Today is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, a key figure in the life of Christ and perhaps one of the most enigmatic saints of Christianity, many legends have been told about this important saint. Instead, I would like to introduce her story; a story of remission, forgiveness, redemption and renewal in Christ, an example to all and below Christ, below the Virgin, someone we can not just admire but associate with us.
|Mary Magdalene - Carlo Crivelli - c.1485 - Tempera on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.|
|St. Mary Magdalene - Jan van Scorel - c.1530 - Oil on Panel - Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.|
|Mary Magdalene - Piero di Cosimo - c.1490 - Tempera on Panel - Palazzo Barberini, Rome.|
She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. What did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? It is clear, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner. She had coveted with earthly eyes, but now through penitence these are consumed with tears. She displayed her hair to set off her face, but now her hair dries her tears. She had spoken proud things with her mouth, but in kissing the Lord’s feet, she now planted her mouth on the Redeemer’s feet. For every delight, therefore, she had had in herself, she now immolated herself. She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance. Pope Gregory the Great (homily XXXIII).
|The Raising of Lazarus - Geertgen tot Sint Jans - c.1480 - Oil and Tempera on Panel - Louvre Museum, Paris.|
Grant unto us, most merciful Father,
that like as blessed Mary Magdalene
by loving thy Only-begotten One above all things,
obtained pardon of all her sins,
so she may secure for us everlasting blessedness
in thy compassionate presence.
Mary Magdalene was an especially popular saint for the Medieval man who always sought mediators in which he could identify; the Gothic, late Middle Ages were also a prolific time for mystic, "magical" tales; one of the greatest works of that time was the Golden Legend by Jacobus da Voragine, a Dominican Friar, a beautiful collection of the lives of the saints, from Saint George and the Dragon to the Finding of the Cross by Saint Helena. The Golden Legend stated that Mary Magdalene was in fact also rich and noble.
...Magdalene abounded in riches, and because delight is fellow to riches and abundance of things; and for so much as she shone in beauty greatly, and in riches, so much the more she submitted her body to delight, and therefore she lost her right name, and was called customably a sinner.
|Mary Magdalene - Antonio Vivarini - c.1476 - Tempera on Panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.|
After the Ascension, the "Penitent Magdalene" spent the rest of her life as an hermit in a cave for thirty years, communicating with angels:
...the blessed Mary Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water, ne solace of trees, ne of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did do show it openly, that he had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.
The Golden Legend interestingly, and perhaps because of the Dominican influence, sees Mary Magdalene as a preacher and evangeliser:
When Mary Magdalene saw the people gathering at the shrine to offer sacrifice to the idols, she came forward, her manner calm and her face serene, and with well-chosen words called them away from the cult of idols and preached Christ fervidly to them. All who heard her were in admiration at her beauty, her eloquence, and the sweetness of her message...and no wonder, that her mouth which had pressed such pious and beautiful kisses on the Savior’s feet should breathe forth the perfume of the word of God more profusely than others could.
These elaborate, beautiful legends were generally widely accepted by the Church and truly besides being splendid poetry, caused no arm and were usually based on real accounts. In fact, they were instrumental in spreading the faith.
The Anglican 1549 Book of Common Prayer kept the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene as a red letter day, then changed to a black letter day after 1552, interestingly the readings remained the same as in the Tridentine Mass. Here is the beautiful collect from the first prayer book:
Merciful father geue us grace,
that we neuer presume to synne through the example of anye creature,
but if it shall chaunce vs at any tyme to offende thy dyuine maiestie:
that then we maye truly repent, and lament the same,
after the example of Mary Magdalene,
and by lyuelye faythe obtayne remission of all oure sinnes:
throughe the onely merites of thy sonne oure sauiour Christ.
|Mary Magdalene - English Master of the 15th century - c.1493 - Tempera on Panel - St.Catherine's Church, Ludham.|
Saint Mary Magdalene in Glory with Angels - Master of Gdańsk - c.1430 - Tempera and Gold on Panel - National Museum, Warsaw.
Another common iconography is that of Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross during Jesus’ Crucifixion, she often appears with the Virgin Mary and Saint John as another spectator. She is often found kneeling, clutching the shaft, kissing Jesus’ feet or usually standing in grief at the left behind Mary and John. According to an 11th century English manuscript she is seen as an expressional device rather than a historical motif, intended as the expression of an emotional assimilation of the event, that leads the spectator to identify himself with the mourners.
|Crucifixion - Hans Memling - c.1491 - Oil on Panel - St. Annen Museum, Lübeck.|
|Noli Me Tangere - Marcello Venusti - c.1550 - Oil on Panel - Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.|
When she meets for the first time the resurrected Christ who warns her not to come close, for redemption had been fulfilled in her and mankind; and the very God that he was had become ready for rejoining the Father in heaven. Sin had been broken. This is the story of Mary Magdalene and why this great sinner is the closest to us all, with Jesus in her heart, sin in her past and resurrection in her future. Here is a hymn I wrote to her (to be sung to Austria):
Mary Magdalene, most Blessèd,
born from sin, yet saved by Christ;
forth from her he cast the demons,
she became a Saint so bright.
By his mercy was she saved;
when the sin was torn apart,
Peace of God, his gracious off’ring,
unto her doth Grace impart.
Christ was Crucified by man,
so to save our souls from sin;
at his feet stood Mary weeping,
for the glorious King of kings.
Three whole days of silent waiting,
Mary first to see his face;
the great Christ was now alive,
raised from death, restored the Grace.
And from sin to Grace the story,
tells the victory over sin;
Mary Magdalene, the blessèd,
healed by Christ’s own power within.
To the Trinity be glory,
to the Father and the Son;
to the Holy Ghost above,
ever Three and ever One.