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Why pilgrims are flocking to St Mary Magdalene’s hometown

The Boat Chapel at Duc In Altum, Magdala, illuminated at night

Within days of arriving on site in the 1st-century Jewish town of Magdala, located on the Sea of Galilee, I perceived its specialness. Last year more than 70,000 people visited the site, 30 per cent of them local Israelis and the remaining 70 per cent international Christian pilgrims.

Day after day I watched people leave with smiles and joy-filled hearts. One day a new volunteer asked me: “How would you sum up Magdala?” In a split second my mind raced through all the marketing brand messages:

  • Magdala is a crossroads of Jewish and Christian history;
  • You get to walk where Jesus taught;
  • Magdala is a premiere catalyst for worldwide reconciliation and renewal;
  • We offer a 1st-century Galilee experience in a welcoming 21st-century environment;
  • Our core purpose is to highlight the historical, cultural, and spiritual significance of Magdala, revealing how Jesus engages people and transforms lives.

All of this can describe Magdala, but none of it came out of my mouth. Instead one word slipped out: “Encounter.” Magdala is a place of encounter.

There is so much behind that word. In the two years of welcoming visitors to Magdala (for what is normally a quick hour-long visit), I have encountered people from many walks of life: Jewish senior citizens, Methodist seminarians, Catholic church groups, Jewish youth coming to learn about Israel, Arab Christian families coming for a tour with their church, Baptist pastors, Jewish and Christian women studying women in the Bible, Evangelicals, Mormons, students of art history, archaeology, Old and New Testament, some believing in Jesus and others not.

Yet all come face to face with rich treasures found in a 1st-century Jewish town. Just as you enter the site, you find the evidence. Behold: on one side of the once booming marketplace (thanks to the salted fishing industry), one finds a 1st-century synagogue. Inside the synagogue rests the Magdala stone, boasting of the oldest carved menorah found in a public place. On the other side of the marketplace, two wealthy villas include four Jewish purification baths unique to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

In this large and wealthy Galilean city of approximately 4,000 inhabitants, Jesus probably taught in the synagogue (Mark 1:39) and sowed the seeds of faith. Among the believers was Mary Magdalene. The fact that this is her hometown invites reflection on the value and dignity of women. The newly built Duc in Altum, a worship centre for all Christian pilgrims, honours the feminine genius, and women’s contributions to the Church and humanity in the Women’s Atrium.

Mary Magdalene was a Jewish woman of higher society, providing for Jesus out of her own resources, along with several other women (Luke 8:2). Her encounter with Jesus has become the inspiration for the Magdalena Institute, which promotes the dignity of the human person, with a special focus on women. What was her experience? The Gospels leave us room for reflection.

Jesus expelled seven demons from Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2). Her life-changing encounter with Jesus prompted her to follow Jesus to the foot of the Cross (John 19:25). And she sought out Jesus in the tomb to reverently anoint him on the third day, only to discover that he was risen (John 20). Was her initial encounter an experience of Jesus’s pure and unconditional love? An experience that contemporary minds find difficult to fathom between man and woman? Did her encounter leave her without doubt about her dignity?

The story compels women to reflect on their own dignity. No matter the sins, wounds, and life circumstances of the present and the past, God’s merciful love forgives and heals. Women encounter the truth of themselves through Mary Magdalene’s testimony: their value lies in being created in God’s image, being loved by God. Facing the truth of one’s self is the first step on the journey of reconciliation with one’s self, others and God.

The message of healing and transformation through God’s unconditional love is present in many corners of Magdala. Among them is the Encounter chapel, showcasing the awe-inspiring and original painting of the haemorrhaging woman reaching out to touch Jesus

The Encounter chapel in the Duc In Altum also invites an encounter of religions. A 1st-century road running alongside Magdala’s port is now integrated into the floor of the chapel. Marketplace and port-side stones became seats for the chapel, giving it the feel of a 1st-century synagogue. Visitors sense the Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, Christians of different denominations remember the common kerygma, the essential Good News that unites all believers in Jesus Christ. Two thousand years ago Jesus “encountered” the people of his time. Faith was sown and a new Way began.

Now, 2,000 years later, what started as a dream for a mere guesthouse has become a place where God is present, waiting to encounter those who come in search of Him, knowingly and unknowingly.

Jennifer Ristine is director of the Magdalena Institute.

Currently Magdala is open daily. In the upcoming years it will offer lodging in its new guesthouse facilities. For more information or to assist in this project, visit magdala.org or write us to info@magdala.org.