‘Tis the season for essays and reflections about Mary, the mother of Jesus. But let’s contemplate for a minute the Bible’s other great Mary, Mary of Magdala. Or as she’s commonly referred to, Mary Magdalene. Her life and her faithfulness are a witness in this Advent season of light breaking through darkness and hope appearing where it’s least expected.
Before we look at who Mary Magdalene was, let’s make sure we know who she was not. Biblical scholars have dispelled the myth that she was a prostitute or the “woman… who lived a sinful life” who anoints Jesus with perfume in Luke 7:36-38. It’s commonly understood that in his 33rd homily, Pope Gregory I preached that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany (who anoints Jesus in John 12:3), and this unnamed repentant woman were the same person. He wrote, “The one that Luke calls a sinner, and that John names Mary (see John 11: 2), we believe that she is that Mary of whom, according to Mark, the Lord has cast out seven demons (cf Mk 16: 9). And what are these seven demons, if not the universality of all vices? Since seven days suffice to embrace the whole of time, the number seven rightly represents universality. Mary had seven demons in her, for she was full of all vices.”
He goes on to write, “It is very evident, my brethren, that this woman, formerly addicted to forbidden deeds, had used perfume to give her flesh a pleasant odor. What she had shamefully granted to herself, she now offered to God in a manner worthy of praise.”
Thus, a legend was crafted and given the official seal of the pope. While the myth tells a beautiful truth – Jesus welcomes and redeems even the most sinful people – Mary Magdalene was not the woman in question. While we do know she was delivered from seven demons, it is up for interpretation whether those were literal demons or mental illness. In the Orthodox Church, Mary Magdalene was not only not associated with the penitent woman, but she is also referred to as the “Holy Myrrh-Bearer Equal of the Apostles Mary Magdalene.”
Yet this myth about Mary persists through popular culture, most notably in her portrayals in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ. But in the hit TV show, The Chosen, now in its third season, Mary (played by Elizabeth Tabish) is a woman recovering from sexual assault and mental illness. Mary of Magdala is the subject of the first episodes of the series and is the first disciple we see called by Jesus. “I think she… is this figure that represents redemption,” Tabish told me during a recent interview.
The Chosen’s depiction is one of faithful devotion. In the first two seasons, we see Mary following Jesus wherever he goes and letting him follow her even in the darkest of places.
I asked Tabish to describe what playing Mary Magdalene has been like. She referred to Mary as a “role model,” and said, tearing up, “I compare myself now to who I was before I booked this,” she shared. “And it’s night and day, or day and night, and there’s so much peace in my life, there’s so much joy.”
As followers of Jesus around the world spend these next four weeks contemplating the promise that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,” we should allow Mary to be a role model for us as well. Though she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair, she did know how to love him. Mary stood near the cross and watched Jesus die. Forsaken by the Father, Jesus is still offered some comfort of being ushered from this life by Mary Magdalene, his mother, and several other female followers. Mary went to where the darkness was and stayed in it to the end, such was her desire to be wherever Jesus was.
Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’s burial. And most famously, she is the one who he appears to on the third day. Mary risked danger from the Romans guarding the tomb and uncleanness from touching a dead body, to be with Jesus. When the worst happened and her beloved teacher and Lord was killed as a criminal, she didn’t hide. She went to the tomb to find whatever she could of Jesus. She’s rewarded by becoming the first witness of light overcoming the darkness and the first herald of the resurrection.
A much more inspirational story than the one we’ve been told. And Mary is a much more inspirational disciple than she’s often given credit for, truly embodying what it means to “declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
“Every season, I see parts of myself in [Mary] and I see how she grows and how she matures,” Tabish shared. “And I think, ‘Oh, I get to do that too. I’m allowed to do that too.’” In these darkening days of Advent, let us also remember that, like Mary, we are allowed to boldly go wherever we can find Jesus and be witnesses to his coming.
The Chosen seasons 1 and 2 can be streamed for free on The Chosen app found on most streaming platforms. Season three began a theatrical release on November 18th, 2022.
Juliet Vedral is a writer, toddler-and-baby-wrangler, and amateur shoe collector. She is the co-founder and editor of The Wheelhouse Review. Her writing has also appeared in Sojourners and Radiant. A native New Yorker, Juliet currently resides in Alexandria, VA, which is still a weird thing for her to say.