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Chapter 2: The Magdalene: Saint, Sinner, or Goddess?

Any supposed attempts to rid the Church of Mary Magdalene or ban her name from being mentioned did not succeed, simply because they didn’t exist. In fact, many of the early Church Fathers remark about the Magdalene, and she is described by Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) as "the apostle to the apostles" in his commentary on the Song of Songs. Even feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, hardly a supporter of the Catholic hierarchy, scoffs at the notion of a conspiracy against Mary Magdalene, pointing to the positive treatment she received from the early Church Fathers:

"This high regard for Mary Magdalene continues in the fourth- and fifth-century Latin fathers of the church. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, associated Mary Magdalene with the New Eve who clings to Christ as the new Tree of Life, thereby reversing the unfaithfulness of the first Eve. Augustine maintains this view, pairing Mary Magdalene with Christ as symbol of the New Eve and the church in relation to Christ as the New Adam. Her faithfulness reversed the sin of the first Eve."
By the eighth century the Western Church was celebrating a feast day for Mary Magdalene, the twenty-second day of July. By the ninth century there were specific prayers for her feast day, and by the eleventh century there was "a complete mass dedicated to the saint (with introit, gradual, offertory, communion, and lessons)". It was also in the eleventh century that devotion to the Magdalene began to noticeably increase. The cult of Mary Magdalene was established at Vézelay, the Romanesque church in Burgandy that had been founded in the ninth century and was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary. During the abbacy of Geoffrey (1037-1052) Mary was recognized as the patron of that church in a papal bull dated April 27, 1050, by Pope Leo IX. At the same time, relics of the Magdalene were being sought and gathered in earnest, and soon Vézelay became a major destination for pilgrimages.

Numerous stories, almost all of them fanciful and legendary in nature, were created to explain how Mary’s remains had arrived at Vézelay. A leading tradition in the West held that Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus were expelled from Palestine following the crucifixion of Christ. Floating in an oarless boat, they eventually arrived at the southern coast of France. In the East, a tradition stated that Mary had been the companion of the Apostle John and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and that they had all settled in Ephesus. According to The Golden Legend, the Magdalene and John were betrothed. Some legends depict Mary living her final days in a cave in France, a hermit covered only by her long hair; these stories probably date back no farther than the ninth century.

During the late medieval era it was common to hear sermons about Mary Magdalene and how she fulfilled the apostolic life. She was also a model for Christians seeking to leave behind a life of sensuality and luxury, an encouragement to monks and nuns, as well as an exhortation to prostitutes. "But most of all a Magdalene sermon was the vehicle by which preachers called people to penance and offered them the hope of salvation. . . . We must not forget that it is our own age that officially memorializes Saint Mary Magdalene as a disciple; it was the ‘Dark Ages’ that honored her as a preacher and apostle of the apostles."