Honoring St. Mary of Magdala by Gina Messina

Gina Messina-Dysert profileWhile I am joining the conversation a bit late, I find it necessary to comment on the significance of the “upgrading” of the celebration of  St. Mary of Magdala to a feast – on par with the male apostles.  While such a day that honors her is quite overdue, I am grateful to Pope Francis for acknowledging this incredible woman and her leadership in the Christian movement.

As we know from the Gospels, it was Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus, during his crucifixion.  When the male apostles ran in fear – and rightfully so – Mary of Magdala stood with Jesus refusing to disavow him and was a face of love for him to see during his darkest moment.

It was Mary of Magdala who was the first witness of Christ’s resurrection.  The very first Easter began with her and she was commissioned by Jesus to go and share the good news – to tell the other apostles – and that is why she is known as the apostle to the apostles.

What you may not know about Mary of Magdala is that she was a woman of means – an independent woman who chose to use her resources to support the mission of Jesus.  We know this from her very name – she is not called “Mary, daughter of” or “Mary, wife of” – she is Mary of Magdala – Magdala being her home town.

She was NOT a prostitute as Pope Gregory mistakenly claimed in the sixth century – a misreading of the Gospels that stuck for more than a millennium. And although the error was corrected in 1969, it was never announced and most do not know that in fact, Mary of Magdala was a radical independent woman who sought positive social change through her support for Jesus’ mission.

In claiming that she was  a prostitute and refusing to acknowledge such an error, her apostleship has been ignored and her voice silenced.

To call her – or any woman – a prostitute is to claim that she is a sinner, one who is lustful.  However, prostitution is in fact a sin of the objectification of women. In a society with few opportunities for economic stability for women, social structures leave some with little other choice than to participate in sex work.  And yet, such incorrect teachings about Mary of Magdala, and claims about prostitution in general leave us judging women who make difficult decisions for survival rather than acknowledging the truth of our patriarchal society.

It was this mischaracterization of Mary of Magdala that undermined her importance, power, and leadership in the early Christian movement.  To this day, many have no idea that she was not a prostitute.

And so, the “upgrading” of the celebration of St. Mary of Magdala to a feast is a critical moment – not only in the Catholic Church, but in our greater communities.  Finally, Mary of Magdala is being acknowledged for the true leader she is in our Church – a woman who was chosen by Christ as the witness to his resurrection and the apostle to share the good news. Could there be any more critical role in the founding of Christianity?

There is so much that we can learn from Mary of Magdala. While there have been many attempts to silence her, she was certainly not voiceless. Without her voice, with out her courage, her unwavering commitment to Jesus and his mission, there very well might be no Church today.  In the face of political backlash and injustice, she refused to back away from the call for liberation for all – not just some.

You may remember that Pope Francis said that women are the strawberries on the cake – well intentioned I am sure – but I’ll tell you, Mary of Magdala is no strawberry – she baked the cake. And it is through her example that we come to find our own responsibility to continue to be courageous in working for renewal in the Church.

There is no denying that women have distanced themselves from the Church – now more than ever, women’s participation is in a serious decline and continues to dwindle.  Why?  The answer is clear – patriarchal leadership and teachings – those that have silenced Mary of Magdala for more than a millennium have also worked to silence women and discount their value.  Teachings like complementarity that claims specific gendered roles for women and men – NOT an anthropological fact as Francis has claimed – refuse to acknowledge the many gifts that women have to share.  We have value beyond our wombs.

Our God is not a man, our God is not an overbearing father demanding to control our sexuality. And the Christian faith is not one that was founded on discriminatory ideas – such a claim is a distortion of faith.

While we hold so dear the image of Jesus at the last supper – surrounded by men – in truth Jesus shared his table with all – with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, sinners, Pharisees, Gentiles, – men AND women alike – and called for a society that reflected inclusion and liberation for all.

And so, we must follow the example of Mary of Magdala – who in the face of great danger stood her ground, honored her beliefs, and did not cower to the threats of a system that attempted to hold power over her.


Gina Messina, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at Ursuline College and Co-founder of Feminism and Religion. She writes for The Huffington Post, has authored multiple publications and is the co-editor of the highly acclaimed Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay. Messina is a widely sought after speaker and has presented across the US at universities, organizations, conferences and on national platforms including appearances on MSNBC, Tavis Smiley, NPR and the TEDx stage. She has also spoken at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations to discuss matters impacting the lives women around the world. Messina is active in movements to end violence against women and explores opportunities for spiritual healing. Connect with her on Twitter @FemTheologian, Facebook, and her website ginamessinadysert.com.


