Say Her Name: A Feminist’s Reflection on St. Mary Magdalene


I have hated my name for as long as I can remember. During the week I was born in January 1980, the name “Jennifer” was so popular (2nd only to “Jessica”) that there were like 6 other Jennifers born on the same floor.

My surprised mother had thought that it was an “old fashioned” name, despite it being ranked #1 for girls in North America the previous decade (to her credit there were no baby name books or online databases or even books back then). After she realized how common it was, she changed it to “Joy” – for a week. Which would have been so cool! I often daydream about how my life would have been gloriously different and serene if my name was unique and prophetic like Joy! 

But alas, she said it just didn’t feel right, and after a week, changed it back to Jennifer.

The result was having a lot of other Jens, Jenns, Jennifers, Jennas and Jennys in every single class and friend group I had growing up. It was easy to get us confused, so teachers assigned each of us different versions of the name. Or, the worst, being called Jen G, because there was already a Jen T, Jen V, and Jen W. Even now, I have too many friends named Jen, and stories about who did or said what get confused often. My *brother* even married a Jen, which makes family gatherings quite delightful as you can imagine. 

And then there was that time that I was mistaken for Jennifer *Lopez* in a remote Nepalese mountain village in 2004, just because news spread quickly that there was a Jennifer in town. Despite the fact that I look nothing like Jennifer Lopez, it somehow didn’t matter, and within minute kids of all ages were chasing after me yelling “Jennifer Lopez! Jennifer Lopez!” Not being able to communicate to them that I wasn’t, and not wanting to disappoint them, I ended up signing “J-Lo” on the hands and arms of about 36 screaming children, with a half dried up Sharpie. Looking back, I think I made the right decision. You would have too if you had seen their faces!

This has been the life-long frustration of having an all-too-common name. 

There is another woman who probably can relate to a similar frustration, albeit on a different, less *first-world problem* scale, and that is St. Mary Magdalene, whose Feast we celebrate today. 

Her first name, Mary, was the “Jennifer” of the early first century. And she has often been confused several other women: with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha, who sat listening to Jesus while Martha worked and whom then later anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, with the unnamed woman caught in adultery, and the “sinful” women at the well.

Despite it never being mentioned in the Bible that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, this myth has persisted throughout the centuries, ever since a homily given by Pope Gregory I in 591 AD, where he blended all 3 women together as if they were one person. 

Scholars have worked ever since to untangle these separate women.

So who was she really?

She was a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. 

Her initial encounter with Jesus was forever life-altering. The scriptures say he had casted out 7 demons from her. Whether this was literally a demon possession, or a figurative enslavement to the oppressive ways of R Empire of death is up for debate, but one thing is certain: she had a remarkable, life-changing encounter with Jesus, and she left everything to follow him, in the exact same manner that Peter, James, John, and the others had done. 

She travelled with him, provided for him financially, and took care of his daily needs. She was the only disciple there for every critical moment that defined his purpose and changed the course of history – his ministry, his death and his resurrection. 

She was with him in Galilee when he was preaching about the Kingdom of God, of the radical inclusion of those with the least amount of social, political, and economic power – which, as a woman, meant her. This was a way so threatening to those who benefitted from this system that they threw themselves into his destruction.  

She was with him when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and when others cried “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” She was among the palm waving crowd, and mostly likely was estastic that her Lord was going to free her people from the Roman occupation the way he had freed her from her own chains.

She was at the foot of the cross while he was being crucified. When all the men had abandoned him, she didn’t deny or leave him in his hour of great despair. She was faithful.

She then followed as they took his body to the tomb and watched as the stone was rolled into place.

And it this passage we read today (Mark 20:1-18). She arrives at the tomb, sees that the stone has been rolled away, and runs to tell the other disciples. When they arrive again at the tomb, they enter it and see the grave clothes folded and the body missing.

And Mary weeps. I can only imagine what must have been going through her mind. He was supposed to be the Messiah, the one free her people from the Romans, like he had freed her from enslavement to the forces of evil. No, no, no, was not supposed to end like this. 

