ST. MARY MAGDALENE. Today, July 22, is normally the feast day of my favorite saint, St. Mary Magdalene, but it’s suppressed this year because it falls on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. As I’ve written before, my devotion to the Magdalene originates in the fact that I was baptized and grew up in a parish named after her. Over the years my attachment to her has grown very strong, as she has come to my aid so often and so powerfully, even to the point of pulling me out of my death bed, 10 years ago today.
Although one of the great saints of the New Testament and greatly revered in the Church for centuries, she has gone largely ignored in recent years, especially in our country. That is except for her 15 minutes of fame when that horrible lying book and movie, The DaVinci Code, came out a few years back. Unfortunately, the false story of her life popularized thereby is all that many people “know” about her, which is to say they know a lie and not the great saint herself.
Of course, Scripture is clear that Mary Magdalene was one of the women who followed and took care of Jesus and the apostles. She was also both at the foot of the cross and the first to encounter the Risen Jesus. Her greatest fame is that she was personally sent by Jesus to inform the apostles of the Resurrection—“the Apostles to the Apostles,” as the ancient Church calls her.
But there is more to the story than that. According to the ancient Catholic tradition (not infallibly taught, but rooted in the Gospels and generally accepted since the early centuries), she was a great sinner, who became a great penitent saint. She is identified with the woman who, in Luke 7, washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with her hair, and anoints with precious oil from an alabaster jar, of whom Jesus says: “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much.” St. John seems to identify this woman with Mary of Bethany as she anoints Jesus feet in 11:2 and 12:1-8 of his Gospel. In the parallel texts to John 12 in the Gospels of Matthew (Ch. 26) and Mark (Ch. 14) we see the story of the unnamed sinful woman of Luke 7 clearly come together with the story Mary of Bethany of John 12—they are the same woman at the same banquet. Matthew and Mark also add the promise of the Lord about her: “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Moreover, in John, Matthew and Mark, she is tied to the Lord’s burial, as, over the objections of Judas the betrayer who insists they sale her precious oil, Jesus responds, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial,” and thus identifies her with Mary Magdalene who went to Christ’s tomb to anoint his body on Easter morning (Mark 16;1; cf. Luke 24:1 ).
Although this link in identity between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene may seem tenuous, it is strengthened by other scriptural connections. For example, the “many sins” of the woman in Luke 7 (Mary of Bethany) seem to reflect the “seven demons” (i.e., seven deadly sins) which Mark and Luke tell us Jesus cast out of Magdalene. Also, like the sinful woman (Mary of Bethany) who kneels weeping at Jesus’ feet, Magdalene is portrayed as falling at his feet and weeping at the Resurrection (Matt. 28:9 John 15:15, 17), and a similar scene is easily imaged as stands below him at the cross.
All these connections and others have been part of the Church’s common teaching about Magdalene, including its liturgical celebrations, since at least the 6th century, when Pope St. Gregory the Great taught on the subject. However, since St. Gregory is considered the most learned man of his time, and a protector of the ancient traditions of the Church, it must be presumed that what he handed on about Magdalene was simply what he had learned from other sources which believed to be true and of ancient origin. This tradition is still held up to us by the Church today, especially in the official prayers of her feast day as celebrated in the ancient Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
So to sum up, St. Mary Magdalene is the very sinful woman who repented and loved Jesus “much”, and washed and anointed the feet of Jesus. She is also Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the woman who was faithful to Jesus to the end, standing at foot of his Cross, and the first witness to the resurrection.
Some say that identifying St. Mary Magdalene as such a terrible sinner is insulting to the Saint (according to St. Gregory her “many sins” included even prostitution). The truth is exactly the opposite. What greater tribute, what greater example, what greater sign of God’s love, mercy and power, can a Christian hope for than to rise from the depth of sins and depravity to the heights of holiness.
This is why I think she is such an important saint for us today, as our culture corrupts and abuses so many women and girls, especially through sexual sins. Many feel hopeless, even as they desire the love of Christ, but feel their sins or the sins committed against them are so many or so horrible they cannot share in Christ’s love or forgiveness. But then they encounter the Magdalene, and discover, through her life, the true depth and breadth of the love of Jesus, that can absolve and conquer all sins and bring them into the joy, the peace, the integrity, and the goodness they so earnestly desire.
And Magdalene is important also for men and boys, both as a reminder of the power of Christ’s mercy for all of us, and as specific lesson in the disrespect and abuse our culture encourages men to show to women, and the great dignity and pure love with which we should treat them.
So I commend this most blessed Saint, the great penitent, so dearly loved by Jesus, and my oldest and dearest spiritual friend, to your attention and friendship. St. Mary Magdalena, pray for us!
Knights of Columbus. I can’t let this week pass without congratulating and thanking Michael Welch for his dedication and great work in serving this last year as Grand Knight of our Knights of Columbus (St. John Bosco Council). As you step down from your post, I say thank you Michael—well done, good and faithful servant! Let me also congratulate and say I look forward to working with our new Grand Knight, Paul DeRosa. You follow in the footsteps of some very good men, Paul. I’m confident that you will live up to their great examples as you guide the Knights to another fruitful year at St. Raymond’s. God bless.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles