Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. I hope you have some madeleines today, even though they don’t have much to do with her.
Last year, in the Ordinary Form calendar of the Roman Rite, St Mary Magdalene’s annual liturgical observance on 22 July was elevated to a status of Feast. Her new Feast was given a new proper Preface. There is no way to arrive definitively at the identity of this fascinating figure. Nevertheless, it is good to see her day restored to greater dignity.
Speaking of Mary Magdalene’s identity, we know from Scripture that she came to Jesus’ tomb in the garden to anoint His Body. Mary, the first witness of the empty tomb, then went to tell Apostles. Hence, she is called “the apostle to the apostles”. Initially, Mary mistook the Risen Lord for the gardener. St Augustine (d 430) says that “this gardener was sowing in her heart, as in His own garden, the grain of mustard seed.” When He said her name, she recognized and tried to cling to Him. Christ mysteriously forbade her to touch Him (“Noli me tangere” – John 20:17) saying, “I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Augustine proposes that Christ wanted to be touched spiritually, believed in, before being touched in any other way. Reflect on that before receiving Communion.
The 3rd century writer Hippolytus identified Mary Magdalene with both Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and also the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet. Mary Magdalene and/or Mary of Bethany are often identified as sinners. Pope Gregory I “the Great” (d 604) called her a peccatrix, “sinner”. Eventually she came to be called also meretrix, “prostitute”. Another tradition supposes that Mary Magdalene was the woman the Lord saved from stoning. This is the tradition referenced in Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. Scholars today believe that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, the woman Jesus rescued, and the woman who anointed His feet are all different women.
Rightly or wrongly, Mary Magdelene has long been associated in art and literature with ongoing penitence for past sins. Hallow her feast with an examination of conscience, which can be bitter. You could then celebrate her Feast with the little scallop-shaped cookies called “madeleines”. They aren’t really named after our saint, but, who cares? They might sweeten your remembrance of things past.
I wrote more extensively on the feast of Mary Magdalene’s day to a feast HERE. That post includes my translation of the new Latin Preface. Please note that there is an ERROR in the LATIN text!
Meanwhile, in honor of Mary Magdalene, I read a bit of St. Robert Southwell, SJ’s incredible prose in his Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears.
Robert Southwell is one of the several Jesuit priests among the English Martyrs. He studied in Rome and returned to England to serve in secret for several years, until he was captured by the ghoulish “priest hunter” and psychopath Richard Topcliffe. Southwell was tortured many times and eventually hung, drawn and quartered. He is without question a master of English prose, one of the great writers of his or any other age.
Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears is based somewhat on a sermon of Origen and maybe other Italian sources. It takes the form of a dialogue between Mary, the angels of the empty tomb, Christ, and the narrator. She is quite heroic.
Here’s a taste of the beginning.
Amongst other mournful accidents of the Passion of Christ, that love presenteth itself unto my memory, with which the blessed Mary Magdalen, loving our Lord more than herself, followed him in his journey to his death attending upon him when his disciples fled, and being more willing to die with him then to live without him. But not finding the favor to accompany him in death, and loathing to remain in life after him, the fire of her true affection inflamed her heart, and her inflamed heart resolved into incessant tears; so that burning and bathing between love and grief, she led a life ever dying, and felt a death never ending; and when he by whom she lived was dead, and she for whom he died enforcedly left alive, she praised the dead more than the living; and having lost that light of her life, she desired to dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, choosing Christ’s tomb for her best home, and his corse for her chief comfort: for Mary (as the Evangelist saith) “stood without at the tomb, weeping.”
For his poetry, which is great and spiritually deep…
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