Today is the feast day of Saint Mary Magdelene. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Mary Magdalene (dates unknown, first century), friend and disciple of Jesus, honored woman of Scripture, Penitent, and “Apostle of the Apostles.” What we know of the life of this saintly woman comes directly from Scripture. Of the earlier life of Saint Mary Magdalene we know only that she was a woman who was a sinner. Mary Magdalene was so called either from Magdala near Tiberias, on the west shore of Galilee, or possibly from a Talmudic expression meaning “curling women’s hair,” which the Talmud explains as of an adulteress.
In the New Testament she is mentioned among the women who accompanied Christ and ministered to Him (Luke 8:2-3), where it is also said that seven devils had been cast out of her (Mark 16:9). She is next named as standing at the foot of the cross (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56; John 19:25; Luke 23:49). She saw Christ laid in the tomb, and she was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection.
The Greek Fathers, as a whole, distinguish the three persons:
- the “sinner” of Luke 7:36-50;
- the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and
- Mary Magdalene.
On the other hand most of the Latins hold that these three were one and the same.
Subsequent history of St. Mary Magdalene
The Greek Church maintains that the saint retired to Ephesus with the Blessed Virgin and there died, that her relics were transferred to Constantinople in 886 and are there preserved. Gregory of Tours (De miraculis, I, xxx) supports the statement that she went to Ephesus. However, according to a French tradition, Mary, Lazarus, and some companions came to Marseilles and converted the whole of Provence. Magdalene is said to have retired to a hill, La Sainte-Baume, near by, where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of St. Maximinus, where she received the viaticum; her body was then laid in an oratory constructed by St. Maximinus at Villa Lata, afterwards called St. Maximin. History is silent about these relics till 745, when according to the chronicler Sigebert, they were removed to Vézelay through fear of the Saracens. No record is preserved of their return, but in 1279, when Charles II, King of Naples, erected a convent at La Sainte-Baume for the Dominicans, the shrine was found intact, with an inscription stating why they were hidden. In 1600 the relics were placed in a sarcophagus sent by Clement VIII, the head being placed in a separate vessel. In 1814 the church of La Sainte-Baume, wrecked during the Revolution, was restored, and in 1822 the grotto was consecrated afresh. The head of the saint now lies there, where it has lain so long, and where it has been the centre of so many pilgrimages.
St. Mary Magdalen, Penitent
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Mary Magdalen, so highly praised in the Gospel on account of her heroic conversion and fervent love of our Saviour, was born at Bethany, not far from Jerusalem. Her parents, as many authors say, were nobles. She had one brother named Lazarus, and a sister called Martha. When the fortune which her parents had left was divided, the Castle, or as others say, the borough of Magdalum, came into her possession from which she also derived her name. St. Luke writes that before her conversion, she had been a sinner in the city, by which some authors understand that she had been addicted to the horrible vice of impurity; while others say that she had given scandal to the whole city by her splendid garments, frivolous manners, and her unrestrained associations with those of the opposite sex. The same evangelist also says that our Lord Jesus Christ delivered her from seven devils, which words many understand literally, believing that on account of her iniquities, she was possessed by several evil spirits, and like many others, was delivered from them by our Saviour.
The generality of the holy Fathers, however, believe that Martha had persuaded her sister to be present at the instructions of Christ, and although Magdalen at first followed this advice, only out of curiosity or to please her sister, it nevertheless proved to be the first step to her conversion. It is beyond all doubt that, moved by divine grace, she saw her guilt and resolved to do penance without delay; for, on hearing that Christ was eating with Simon, a Pharisee, she immediately repaired thither. She was unwilling to wait for an opportunity to speak with the Saviour alone, and to ask pardon for her sins without others being near. She could not wait so long. The unhappy state into which her soul was plunged, since she had come to the knowledge of her sin, made her impatient. Although foreseeing that her public confession would draw upon her the derision of the Pharisees and others, she heeded not; publicly she had sinned and publicly she would do penance. Hence, regardless of all human opinion, she hastened into the room where Christ was at table, and bitterly weeping, she cast herself at His feet, bathing them with a flood of repentant tears. Having wiped them with her hair, she kissed them reverentially and then opening a vase of alabaster, which she had brought, she anointed them with perfumes. It is not recorded whether, during or before the anointment, she spoke a single word, but her penitent heart was seen in her humble attitude at the Saviour’s feet, and the abundance of her tears spoke more eloquently than words could have done. It spoke of her repentance, it humbly asked pardon for her sins.
Christ well comprehended this language; for, turning His eyes upon her, He said these comforting words: “Thy sins are forgiven thee;” and afterwards: “Thy faith has made thee safe; go in peace!” Before saying this, He reproved Simon, the Pharisee, and praised Magdalen, because when Simon saw that Christ allowed Magdalen to bathe His feet with her tears and to kiss them, he said to himself: “This man, if He were a prophet, would surely know who and what manner of woman it is that touches Him; for she is a sinner.” Christ knowing the Pharisee’s thoughts, said to him: “Simon, I have something to say to thee. A certain creditor had two debtors. One of them owed him five hundred pence, the other fifty. As they, however, could not pay him, he forgave them both; which, therefore, of the two, loveth him most?” “I suppose,” replied Simon, “he to whom he forgave most.” “Thou has judged rightly,” said Christ; and turning to the woman, He said to Simon: “Dost thou see this woman? I entered into thy house; thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she bathed my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss; but she has not ceased to kiss my feet. Therefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much.” Oh! what great consolation must have filled Magdalen’s heart, when Christ’s own words assured her that her sins were forgiven! She certainly went immediately to announce to her brother and sister the inexpressibly-great mercy which the Saviour had bestowed upon her.
