The Role of Mary Magdalene in the Passion Narrative

During this sacred season of Lent – the 40 days that Christians observe before the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter – I find the energetic presence of Mary Magdalene to be very strong in my spiritual life.  This is not surprising since the Gospel accounts of Holy Week reveal that the actions of Jesus and Mary Magdalene were closely entwined throughout the story of Christ’s Passion, although her role has been mostly overlooked in the history of the church.  But together they manifest the full epiphany of God’s Love and Wisdom as ChristoSophia.  Jesus’ actions are the masculine, outward ones of Holy Week – the last supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection.  Mary’s are more feminine, inward actions of loving devotion in the anointing and as witness to the crucifixion and resurrection.  Jesus’ prophetic claim “Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her,” (Mark 14:9) is finally beginning to be fulfilled in our day as more and more people are recognizing Mary Magdalene’s centrality to the Christian story and encountering her Sophianic presence.  The truth of this prophesy will ultimately be revealed as we remember this woman who performed the crucial counterstroke to Jesus’ actions in the Passion narrative.

In the first event Mary Magdalene is cast as the woman with the alabaster jar.  Although this woman is not named as Mary Magdalene in the Gospel accounts, Christian tradition throughout the centuries has typically portrayed Mary Magdalene with her iconic alabaster jar.  The symbolic truth of her identity is supported through the resonance of this initial action and subsequent events in the Passion story.

When Mary breaks open her jar of precious ointment at a banquet and pours it over his head, Jesus says to those who criticize this extravagant gesture that she is anointing his body for burial.  This immediately links her action with his in the events of Holy Week.  She is performing a ritual of transformation at this dinner that is mirrored in the action of Jesus at the last supper.  As Mary Magdalene performs the rite of anointing that prepares the body of Jesus for transformation of matter into spirit, Jesus administers the rite of Eucharist that prepares his disciples for transformation into Christ-consciousness.

Another link with the transformative acts of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is found in John’s Gospel account.  Here it is Mary of Bethany, also a representation of Mary Magdalene in Christian tradition, who pours the oil over Christ’s feet which she then wipes with her hair.  In John, there is no narrative of the Eucharistic rite of bread and wine at the last supper.  Instead Jesus washes the feet of his disciples as a model for the commandment that he then gives them to “love one another just as I have loved you.” These are more personal, intimate acts of loving service that are mirrored in the actions of Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  The kenotic act of self-giving love is the essence of spiritual transformation on the Christian path and both Jesus and Mary Magdalene show us the Way.

The emptying of self in the service of love that is modeled by both Jesus and Mary Magdalene in this passage points to the ultimate act of kenosis that takes place during the events of the crucifixion.  Father Thomas Keating describes how their roles are entwined:  “Her action prefigures the smashing of Jesus’ body on the Cross.  His body is the alabaster jar filled with the perfume of infinite value, that is, the Spirit of God…Mary’s prophetic action points to the crushing of Jesus’ body on the Cross as the symbol of…God’s unconditional love.”

During the crucifixion, both Jesus and Mary Magdalene show us the complete revelation of self-emptying love.  The deepest agonies of the human soul are experienced by both: as Jesus suffers on the Cross, Mary Magdalene suffers the anguish of seeing her Beloved experience this excruciating death.  The darkest point is reached when Jesus cries out his sense of abandonment, his loss of contact with the Divine:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Mary Magdalene also experiences this utter abandonment in the loss of her Beloved as Jesus dies.  Yet Jesus’ final words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” reveal the culmination of this kenotic action on the Cross as he realizes his union with God.  Mary Magdalene also experiences the consummation of her own kenotic process as she remains at the Cross and maintains a pure witness presence that embraces yet transcends suffering.  Her state of consciousness as she watches her Beloved die mirrors his consciousness that is experiencing the depths of human suffering even as he transcends it through his realization of his unity with God.  Mary Magdalene as an illumined one is the feminine counterpart to Jesus as a Self-realized being.

