A blessed feast of Mary Magdalene, which – or who – was raised from memorial status in the liturgical revisions of 1969 to a full feast by a decree of Pope Francis in 2016. This was to emphasize her importance as the ‘apostle to the apostles’; perhaps also to emphasize the feminine genius in evangelization; as well, we may presume, the importance of conversion from a life of sin to one of great love and virtue. One way or the other, rejoice and be glad!
Mary from Magdala is one of the central figures in the Gospels, mentioned far more than most of the Apostles, but about whom – like many of the same Apostles – we know very little, beyond what what sparse details those same Gospels provide. She is mentioned in all four, the three synoptics, with an even more prominent role in Saint John. By the Middle Ages, she had been identified with the ‘sinful woman’ in the seventh chapter of Luke; the woman caught in adultery in the eighth chapter of John; as well as with the Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, of Bethany. This was largely the fruit of Pope Gregory the Great, even if these women are now seen as distinct persons, as did a number of the earlier Fathers. There are any number of legends told of Mary Magdalene, with the Golden Legend claiming that she and Lazarus and others sailed in a rudderless boat to the south of France, where she converted the king, and lived a long life as an ascetic hermit in a cave; and there she was buried, in Burgundy, with a Gothic cathedral raised on the site in the 13th century.
What we do know is that she was one of Christ’s most devoted disciples, stayed faithful right up to the foot of the Cross, when all the Apostles, except John and Christ’s own mother, had fled. Mary Magdalene was one of the first – Christ’s Mother Mary was likely the first – witnesses to the Resurrection. She ran to tell the Apostles – hence, Pope Francis declaring her an ‘Apostle to the Apostles’.
Although never mentioned as a ‘reformed prostitute’ – and we will leave aside the sacrilegious blasphemy of some modern portrayals – Saint Luke does say that ‘seven devils’ had been cast out of her, a mysterious phrase. Her identification with the ‘sinful woman’ was downplayed after the Council, although Mary of Magdala continues as patron of those who have reformed from sinful ways, which really includes all of us. For we all must undergo a daily conversion – metanoia, a ‘turning of the mind and heart’ – to overcome the tendency to sin within ourselves which, if left unchecked, can only lead nowhere good. (See this article on frequent confession as one of the primary sacramental helps, and we will post something soon on the nature of sin itself).
In the days after the most tragic war the world has ever seen, Pius XII warned in a 1946 radio address that the worst sin of the twentieth century is the loss of the sense of sin, and what applies to eras applies even more specifically to individuals: We must maintain a vivid and profound ‘sense of sin’, to know its insidious and subtle effects, the small temptations to which we succumb – often with what we may consider the best of excuses – little lies, impurity, covetousness, pride, selfishness…
But we may add to the Pope’s words, that we have also lost the sense of the love of God, and what that love really means: to will and hold onto the true good, found in Christ, and only in Him, the Way, the Truth and the Life. She is a patron and intercessor for those who come to realize the depths of their distress, and turn completely the other way – to their Lord, Saviour and Redeemer, without Whom all is indeed lost.
There is hope for everyone, so long as their life hangs by that ‘hinge of the flesh’ – right up to their dying breath on whatever cross is theirs.
Would that we may have the grace of that same conversion before that fateful moment – to see ourselves as others, and, more to the point, God, see us – and have sin rooted out and purified, as the Magdalene of old. For only so, like her, will we see Christ as He truly is, when He too calls us by name.
As Saint Gregory the Great puts it in today’s reflection from the Office:
We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
Saint Mary Magadelen, ora pro nobis! +