She came slowly towards him, head held proudly within its aura of braided hair, dark eyes flashing, sensuous lips curved mockingly. The richness of her garments set off the striking beauty of her features, a beauty of which the arrogance displayed in every look and movement betrayed her awareness. Men were her slaves; Mary of Magdala knew it, and they knew it. The bystanders looked on interestedly and intently as she came to a leisurely halt and directed her gaze fully upon the man before her.
"They tell me"—her voice was rich, vibrant, and sardonic—"they tell me that you can heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, make the lame to walk..." She looked at him, the kind of look which had made the senses of many a man swim. She looked, and waited.
Jesus, his eyes fixed on her, said nothing.
"It is said that you can cast out demons." Her voice was still derisory, but there was the faintest trace of anxiety in the mocking tones.
Jesus did not answer. His gaze met her imperious eyes.
"You were at Simon's feast the other day and you forgave a woman her sins...Who gave you the power to forgive sins?" The question came almost as an accusation, a challenge, and yet the words held a note of urgency.
"Because the Father sent me, I can see into the heart and I know how and when to forgive." The quiet words fell softly on the still air.
The dark eyes were mocking again now. "Look into my heart, and tell me what you can see, and what there is to forgive." She stood, proud in her youth and appeal, facing Jesus insolently.
The calm answer came. "I see a heart given over by day and by night to every kind of indulgence and weakness and sin. I see a heart which in the early morning hours reaches out for a better life and knows not where to find it, and when daylight comes goes back to the way of sin because it knows no other. I see a heart possessed by demons which give no rest by day or night. And I know that last night, when the sun had gone and the moon rode high in the heavens, you fell to your knees beside your bed in your despair and besought God for release from the demons which have driven you to these things, without any real hope that He would listen or would answer".
She stood, motionless. The mockery in her eyes had given place to astonishment. The scornful smile had gone; her lips were trembling.
Quietly came the answer. "I know, my child."
"Then—it is true, after all—what they say." Suddenly she crumpled at his feet, rich garments trailing in the dust, her raven hair falling confusedly about her shoulders, face buried in hands. "O Jesus—Master—save me." She was sobbing incoherently.
Gently Jesus raised her to her feet.
"Fear no more, my daughter. The demons have gone; they will not trouble you again. If now you will turn away from the life you have lived and yield yourself to God you will find happiness and peace".
Her eyes now held only humility and adoration. Gone was the old hard voice; the accents were soft and low.
"Master—let me follow with your disciples." Almost imperceptibly Jesus shook his head. "Go now to your home, Mary, and make your peace with God. Go to him in prayer and He will receive you. Then, if you will, you may come."
Slowly, head bowed, heedless of the curious stare of the onlookers, she went.
* * *
Whether the conversion of Mary Magdalene was in fact something like this will never be known with certainty until the days of the world to come. All that is known about her life before becoming a disciple is that she was one out of whom Jesus "cast seven demons". (Luke 8.2). The association of her name in that verse with those of Joanna and Susanna, both wealthy women, might lead to the assumption that she likewise was a rich married woman who, like them, "ministered to him of their substance". There is, however, an age-old tradition that she was a woman of bad character, plying her trade among the Roman soldiers and others in the lake-side towns—Magdala was a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee—and the casting out of the demons by Jesus delivered her from that life. The Western (Latin) Church has maintained this view from the sixth century and identified Mary with the "woman a sinner" at Simon's feast recorded in Luke 7 although there is nothing in the Gospel narratives to warrant this conclusion. The fact that in Luke 7 there is no mention of the casting out of demons and the woman's forgiveness was on account of her evident repentance and sorrow would rather appear to indicate the opposite. Nevertheless the Latin Church (but not the Eastern, Greek, Church) has maintained the tradition and in fact the English Prayer Book up to its revision in 1552 had a feast-day for Mary Magdalene on 22 July with the reading from Luke 7. The Talmud, written nearer the time, also vouches for the tradition, describing her wealth, beauty and shamelessness.
