St. Mary Magdalene played a vital role in the Easter story, which is to say that she played a vital role in the foundation of Christianity. If it weren’t for her, the empty tomb may have gone undiscovered! The male disciples were off on their own, mourning the death of the Savior in private for fear of repercussions from the authorities, but Mary Magdalene and other women weren’t going to be dissuaded from attending to his body in the way women were expected to do at that time.
Saint Mary Magdalene and the Easter Story
Throughout the Christian world, the first Sunday that follows the first full moon after the spring equinox is celebrated as the day that Jesus rose from the tomb, conquering death, transcending his fleshly incarnation, and demonstrating his divinity.
Easter has always been the central holiday of Christianity, being surpassed only by Christmas in popularity and secular celebration. It has probably been observed at least since the second century, according to a reference by the historian Eusebius of Caesarea (b. 260 C.E.), in Book 5 of his Church History.
The Easter season is often celebrated with a retelling of the Passion cycle, the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Depending on the branch of Christianity, the complexity of the ecclesiastical calendar relies on the date of Easter. Related events are commemorated leading up to the celebration of Easter and afterward, usually referred to as “moveable feasts.” Some of these are:
- Ash Wednesday
- Palm Sunday
- Good Friday
- Ascension Day
- Corpus Christi
Far from just a single holiday, then, the Easter season is a time during which Christians enjoy a renewal of their faith and communities as they commemorate God’s love and justice by remembering the resurrection. As Jesus passed through the harrowing experience of death and into new life, so Christians see Easter as a reminder that their religion is a living one; that they can symbolically leave behind their old lies and awaken spiritually through Christ. This has very old connections to the tradition of baptisms occurring only on Easter; in Roman Catholicism, the baptismal font is still blessed on Easter night.
Saint Mary Magdalene figures into the Easter narrative in the customary ways; in some traditions she is remembered as the woman who anointed Jesus during the week before Passover, and she is always mentioned as one of the witnesses of the crucifixion and resurrection. In some churches, she is exalted in her special role as first witness and apostle. Sometimes, Easter dramas are acted out, in which a woman plays the role of Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb and the risen Christ.
There is a long history behind Mary Magdalene in Easter plays. In fact, Mary Magdalene was one of the first theatrical characters in Western drama! Although one might suppose that our modern theater productions are descended from the Greek dramas, they are actually descendants of medieval religious plays. In the tenth century, monks started to act out the most basic story of Easter, playing the myrrhophores as they discovered the empty tomb.
This theme grew in popularity and complexity throughout the Middle Ages, and eventually Mary Magdalene came to be the subject of more focused attention. She was often given her own lament in the dramas, and there was a whole genre of plays devoted to the story of her sinful, pre conversion life as an allegory for the state of humankind before Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. It has been suggested that she grew in theatrical popularity because she had been growing in popularity as a saint otherwise, but maybe this is a chicken-and-egg question. Who came first? The people who liked her and wanted to see her in a play, or the people who liked her because she was in a play?
In Eastern Orthodox churches, although it is not an official part of the Easter service, members of a congregation often exchange red eggs with the words “Christ is risen!” This custom comes from an old traditional story, that although told in many different ways, comes down to this: After Jesus ascended into heaven, Mary Magdalene traveled to Rome and had an audience with Tiberius Caesar. As she dined with him, she complained about the way Pontius Pilate mishandled Jesus’ trial. She went on to tell him that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he had risen from the dead. Incredulous, Caesar replied, “A man could no more rise from the dead than that egg in your hand could turn red!” The egg, of course, did turn red, and this tale is the source of the celebratory exchange of red eggs on Pascha. Pascha is the Greek word for “Passover,” and in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it refers to the time when Easter occurs. It is used in the way that other Christian traditions use the term “Easter.”
[Article taken as an excerpt from my book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Mary Magdalene, ©2005 by Lesa Bellevie, published by Alpha Books, a division of the Penguin Group.]