22 July: Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

Georges_de_La_Tour_Repentant_Magdalen_400Today 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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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Serviam says:

    I am currently reading Saint Mary Magdalene Prophetess of Eucharistic Love by Fr Sean Davidson which gives a brilliant argument that Mary Magdalene is most likely also Mary of Bethany, etc…..

    It seems that Mary Magdalene spent her last years in what is now France and Madeleine is the French form of Magdalene, so I would think those little cookies are quite fitting for her Feast. And being that she is known for being a repentant sinner, so is going to Confession :-)

    Happy Feast Father Z!!!

  2. Chrissin says:

    I went to Mass tonight, the traditional Latin Mass, and the epistle reading just blew my socks off! It is from Canticles, Song 3:2-5: 8:6-7. I was confused about “Him Whom my heart loves” and all the references to a lover “Him” which makes it look like Jesus Christ because of how it is capitalised….But later the narrator speaks… “I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem” and tells them of the great power of love, not to be stirred up or let loose before its time. Then uses the capitalisation again: “Set me as a seal on Your heart, as a seal on Your arm..” As if to say – look what happened to me, and don’t do the same. After reading the bit of Robert Southwell with the burning of her heart and quenching with tears and burning again…it has the same intensity and impassioned sense as the Song. One line really got me:”for stern as death is love,” and then “its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench love..” This is just way beyond anything I have read of great poets on human love…
    Still a bit confused on the meaning in light of Mary Magdalene….sometimes her love for Jesus seems very much like a woman’s love for a man….but I think it is supposed to be intensely spiritual. Maybe just my all too human mind.

  3. Mike says:

    Michael Wood, historian, thinks Southwell was Shakespeare’s cousin.

  4. Boniface says:

    Happy feast day to everyone. I am grateful to Pope Francis for having elevated this to a feast on the current calendar. Deo Gratias.

  5. lmgilbert says:

    How out of temper with our own times is “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears,” but it is a the sort of meditation that produced a saint, St. Robert Southwell. Unlike us, our forbears were not afflicted with floods and floods of light-weight spiritual reading. Rather they had little more than Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church on which to dwell. I wonder, then, on what sort of thing St. Robert himself reflected that he brought forth this treasure from his storehouse.

    In his “Le traité de la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique” the Abbé de Rancé -founder of the Trappists-rehearsed some of this same matter in 1683:

    “‘Fly laughter, my dear sister, as an error,’ says Saint Leander in his rule, ‘and separate yourself from all transitory joys; change them into mourning, that you may rejoice in heaven, after having wept in this world like a stranger, since they who weep, according to God, shall be comforted.’ He wept over himself like a stranger, who said in the bitterness of his grief: ‘Woe to me that my exile is prolonged’ (Psalm 119:5). Your heavenly spouse will receive you into the arms of his mercy, and comfort you with his presence, if he perceive that you ardently desire to behold him, and that with tears you lament his absence.”

    De Rancé goes on to quote St. Ephrem, St. John Chrysostom, Pope Eugenius III, St. Nilus, St. Jerome, St. Arsenius, St. Benedict and St. Bernard to the same effect.

    For example, St. John Chrysostom:
    “Tell me where have you read, that Jesus Christ ever laughed: have you even heard it? Undoubtedly not, but on the contrary you may have read that he was sad and wept.”

    Just as we (speaking of the large majority of Catholics, myself included) have never heard of St. Robert Southwell or “Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears,” never have we been confronted with this substantial strain of Catholic spirituality that mourns so deeply over our Lord, that weeps over our sins, that cares to think for an instant on Our Lord’s dictum: “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep,” or “Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall rejoice.”

    Surely, then, if St. Mary Magdalen mourned so deeply, she must of all saints be -next to Our Lady- the patron saint of joy.