From this moment her heart was wholly changed, and entirely consecrated to Christ. She followed Him everywhere and listened with undivided attention to His instructions. One day Christ lodged at the house of her sister Martha, who was greatly concerned to serve Him well, while Magdalen, sitting at the Lord’s feet, listened eagerly to His words. Her sister complaining of her, said to our Saviour: “Lord, dost Thou not care that my sister has left me alone to serve? Speak to her that she help me.” The Lord, however, praised Magdalen’s zeal, saying: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.” These words of the Saviour proved how much pleased He was with Magdalen’s eagerness to listen to His holy teaching. He also showed how great His love was to her, when, yielding to her prayers and to Martha’s, He raised Lazarus to life. This wonderful event is to be found in the holy Gospel of St. John, Chapter xi., and will be more circumstantially described in the life of St. Lazarus. Here I will relate only the event which occurred six days before the last Easter which our Lord celebrated on earth. Christ came to Bethany, to the house of Simon, the leper, where they had prepared supper for Him. Lazarus, who had shortly before been raised to life, was, with others, sitting at the table. Martha served, and Magdalen brought a costly sweet-scented ointment, and anointed first the head and then the feet of Christ. When Judas murmured against it, saying that they could have sold so costly an ointment and given the money to the poor, Christ again defended Magdalen against the deceitful murmurs of the traitor and of some others, and said: ” Why do you trouble this woman? for she has wrought a good work upon me. The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always. Amen I say to you, wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she has done, shall be told for a memory of her.”
Soon after this, when the passion and death of our dear Lord took place, the Gospel tells us that Magdalen, with the divine Mother and other pious women, was present upon Calvary at the Crucifixion of the Saviour. Words are too poor to describe the feelings of grief and tenderness with which she kissed and worshipped the holy body when it was taken from the Cross. Although after the burial, she went to Jerusalem with the other women, she returned to the sepulchre of Christ, with some other women, on the day after the Sabbath. It was their intention again to anoint the holy body of the Saviour with fragrant essences. On the way, they thought of the impediment which the great stone would be which closed the Sepulchre of the Redeemer. They most probably knew nothing of the guard which Pilate had set thereat the request of the High Priest. “Who will remove the stone from the entrance of the Sepulchre?” said they to each other on the way. God had removed this obstruction; for, when they arrived at the Sepulchre, they saw that the stone was rolled away and the Sepulchre was open. They went together into it, but found that the body had disappeared. An angel informed them that He, Whom they looked for, had risen, and commanded them to announce it to His disciples. Soon after, Magdalen was blessed with the appearance of the Lord in the form of a gardener, which is more circumstantially related in the Gospel. There is no doubt that she several times had the grace to see her Divine Master during the forty days He was upon earth. She was also present when He gloriously ascended to heaven; after which He, on Pentecost day, sent the Holy Ghost to His disciples, apostles, and other faithful followers. As long as Magdalen remained at Jerusalem, she was with the Divine Mother and other pious women.
A considerable time after these events, the Christians were cruelly persecuted, and the Jews were determined to suffer Lazarus, the brother of St. Magdalen, no longer in Jerusalem, as he was a living testimony to the divinity of Christ. Hence they placed him, his two sisters, Magdalen and Martha, a servant of theirs, named Marcella, and Maximin, one of the 72 disciples of Christ, in a boat, without rudder, sail, or boatman, took them far from the land into the high sea, and left them, being quite certain that the waves would soon swallow the boat and all its occupants. But God led them safely to France, and they landed at Marseilles amid a crowd of heathens who had come to the shore. This miraculous voyage prepared the hearts of the heathen inhabitants to receive the true Faith. Lazarus, who had been consecrated bishop by the apostles, made his episcopal See in the same city where they had landed. Maximin, as priest, chose the city of Aix as his residence. Martha slowly gathered a great many women around her, and having instructed them in the Christian faith, led a retired, pious, almost a religious life with them, while Magdalen converted a great many by her teachings and her holy life. In the course of time, however, she retired into a desert, far from any habitations of men, and made her abode in the dark cavern of a mountain. There she dwelt during 30 years, leading a most severe life, occupied in praying, contemplating the divine mysteries, and the bitter Passion and death of our Saviour. She repented daily, with floods of tears, of the iniquities of her former days, although she had heard from the lips of Christ that they were forgiven. In one word, her life was much more that of an angel than that of a human being. Hence we may well believe, what many relate of her, that she was frequently visited by angels, who provided her with food and even raised her into heaven to hear the seraphic choir sing the praises of the Most High. Before her death, she was carried by two spirits of light into a little church two miles from her dwelling, where, having received from the hands of St. Maximin the food of the angels, she soon after gave her soul into the keeping of Him Whom she had so fervently loved while upon earth.
The cavern in the mountain where the great penitent so long dwelt, as well as the little church which contains her relics, arc renowned for the many miracles wrought there. The most illustrious, however, was the Saint herself, who from so great a sinner became so great a penitent and so fervent a lover of Christ. The holy fathers can hardly find words of praise enough, not only for her heroic conversion, but also for her generous, faithful, and fervent love towards her Saviour. And who can sufficiently admire the austere penance, lasting for 30 years, which she underwent in the cavern, although she knew that her sins were entirely forgiven? (3)
Pope Saint Gregory the Great said of Saint Mary Magdalene in a homily: “When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and did not find the Lord’s body, she thought it had been taken away and so informed the disciples. After they came and saw the tomb, they too believed what Mary had told them. The text then says: “The disciples went back home,” and it adds: “but Mary wept and remained standing outside the tomb.” 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 tell us: ‘Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.’”
Image: The Penitent Magdalene. Artist Guido Reni. 1635. (6)
Research by REGINA Staff