Mary Magdalene continues her witnessing presence as Jesus’ dead body is removed from the Cross and placed in the tomb.  The Gospel of Matthew records that she was there, sitting opposite the tomb.  This is a key point for Cynthia Bourgeault, who has written extensively about the importance of recovering Mary Magdalene’s crucial presence in the Passion narrative.  She states that Mary Magdalene was “an unbroken witness to the power of love itself holding all things together…she holds the tether in the cosmic drama that is about to ensue.”  Here she refers to the “harrowing of Hell,” the theme in Christian tradition that the time between the crucifixion and resurrection marks the period of Christ’s descent into Hell to release the souls there.  In the crucifixion, Jesus suffers the depths of human pain and anguish; in the harrowing of Hell after his death, the unboundaried consciousness of Christ suffers the cosmic dimension of the separation from the Divine Source that is the root of the space/time realm.  In the tomb, Jesus journeys into the ultimate darkness of death where he confronts the depths of human and cosmic evil.  As Cynthia Bourgeault says, he was able to simply “be” in this Hell, emptied of all ego, as pure Cosmic Love.  Mary Magdalene, also emptied of ego through her suffering, her heart completely open, is able to “hold the space” for her Beloved as he makes his dark journey.  The personal love of the Magdalene in the earthly realm is the counterpart to the cosmic love of Christ in the underworld.  It is the energy of the love that flows between them that binds them together in these different dimensions.

It is this energetic link between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the stillpoint of the soul beyond ego that enables her to be the first to see the resurrected Christ.  But still in human form, she must continue the process of self-surrender.  In her ecstatic joy as she recognizes her Beloved in the garden, as she calls to him and reaches out to touch him, he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”  He will not be able to stay with her in this earthly realm, and once again her love enables her to let go of him in the bodily form.  She is able to maintain her witness presence at the resurrection, and Jesus affirms this role when he tells her to go and announce the Good News to the other disciples.  As Jesus “ascends to the Father,” entering the cosmic dimensions beyond our world of space and time, Mary Magdalene continues in her loving devotion as witness to the Living Christ – now in the role acknowledged by the early church as “Apostle to the Apostles.”

She carries the message that the Cross of Death has given forth the Tree of Life, the body of death has transformed into the body of light, the world of matter has released the world of spirit.  Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been partners in birthing this new Reality – this unity that flows from their love.  Mary’s love pours out to Jesus like the oil in the alabaster jar, and Jesus’ love pours out to the whole world.  It is the same Love, mirrored in each other as love in personal relationship and cosmic love.  This is why we must remember Mary Magdalene, as we do Jesus, because both their roles are necessary, both forms of love are required, for the New Creation to manifest.  We “re-member” them when we become conscious of their Living Presence, open our hearts to this transforming Love, and then act through this Love in our own daily lives.

Text by Cynthia Avens.  Photos by Richard Zelley, from top to bottom, were taken in the following locations:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC; St. Marie-Madeleine in Vezelay, France; Church of Mary Magdalene in Rennes-le-Chateau, France; Basilica of St. Marie Madeleine in St. Maximin, France; St. Marie-Madeleine in Vezelay, France; Kilmore Church in Dervaig, Isle of Mull, Scotland

Further writings on Mary Magdalene may be found on our website Pilgrimage to Sacred France: In Search of Mary Magdalene in “Spiritual Essays,” ChristoSophia in Dervaig and ChristoSophia in Chester in “Images of ChristoSophia”


One thought on “The Role of Mary Magdalene in the Passion Narrative

  1. What a beautiful way you have of reminding us of the important role that Mary Magdalene had in the transformation–and that she continues to have in our lives today. I am grateful that you are writing this blog; it lightens my spirit and increases my understanding. “The world of matter has released the world of spirit. Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been partners in birthing this new Reality – this unity that flows from their love.” That’s the message I want to hold close to my heart in the coming weeks, the one that still has the power to transform.


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