Mary of Magdala: Significance in Christianity

Though Mary of Magdala played an important role in financially backing Jesus’ public ministry, and though Mary was also a prominent member of Jesus’ inner circle of 120 devoted followers, Mary’s significance comes from her final encounter with Jesus, the day He rose from the dead.

Here’s the way the apostle John described Mary of Magdala’s encounter with Jesus, by His empty tomb:

“Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she cried, she bent over to look inside the tomb, and saw two Messengers in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been, one was at the head, and the other at the foot.

“The Messengers said to her, ‘Dear Lady, why are you crying?’

“She said, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put Him.’

“Upon saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Dear Lady, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?’

“Mary thought He was the gardener. She said, ‘Sir, if you’ve carried Him away, please tell me where you’ve put Him, and I’ll go get Him.’

“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’

“She turned towards Him and said in Hebrew, ‘Rabboni!’ (Which means ‘Teacher.’)

“’Stop hanging on to me!’ Jesus said. ‘I haven’t returned to the Father yet! Go on—go to the fellow believers and tell them, “I am going back to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’

“Mary Magdalene went to the disciples and announced, ‘I’ve seen the Lord!’ She told them what He had said to her.” (“The Source” translation of the Bible by Dr. A. Nyland / John 20:11-18)

Think of Mary’s emotional state—the rawness of her anguish and grief, even despair. She was crying—that kind of crying that comes up from the depths of your inner being, racking sobs. Think of her physical exhaustion, and the unbearable pressure and horrific trauma of the past few days’ events. In this state, like touching an exposed nerve, Mary bent once again to look into Jesus’ empty tomb, knowing with dread that He would still be gone, and she would still be alone in her loss.

But, astonishingly, the tomb wasn’t empty. Two angelic beings sat on the stone ledge where Jesus’ body had been interred, one at the foot, and one at the head, by the neatly folded head clots. They spoke with great empathy and compassion, “Dear Lady,” sweet, sweet, tender heart. Where is this coming from? As Mary was talking to the angels she sensed a presence behind her. Maybe the angels looked passed her shoulder and she turned to look at what they saw. It was a man, simply and humbly dressed.

Here is a classic case of eyes seeing, but the heart and mind not comprehending. Maybe the Lord was not wearing a robe Mary would have recognized. Maybe she didn’t look at his face, just up in His general direction. Jesus repeated the angelic beings’ gentle words, the same honorific, spoken in tenderness, that Jesus had called His own mother. Mary heard Jesus’ words, in His voice, but she still didn’t recognize Him. Distraught, she blurted out her feelings, seeing through the man to her own heartache and sorrow.

Jesus responded with one word, her name.

Years before, Jesus had explained to His followers that those who knew and loved Him would always know His voice, and He would know every single one of them by name, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Mary was one of His sheep, she recognized her name in His voice.

Perhaps there was an even deeper meaning, for Mary. Only a few months before He had raised their close friend Lazarus up out of death by calling his name. Perhaps when Jesus had freed her of her demons, He had called her out of her own dark place and into His light by saying her name. What overwhelming joy!  As she said these things she flung her arms around Him and was probably holding Him in a tight hug, so incredibly happy to have Him back.

It’s hard to know what Jesus meant as He told Mary she had to stop hanging onto Him. We know the problem was not about touching Him, because Jesus invited others to touch Him on that day. But Jesus was moving Mary on to a new kind of relationship with Him. He would now be appearing out of nowhere and disappearing, because of the properties of His new body. He had many people to see. This was going to be a transitional time to when He would ascend into heaven to live there in His body, yet also live in every believer by the Holy Spirit. This new relationship would be more intimate, more abundant, a permanent and constant union.

Mary: The Apostle to the Apostles

In the meantime, though she would see Him again, she had a commission: go and tell. Mary came to belief as she immediately obeyed the Lord’s words to her

Interestingly, in Mary’s day women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Women were so low on the social scale that one rabbinical saying said “Let the words of the Law be burned rather than be delivered to women,” and another said “Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”

Isn’t it remarkable, then, that the first people the angels spoke to were the women who had arrived at dawn to anoint Jesus’ body, and the first person Jesus chose to reveal Himself to and speak with was this woman, whom He had delivered from seven demons. She was the first,

  • The first to see Jesus risen from the dead

  • The first to be called by name by the Good Shepherd

  • The first to touch the risen Lord

  • The first to receive the great commission, “He is risen, Christ is risen indeed!”

  • The first to deliver an eye witness account of the resurrection

The Lord Jesus values and honors women.

Do you feel like the lowest of the low, not really worthy, like all those other Christians you admire? You are in good company. Mary must have felt like that often enough too, not just because she was a lowly woman, but she was a woman who had to be delivered from demon possession. What awful things had she said and done before Jesus released her from that torment?

And yet look how Jesus honored Mary of Magdala! He released her from her old life, and now gave her His own life. His relationship with her would be even more intimate, when he ascended to heaven and sent His Spirit. And He waited to appear to her first, so that she might be the first one to carry the most profound and life-changing message there is--the Gospel. Jesus chose her above His own family, above His twelve carefully selected disciples, about His other closest friends and supporters. Jesus chose her.

You and I are invited into that same kind of relationship – not one where we physically can hold onto Jesus, but one that is conducted on a spiritual level and that is nurtured by spending time with the Lord Jesus in prayer and meditation, in the study and living out of His word, in the embracing of His community of beloved ones. You understand that He is always with you, and you hear Him calling your name. You know that He really loves you.

Mary of Magdala tuned her ears to the Shepherd’s voice when He spoke her name. In what ways can you and I better tune ourselves to Jesus’ voice?

All passages taken from the New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.