Perhaps the most significant example of this is the Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar. Jesus–who knows that she is a sinner and speaks to her about this–discusses the most profound mysteries of God with her…This is an event without precedent: that a woman, and what is more a “sinful woman,” becomes a “disciple” of Christ. Indeed, once taught, she proclaims Christ to the inhabitants of Samaria, so that they too receive him with faith (cf. Jn 4:39-42). This is an unprecedented event, if one remembers the usual way women were treated by those who were teachers in Israel; whereas in Jesus of Nazareth’s way of acting such an event becomes normal. –St. John Paul II (Mulieris dignitatem #15)
I wanted to share a few scattered and brief thoughts on the elevation of St. Mary Magdalene’s liturgical memorial to the level of a “Feast.”
St Mary Magdalene is now the only other woman other than the Mother of God to have a Feast day. As has been noted by all who have commented on this remarkable change, Mary Magdalene came to be known in the high Middle Ages as the “apostle to the apostles,” having been the first eyewitness of the risen Christ, entrusted by Him with bringing His “brothers” the heart of the good news of the new covenant: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God” (see John 20:11-18).
There’s something in that scene with Mary encountering the risen Jesus that reflects the healing of Eden’s original rupture between man-woman and God. Here’s my imaginative thought on it: The first Adam remained silent in the garden as the Serpent engaged Eve in a game of lies, but was quick to speak to God words of blame regarding the woman God had joined him to in covenant (Gen. 3:12). “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” suddenly was the tempter and enemy. The second Adam, the Word-made-flesh, whose death had defeated the lying Serpent, now speaks in a garden with great tenderness to the woman and calls her by name (John 20:15-16). He speaks to a woman He had once delivered from the Serpent (Luke 8:2) and who was now seeking out His bones and flesh to anoint with great love. To this woman He entrusts the words of tender mercy, an everlasting and faithful covenant at the dawn of the new creation.
Jesus’ engagement with women in His public ministry was startling and unprecedented. In the Orthodox tradition, the Magdalene is called “The Holy Myrrh-Bearer Equal of the Apostles.” Though this is not, in the Orthodox or Catholic traditions, an access point for ordination to the ministerial priesthood, it is a powerful affirmation of the equal dignity, vocation and mission of man and woman to be bearers of the new covenant into the world. St. Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is really an abstract and theological way of interpreting the very concrete manner in which Jesus engaged women during His public ministry and after His resurrection. Women were His disciples (Luke 8:1-3), which means that they were given access into the intimate “circle” of learners, engaging in rabbinic styles of dialogue and debate with Jesus (e.g. Luke 7:24-29; 10:38-42; John 4:1-42; 11:17-27). The disciples who happened on Jesus “doing theology” with the Woman at the Well gave voice to the shock-and-awe of Jesus’ contemporaries (John 4:27):
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”
Again, this is all astonishing in its cultural context, and eventually Christianity would, in a complex history, admit the voice of women into its public theological Tradition, especially through the monastic movements which gave women unprecedented access to learning and the structures of authority. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named 12th century German Abbess, Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church. Hildegard was a prolific writer on everything from theology to natural science, writing in Latin and German. One of the remarkable aspects of her power as a thinker was that she did not simply rely on mystical experience as the source of her authority to speak with a public and prophetic voice in the Church (which was nearly universally required for women in the church of the medieval period), but employed the authority of her academic learning to discourse on a staggering variety of topics. She was revered by many of her contemporaries in the theological world, including St Bernard of Clairvaux.
Pope Benedict, after detailing her extraordinary mystical, theological, literary, musical, scientific and pastoral accomplishments, commented on her overall significance for women:
For these reasons the attribution of the title of Doctor of the Universal Church to Hildegard of Bingen has great significance for today’s world and an extraordinary importance for women. In Hildegard are expressed the most noble values of womanhood: hence the presence of women in the Church and in society is also illumined by her presence, both from the perspective of scientific research and that of pastoral activity. Her ability to speak to those who were far from the faith and from the Church make Hildegard a credible witness of the new evangelization.
Pope Francis’ decision to elevate Mary Magdalene’s liturgical memorial to a Feast represents a fresh, creative and striking instance of his desire for a more “profound theology of women” that builds on St. John Paul II’s work. May St. Mary obtain for the Church on earth the grace of penetrating more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s love for women, and His mission for them expressed uniquely in His choice that Mary Magdalene, courageous eyewitness of His death, be the first witness to His resurrection and the first to bear witness to His apostolic brothers the good news of a “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness [dikaiosynē] is at home” (2 Peter 3:12).