Very similar, I imagine, to the words of Diamond Reynolds, when her boyfriend Philandro Castille was brutality shot and killed by police. Her haunting words remain in my mind: “Please, sir, don’t tell me that you have just done this to him…” “Please Jesus, no…”

Similar to the world- shattering grief of the son of Alton Sterling, who tragically was killed by police as well.

Similar to the grief of the families of the hundreds killed in attacks in Baghdad, Istanbul, and Nice.

Similar to the grief of the loved ones of those killed in the Orlando nightclub.

Similar to the despair of the families of the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women and men.

I can imagine them all thinking, wrapped up in their grief, like Mary Magdalene, Noooo, It wasn’t supposed to end this way. 

Back in the tomb, Jesus appears to her and says, “Mary” -only her name. We remember what Jesus said before: “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name … they know his voice.” (John 10:3, 4) Jesus knew her deeply, and despite centuries of people misrepresenting her and confusing her, Jesus knew her, and called her out of the tomb of her grief. 

Hearing his voice she cried out, “’Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).” With this particular name Mary claims her place as Jesus’ rabbinical student whereas women in that day were not supposed to study under a rabbi at all.
Jesus response “Do not cling to me” is puzzling and scholars have been perplexed about its meaning for centuries. The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is this:

Mary was so happy to see him, she reached out, but Jesus knowing her heart knew that she was happy to have her old Jesus back, and her own idea about what kind of Messiah he was supposed to be. Jesus had other plans. 

“For I have not yet ascended to the Father” he said. He was not staying, but was passing the torch of kingdom work to his followers, and his presence would remain with her, not in the flesh but in the form of the Holy Spirit and in the community of the Body of Christ.

We, too, may cling to what WE THINK was or is *supposed* to happen. To a utopian past, to a romantic relationship that later failed, to a job or situation or community that we think should have ended differently. 

To us, Jesus calls each of us by name. Deb, Andrea, Kitsune, Beth, Caleb, Danice, Sean, Tom. Insert your own name. Jesus calls us out of our grief and says “Do not cling. Let go. And instead, focus on the kingdom work in front of you in the here and now.”

For Mary this work was telling others about the resurrection.

Raquel S. Lettsome, a biblical scholar, says: 

For a first century Jew, resurrection was “part of a larger picture of what God was going to do for the nation and indeed the world.” Moreover, resurrection was connected to hope and hope is one of the most dangerous things oppressed people can have. N. T. Wright, when writing about resurrection from a Christian perspective notes that its roots are Jewish and “turned those who believed it into a counter-empire, an alternative society that knew the worst that tyrants could do and knew that the true God had the answer.”3 To speak of resurrection then, is to speak of God intervening into the course of human events and existence in a way that upsets the status quo. Therefore the keepers of the system are in danger of losing their system and therefore the status that the system provides.”

This is good news for those without power, but bad news for those with it. For those in positions of privilege and power, equality feels like oppression. 

Which is probably why, even though the scriptures portray Mary as a faithful disciple, the myth of Mary Magdalene the prostitute has remain alive and well. She was portrayed as such in Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ, and in the DaVinci Code, and countless paintings and books. 

This is why it is so important to reclaim the memory of her as she really was: faithful disciple, the Apostle to the Apostles, the first resurrection preacher. One who knew the the voice of Jesus who knew her so deeply and called her out of her tomb of despair, into kingdom, by her name.

This is so important friends, especially for my sisters here and the next generation. 

I know this because of how I felt when watching the new Ghostbusters movie last week. Seeing women who are hilarious, smart, and hardworking talk about something other than men, and kicking butt without being overtly objectified or sexualized while doing? It was absolute elation. It’s  like, I didn’t even know that was an option! 

I didn’t know it was an option either, to be called by name into equally meaningful and important kingdom work. 

And so I am grateful to God, for his radically inclusive love, that sees me in my grief, despair, and in my clinging to what I think should have been, and gently says to me, “Jen.” 

Perhaps I could get used to my name after all.

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4 Responses to “Say Her Name: A Feminist’s Reflection on St. Mary Magdalene”


  1. 1 Marieta July 23, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    Ooooh my beautiful dear Jenifer, you are special and unique, forever and for everywhere. Love

  2. 3 Sharolyn July 26, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    You really have a gift, Jennifer. Beautiful and inspiring.


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