Categories: Catholic Church, Catholicism, Female Saints, Feminism, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality

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30 replies

  1. Molo sis’Gina (Xhosa greeting- sister Gina)

    I am interested in the ‘prostitution’ and demonisation of the female body in historical texts.
    I believe that prostitution is a perversion of female sexuality, and the great power the female possesses with her body to simultaneously give, and sustain life.
    Mary of Magdala, witnessing the resurrection, in effect restored life with her witnessing. The power is evident and should be more readily acknowledged in contemporary reflection.
    It is Women’s Month in South Africa, and at this time in our country such reflection needs to be given more attention.

    Enkosi, (Thank You).


    • Hi bertrandleopengpsychology4all,
      If you live in or near Johannesburg, please come and see my exhibition, CODEX MAGDALENE+ at the University of Johannesburg Art gallery. In it, I deconstruct the legendary Mary Magdalene by wiping the slate of misogynistic patriarchal personifications of her and cladding her anew as the bride and the beloved…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hello and thank you for your lovely comment! I am so glad that you and Majak connected! Enkosi!


  2. Thanks for telling us more about Mary and Pope Francis and the position of women in the church.

    I’ve read sources that say that Mary was the wife of Jesus and that the wedding at Cana was their wedding. That is, of course, the wedding in which they ran out of wine, so Jesus is said to have made some more. I’ve also read sources that say Mary was the sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. And I’ve read that it’s not Mark “the beloved” sitting so close to Jesus at that final sabbath supper but Mary, his wife. Of course she stuck with him while he was being tortured and killed. After Holy Blood/Holy Grail and some other–and more reliable–books came out, Mary of Magdala was, as I heard someone say, “the major babe of the Bible.”


    • HI Barbara, I know the theory you are sharing here. It was the major plot line of the Di Vinci Code. Dan Brown researched this from Holy Blood Holy Grail. I am not so sure I believe or agree with this. Although I do think it is questionable why Jesus would have never been said to be celibate or single – an oddity for a Jewish man living in his time. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Thanks for this fine post Gina! You mentioned: “There is no denying that women have distanced themselves from the Church – now more than ever, women’s participation is in a serious decline and continues to dwindle.”

    I’ve mentioned that I left the Catholic Church a number of years ago, because of the inequality there though at that time I was also a lay member of a convent community. Happily I had a mentor in the convent, a very compassionate Sister of Charity, and a teacher of world religions, who saw what was happening to me, so one day she quietly handed me a copy of the TAO TE CHING, and gave me a hug. So I did leave the Church, and I took up TAOISM as my path, and it works for me, and I love it profoundly.


    • HI Sarah, thank you so much for your comment and for sharing here! I am so interested in Taoism – I teach world religions and cover this tradition in the class. There is so much beauty to it and I think there is so much that we can bring into our lives. And as geeky as this may sound – I do love that “The Force” in Star Wars is based on Taoism!


  4. I am only now, belatedly, reading the gospel of Mary Magdalene, and I am truly touched. This gospel speaks to modern women so clearly, especially those in a nature centered religious focus. Lines like
    “All the elements of nature are interwoven and united with each other”;
    and “There is no sin. It is you who make sin exist..”
    and “Be in harmony”
    and “Allow no one to mislead you by saying: ‘Here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For it is within you that the Son of Man dwells.”
    and “Impose no law other than that which I have witnessed.”

    These are incredibly profound beliefs that could be incorporated into most feminist religious theologies very comfortably. It is sad indeed that Mary Magdalene’s gospel has not been made a part of church teachings.


  5. Thanks, Gina, for reporting on the sometimes one-step forward, one-step back movement of the
    Catholic hierarchy with respect to women, in this case Mary of Magdala. I believe we’ll get our due, but it’s going to take a long time inside institutions that have existed for centuries. That’s in part the reason that I’m no longer Christian. Practicing a goddess-centered religion that women are creating today (i.e. Wicca) supports me as a woman.


    • Hi Nancy, I absolutely appreciate where you are coming from. I love the Goddess traditions – reading Carol P. Christ and Starhawk changed my life. Yet, Catholicism continues to call me back. That doesn’t mean that I do not incorporate Goddess traditions into my own religious practice though. After learning about the Goddess, I can never let go.


  6. What a beautiful post, Gina. Thank you for enriching the conversation. I hope you will read my July 17 FAR post on the same subject. It shares the spirit of yours but from the point of view of Maeve Rhuad, my feisty fictional Magdalen. In The Maeve Chronicles, she offers a fresh (in every sense of the word) take on the story, her story, that is.