  6. SanSan says:

    In the book, “Refugee from Heaven”, by Cora Evans, Servant of God, American Mystic and Stigmatist……there is an in depth account of St. Mary of Magdela (very interesting)…….The book proclaims the “Mystical Humanity of Jesus Christ”. If you’d like to read DETAILED scriptual accounts from the Gospels, from Peter meeting Jesus through the Reserrection–this is a not to be missed book. Jesus, truly man and truly God.

  7. KateD says:

    There are people I adore who are really in a bad way spiritually, as I have been in my life, and I wonder at the mystery of forgiveness as expressed through the lives of so many saints, but especially this one, who was with Christ. She always reminds me of the debtor who owes A LOT, and is therefore so much more grateful when the debt is wiped off the books.

    I also have become friends with many people who have always lead exemplary lives and come from saintly families. This is definitely the way to go, and I hope for this for my children, but I also see the value of a person who has walked a rocky path to find their way to the Church. They seem to offer more kindness and a deeper mercy to those who come after them on the journey to holiness. They seem less judgemental…maybe because they are humbled by their past?

    There’s a book by Reverend Hugh Francis Blunt called the Great Magdalens. Excellent read. Makes you want to run off to the desert and wall yourself in somewhere.

    BTW: Why was Mary Magdalen not to touch Jesus before the Ascension, yet Thomas was invited to stick his fingers into His wounds? I don’t understand that.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Chrissin —

    Those Song of Songs readings need to be read in context of the whole book of the Song of Songs. There’s an assumption made that we already know that book, because in the past it was pretty popular.

    On this feast, the readings are chosen to play back and forth between the actual book (the beloved bride and the husband to be), the moral meaning of the book (Israel/the Church as bride, and God as the husband to be), and then St. Mary Magdalene’s life.

    “Set me as a seal on your arm” is not about remembering the bride as a warning. It’s basically saying, “Keep me with You all the time.” It does play back against how Israel was supposed to keep and remember God’s commands as if bound on her forehead and arm (which is where the Jewish phylacteries come from — er, forget the Hebrew for it, but some Jews won’t pray without binding them on, and sometimes they actually have little Bible verses written inside them, IIRC).

    It could be argued that each of us who goes to Heaven, and each of us who is a member of the Body of Christ, is indeed held as close to God as a seal on His heart and arm. We are indeed with Him always, and He with us.

  9. guans says:

    May I add another “whew” to all the comments here!

  10. GregB says:

    I view Acts, the end of Luke, and John from a mystical point of view. The post-Resurrection period was one of withdrawing sensible consolation. At the empty tomb Mary Magdalene only recognized Christ when He spoke her name. To me the reason why Christ told her not to touch Him was to prepare her for His Ascension, to prevent her from developing an attachment to His physical presence. The encounter at Emmaus and the Ascension both involved the withdrawal of sensible consolation, as does the Eucharist. At Emmaus it was only when the disciples recognized Christ that the sensible consolation of His presence was withdrawn. In the contemplative way the withdrawal of sensible consolation by God is done to stimulate a deeper spirituality in the contemplative. In the book of Acts we see the development of an interior spiritual life in the early Church. Pentecost marked the beginning of this interior spiritual life. The life of mystical contemplation is the work of the Holy Spirit, as was Pentecost. At Pentecost the Church needed to develop an interior spiritual life, so as to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. St. Peter came to his understanding of the Church’s mission to the Gentiles via a trance with the sheet coming down with the unclean animals on it. The Seven Deacons were chosen so that the Apostles could devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. When the Apostles announced their decision at the Council of Jerusalem, the Council’s Letter said “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:” The sensible consolation of Christ’s presence had to be withdrawn by the Ascension so that the Apostles could give the Holy Spirit their undivided attention. The Holy Spirit is all over Acts. IIRC, Acts can be called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit.
    One of the primary characteristics of the Eucharist is that the Real Presence is not sense perceptible. In the Eucharist we have the hidden Christ, the wholly interior Christ Who can only be seen with eyes of faith, fostering the development of an interior spiritual life. The lack of sensible consolation in the Eucharist makes it completely compatible with every stage of Contemplative Prayer.

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