, Peter being the most notable exception. She was present with Jesus at multiple times throughout his earthly ministry. Most importantly, she was present at both his crucifixion and his tomb after the resurrection. John tells us the most poignant of these stories - after Peter and John have returned home from the empty tomb, Mary stays and stands there, weeping for her dear Lord. Jesus then appears and calls her by name. Mary then rushes with joy to tell the other disciples, "I have seen the Lord." (The photo above depicts this moment; it comes from the 12th century illuminated manuscript "The St. Alban's Psalter.")
Mary Magdalen is in many ways my favorite saint, at least among the named saints of the Church. (There are two unnamed characters in the Gospels for whom i have an even greater fondness, but they are a subject for another time.) She comes to Jesus out of life marked with difficulty and suffering, and her encounters with him transform her into perhaps the bravest and most faithful of his disciples. When the others flee at his arrest and dare not draw near the cross, Mary is there. When they leave the empty silent and not sure what to believe, she remains, and in her grief and loss, Jesus comes to her and reminds her that she is known to him, that she belongs to him, and he sends her to be the first witness of his resurrection.
For many in Christianity, this Saturday will pass with no mention or thought of Mary Magdalen, but we would do well to remember her and to give thanks for her faith and witness to our Lord.