The timeless example of St Mary Magdalen

By Maria Madise

St Mary Magdalen is the model of penitents for all times, not only because of the gravity and multitude of the sins that necessitated her repentance but also because of the depth of the love from which it emerged. She is a central character of Eastertide and so instructive in her witness that whilst much has been written about her, it seems far from exhaustive.

On the eve of His bitter Passion, when Mary Magdalen had come with precious ointments, Our Lord, in response to the complaints of the apostle who was going to betray Him, foretold that “this woman” would be remembered for her kindness in the story of the Passion: “Amen, I say to you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done, shall be told for a memorial of her.” (Mt 26:13) While the name of Pontius Pilate, who washed his hands in an effort to evade the responsibility of the crime he was about to authorise, is fixed forever in the Creed as a lasting memory of his wretchedness, St Mary Magdalen, through acts of kindness for her Redeemer, is forever exalted in the record of the greatest event in human history.

Through this story that is central to the life of every believing Christian in all times, she continues to call us to conversion. Her repentance and her love were public, but not for the public; they were for Our Lord instructing the public. Today, many follow her in her sins and some follow her in her contrition. But only a few follow her in her total love for Christ.

Yet, it was precisely this love that won her forgiveness: “[m]any sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.” (Lk 7:47) We could say that her conversion had two parts – first conversion from sin to contrition and then from contrition to unconditional love of Christ. Without unwavering and unselfish love of Christ, our contrition too is imperfect.

Let’s consider the power of her love on Easter morning. It was not intimidated by the Roman soldiers – soldiers who in the dark hours of the early morning were blind to the sacred reality that they guarded the Body of God. It was undaunted by the weight of the stone that somehow had to be removed. It was not even distracted by the angels who informed her that her beloved was no longer in the tomb. So single-minded was this love that angels could not divert her in the least; they deserved attention only in so far as they could help her find Him.

Her devotion was rewarded. She was the first recorded witness in the gospels to see our resurrected Lord.

St Gregory the Great described the inner attitude of Mary Magdalen on Easter morning as great longing. The apostles were gone, she alone persevered. Yet, she did not recognise Him when He appeared. She had thought He was a gardener, and in fact, he was the new Adam who re-opened the gates of the garden of Paradise. He called her by name and in this call to a new life, she recognised her Creator and Redeemer.

We may imagine that she would perhaps have thrown herself at His feet as she had done before, had He not stopped her. Perhaps, she would have poured the oils that she had brought to complete the hasty burial over His pierced hands and feet restored to life. We could easily imagine Magdalen occupying herself in eternity with anointing the scars of these glorious wounds that are to forever remind us of the charity with which God has loved humankind.

However, it was His wish that at that time she would not touch Him, but go and tell the Apostles that He had risen. (See John 20:17)

One cannot help but think of it as an instruction on how to approach the Holy Eucharist. Do not touch me! And yet without touching Him, He completely fills the longing of a soul portrayed in Mary Magdalen.

But this is not the only way in which she shows us how to encounter Christ in our soul. While still on earth, Our Lord had once reproached His host as He could reproach many who receive Him today. With Mary Magdalen present, He said: “I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet; but she with tears hath washed my feet, and with her hair hath wiped them.Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since she came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint; but she with ointment hath anointed my feet.” (Lk 7:44-46) Again, it is true repentance converted into true love which gives God the appropriate reception.

When contemplating the events on Calvary, it seems almost striking how Mary Magdalen dared to be so close to the Cross – a place which, considering the circumstances, seemed to be reserved for soldiers and immediate family members. This sort of courage cannot be explained by repentance alone but her love, the cause and fruit of her contrition.

There is also another dimension to this scene which is unveiled in the presence of Our Lady. According to the visions received by Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich, after her ultimate conversion, Mary Magdalen made Her confession to Our Lord, weeping at His feet, and she asked over and over: “Lord, is there still salvation for me?” Jesus forgave her sins and in order to save her from another relapse commanded her to unite herself closely to His Holy Mother who was pure without stain, to seek from her advice and consolation. Afterwards, Jesus said of her to the holy women: “She has been a great sinner, but for all future time, she will be the model of penitents.”[1]

Our Lady’s purity is the ultimate cure for impurity and one freed from impurity must cling to her. This is the instruction of Our Lord to Mary Magdalen that she followed to the foot of the Cross where our Blessed Mother stood.

The level of indecency around us and transgressions of Christian purity that offend the Immaculate Heart of Mary seem as countless today as grains of sand in the sea. St Mary Magdalen has shown us the way to make reparation for them both as individuals and as a society: to cling to Our Lady who alone is immaculate and to offer sacrifices for her consolation.

We should ask Mary Magdalen, especially on her feast day, to instil in our souls too her great love for our Lord. We can follow Him in the Holy Eucharist the way Magdalen followed Him on earth. This is how we can take her place under the Cross today. Without touching His resurrected Body, adoring and consoling, staying close to His Immaculate Mother. And if we do that, we may hear the sweet words of our Lord that every sinner longs to hear: “Thy faith hath made thee safe, go in peace.” (Lk 7:49)

[1] Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich “Mary Magdalen: In the Visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich”, TAN Books, 2005, p.47.