  7. Great exploration of MM. That said I do have a few points of disagreement with you regarding sex work and women that, due to limitation of space, I can only give a quick response (but plan on a more comprehensive post later). To begin, your use of caps in order to set the record straight that MM was “NOT” a prostitute immediately sets up a binary between moral/immoral women. It’s like saying had she been a prostitute how could she have also been “Apostle to the Apostles”? By identifying Mary as a “radical, independent woman,” you again draw a moral distinction between women and women as sex workers, as if they have absolutely no self-determination over their lives or bodies. As you know, I have been invested in the research of sex work for some time now with my own internal struggles. At first, like you, I “pardoned” women who engaged in sex work if they were trapped by economics and the catch-all term of patriarchy. How, I asked, could any woman willingly give herself over to bodily exploitation through sex work? Maybe she just needed a radical feminist to free her from the bondage of prostitution. What I have discovered is there are many, many women who willingly engage in sex work for all kinds of reasons. They are not forced, nor do they see themselves as victims waiting for abolitionist feminist to rescue them. Instead they are working toward the decriminalization of sex work in order to provide safe and just working conditions. Heck–even the UN now advocates for decrim.

    To single out prostitutes as sinners is only half the truth–all women, regardless of their perceived moral standing were the daughters of Eve and therefore theologically fractured. This was not created by the Judeo-Christian religions, but inherited from the Greeks, i.e. Men:Spirit, Women: Body, etc. That said, the distrust for women’s bodies has a very long legacy in Christianity. So to single out the prostitute as more immoral than another woman may not be the case, i.e. the adulterous woman needed to be stoned to death–while prostitution was legal.

    Finally, while I understand how the legacy of prostitution was used to marginalized Mary and her popularity, isn’t it time we cease cultivating the divisive split that sets-up a hierarchy of morality between women?

    Love you my sister!


    • Hi Cynthia,
      Yes, even if Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute she would still have been apostle to the apostles. However, by naming her a prostitute the church blackened her name and in the process, women’s sexuality. This is why it is important to say she was NOT a prostitute. Capitalizing the “not” is not to create a binary between moral an immoral women, but to clear Magdalene of a personification that has trapped her in abject penance for nearly two millennia.


    • HI Cynthie, I am so grateful for your comments here as they give me the opportunity to make some clarifications. First, I know you and I disagree on these points and I appreciate the dialogue!

      Let me clarify – the all caps of “NOT” – this was not about setting up a hierarchy of moral vs. immoral – but rather highlighting the fact that so many still get this wrong. Naming MM a prostitute undermined her role as a major leader in the founding of Church and very effectively silenced her voice. I think it is critical that we acknowledge who she was and how we have misidentified her for over a millennia.

      I absolutely agree that we should decriminalize sex work. But I also think it is critical that we examine the larger social structures in place that leave many women in a position with little choice other than to pursue sex work to keep their children from starving. Likewise, those same social structures deem those women as immoral – totally unacceptable and I certainly do not agree with such a mentality. But I do think we need to start with the larger social structures that oppress women and identify us a objects with little use other than to pleasure men and bear children. It is these structures that attempt to control our sexuality. They must be deconstructed.

      I would never deny a woman’s agency to make choices about her own body. There are women who are empowered by choosing sex work. But there are also women who are forced into sex work because of economic injustice – and with that comes so many other issues – our society is shaming and that has a strong impact on one’s self-concept.

      My point? It is not me who creates a hierarchy of moral vs. immoral – I completely disavow such a hierarchy. It is our rape culture that does so and thus, we must confront that and acknowledge the ways that it functions to silence and oppress women. MM is an example of this. As a feminist I am not trying to “rescue” women who have chosen sex work – but rather – acknowledge the structures that exist that leave so many women with little choice and then shame us for it.

      And I love you my sister! xo


      • Well said Gina. While I agree with the overall structure that hinders and limits women, it seems to me when we speak of women and sexuality there still remains a dualistic structure. How do we as women “own’ our bodies and sexuality absent the multiple troupes that accompany it? Just look at the hook-up culture and how women are condemned by men and women.

        Miss you!


      • Thanks for your bravery Gina. I have been debating whether to write on prostitution for FAR ever since the Amnesty International decision to favor simple decriminalization. The reason I haven’t is because I know how divisive this issue is among feminists, and I have not wanted to enter the fray. I have favored the Nordic model since I learned about it, arresting johns and promoters/pimps, but not the women, and providing help for the women to find other means of employment and self-esteem. The Nordic model moves the discussion away from choice and asks what kind of society we want to envision. Advocates of the Nordic model state that they don’t want a society in which men feel they have a right to purchase women for sexual favors. They state that this is inherently objectifying and demeaning. I have also been reading statements from former sex workers about the choice they made (these were among the few who had a real choice) and they say that sex work almost inevitably leads to a loss of agency and self-esteem as most prostitutes end up having to perform types of sex acts they would not choose with men who view them as “nothing.” There is also the German experience with decriminalization, which has led to the importing of vast numbers of trafficked women and girls, many of whom are placed in mega-brothels, and to the normalization of prostitution to the point that boys in groups celebrate their high school graduations with parties in brothels. I find it difficult to imagine that these boys respect the women in the brothels or to imagine that this behavior does not affect their views of women in general. Speaking of choice, one former sex worker noted that women make a lot of bad choices (such as to stay with batterers) and that just because a woman chooses to do something does not mean that the choice is good for her in the short or long run. I add that the buying and selling of sex is not a part of living matriarchal cultures, such as the Mosuo.