A more definite pointer may be found in the claim that women of Mary's profession were known by the name of their town or village rather than, as was the case with other women, the names of their husbands or other relatives. Thus in the Gospels we have "Mary of Magdala" (the meaning of the Greek "Magdalene") as against, for example, Mary the wife of Cleophas, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna the wife of Chuza.
That she was young in years, probably in her early twenties, when she became a disciple can be inferred from the fact recorded in John 20.2 to the effect that upon finding the body of Jesus missing from the sepulchre then she runneth, and came to Simon Peter…". Only a young woman would, or could, have run the distance of over a mile separating the sepulchre and the house of Mark's mother where the disciples were assembled. An older woman would have had to walk.
So we are left with the probable position that Mary was a young woman sorely afflicted in the grip of an evil life or of supernatural evil powers whom Jesus met during the course of his ministry in the lakeside towns of Galilee. Magdala, three miles north of Tiberias and about five south of Capernaum, was probably visited by him fairly frequently, although it is mentioned in the New Testament only twice, once in Matt.15.39 in connection with the feeding of the four thousand, and once in Mark 8.10 where it is called Dalmanutha. It appears in the Old Testament (Josh.19.38) under the name of Migdalel so the town was of some antiquity. Today it remains as a village and is called Mejdel. But it might have been in any of the lake-side towns that the meeting took place; the nature of the encounter cannot now be surmised, only that it occurred during the first year of our Lord's ministry, probably about August-September, and that after the casting out of those seven demons Mary became a fervent and devoted disciple, faithful to her Lord to the end.
Strangely, nothing more is said about her until the crucifixion. It is not really likely that the women disciples of Jesus, the five Marys, Martha, Salome, Susanna, Joanna, and others, accompanied Jesus and the men as they went from place to place preaching the Gospel. Had they done so the proceeding would almost inevitably have given rise to comment and scandal. In any case most of them were married and had husbands and perhaps children to consider. It is more likely that they assisted in the provision of the disciples' expenses, as Luke 8.3 indicates, extended the hospitality of their homes when in their districts, and rendered services such as the provision and mending of clothes and so on. It was not until the crowning tragedy of the Crucifixion that they were all drawn together to be with their Lord in his last hours on earth, and so it is perhaps not surprising that nothing is said about them prior to that time.
Mary's sterling character is revealed by her behaviour during the trying experiences of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Of the little band of some nine or more women who were present at those times Mary was almost certainly the youngest, nevertheless she is the one who evidently took the initiative and was by common consent their leader. Of the ten occasions when her name is mentioned in conjunction with those of the other women, she appears first in nine. She, with one companion, was an observer of Jesus' burial when all the men disciples had gone into hiding. She was first at the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection and the one to bring the news to the men, still in hiding. And she had the inestimable favour of being the first to talk with the risen Lord. There is not much doubt that her courage and steadfastness held the little band of women together during those three days when they were bereft of the support and protection of the men. For a short time the men "forsook him and fled"; Mary never forsook him. She remained firm in her faith throughout.
What happened to her afterwards? No one knows. She may have remained a stalwart member of the Church at Jerusalem which had its beginning in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost for the rest of her life, going with the rest of them to Pella in AD 69 to escape the destruction of the city which they knew from Jesus' prediction was about to take place. She may have gone back to her old home in the lakeside cities and there lived a quiet life among the believers there. The Greek church has preserved a tradition that in about AD 50 she accompanied the Apostle John and Mary the mother of Jesus when they migrated to Ephesus, and died there about AD 90—which, if true, testifies to her youthfulness when she first met Jesus. The Emperor Leo, in the tenth century, allegedly removed her remains to Constantinople to repose there in his ornate church. But no one really knows: we are left with the picture of a woman whose undying devotion in the closing stages of our Lord's life bears witness to the wonder of the miracle by which He had changed her life, delivering her from the power of darkness and translating her into the kingdom of God's dear Son.