  8. Interesting that you, Gina, view Mary Magdala as preaching a version liberation theology. “Mary of Magdala was a radical independent woman who sought positive social change through her support for Jesus’ mission.” Are there any texts for this, or do you read back from a (liberation theology) interpretation of the early Christian message the assumption that this would have been what MM was preaching? The Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) dated in the second century (ie perhaps as little as 50 years after her death) suggests (to this reader in any case) that she was teaching a mystical-philosophical theology that did not focus on liberation of the poor so much as liberation of the mind from false ways of thinking that entrap it. Now we could argue that this was not her true teaching or even not the right interpretation of the text attributed to her, but don’t we need the argument? It seems to me that the starting point for thinking about her teaching would be her (ineffable?) experience of the risen-living Jesus. The non-cannonical mystical texts (seem to me to) attempt to explain it, but then we must also ask, are the words attributed to her really hers?

    I would add: Do we know for sure that Mary is identified as “of” Magdala because she was independently wealthy? Or could the fact that she is not identified as “of” a father, brother, or husband, be a recognition of her independent role in the early church?

    Nonetheless Mary of Magdala’s elevation by the Pope could be a small step toward the ordination of women, insofar as it begins to deconstruct the notion of 12 male apostles as the basis of a male-only priesthood.

    Disclaimer, I have been reading this book https://www.amazon.com/Meaning-Mary-Magdalene-Discovering-Christianity/dp/1590304950 which presents a mystical interpretation of MM and the Christian message.


    • Hi Carol, I so appreciate what you say here and I need to read that book! You’ve given me a lot to think about. This said, Elizabeth Johnson speaks at length about Mary of Magdala and she is one who has repeatedly argued her independent wealthy status. I’ll find the texts that discuss MM as preaching a liberative message. Also, I do focus on the tradition as one that is founded on liberation and believe that those who engaged Jesus’ mission were very much focused on that message. But there is research that theorizes this as well.


      • Hi Gina, just to add, I was very disappointed when I read the Gospel of Mary (Magdalene) only to find that it seemed to me that MM was advocating a form of the Platonic dualism between mind or spirit and body that Rosemary Ruether has criticized. I am not a scholar on this subject, but if we accept that these words are something like what she preached, I think we might have to struggle to make her a liberation theologian.


  9. Gina, Thank you so much for this article… I am filled with Mary Magdalene at this time of exhibiting my Codex Magdalene+ in Johannesburg after a visual dance with her/image these past twenty years…


  10. Thanks, Gina, for a rich reflection, and thanks to all who responded. The discussion has been rich as well.


  11. I’m wondering if our thoughts about prostitution are cemented into Western ideas about sex (as “naughty”, “dirty”, “sinful”, “only for making babies” etc. When I first read this post, I was reminded that Israel’s great sin or temptation was the worship of other gods, and the “sacred prostitutes” of neighbouring religions. Unfortunately, many of the men in the closed system of the RC hierarchy seem obsessed with sex in a very unhealthy and limited fashion.

    The ideas about Mary as a woman of wealth are based on the usual lack of named women in the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures, and their being identified by their relationship to a male. Mary is not only named on her own, identified by her city which was a centre for expensive dyes (I think that was Magdala’s fame) but also had sufficient wealth to fund Jesus and his group of followers who had left their jobs to follow this rabbi. No husband is named for her, which is unusual. If she and Jesus were married, ( who knows!) it would be more believable to me before Jesus’ public ministry, with Mary wealthy enough to support her husband’s mission. It would also be helpful if a man with ideas that were so opposed to the elite powers of his day had a powerful spouse/patron standing with him.

    MM is certainly unique in her authority and place in the early communities. The fact that she, and women, were soon pushed to lower status indicated to me that there was somewhere to push them from. The early church met in homes, often the homes of women. The admonition to women not to speak in the assembly means they were speaking/preaching/leading the churches.

    I still identify as Roman Catholic and cherish those customs and history that are life giving while discarding (but not denying) the patriarchal, unhealthy, unjust things said and done. I sometimes think large portions of Christianity have divorced Jesus of Nazareth. I also learn from and appreciate other faith traditions and firmly believe there is no “one, true church”. I no longer participate in parish liturgies because usually, the “god” being prayed to is not the One I know and the hierarchical structure seems unhealthy to me…whether it is patriarchal or matriarchal. In some places people like me gather together in homes, as equals, “without benefit of clergy”. There are probably other models of community evolving. The future looks interesting!


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