July 22 – St Mary Magdalene
“Three Saints,” said our Lord to St. Bridget of Sweden, “have been more pleasing to me than all others: Mary my mother, John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene.” The Fathers tell us that Magdelene is a type of the Gentile Church called from the depth of sin to perfect holiness; and indeed, better than any other, she personifies both the wanderings and the love of the human race, espoused by the Word of God. Like the most illustrious characters of the law of grace, she has her antitype in past ages. Let us follow the history of this great penitent as traced by unanimous tradition: Magdalene’s glory will not be thereby diminished.
When, before all ages, God decreed to manifest his glory, he willed to reign over a world drawn from nothing; and as his goodness was equal to his power, he would have the triumph of supreme love to be the law of that kingdom which the Gospel likens unto a king who made a marriage for his son.
Passing over the pure intelligences whose nine choirs are filled with divine light, the immortal Son of the King of ages looked down to the extreme limits of creation; there he beheld human nature, made indeed to know God, but acquiring that knowledge laboriously; its weakness would better show his divine condescension: with it, then, he chose to contract his alliance.
Man is flesh and blood: so the Son of God would be made Flesh; he would not have Angels, but men for his brothers. He, that in heaven is the Splendor of his Father, and on earth the most beautiful of the sons of men, would draw the human race with the cords of Adam. In the very act of creation he sealed his espousals by raising man to the supernatural state of grace, and placing him in the Paradise of expectation.
Alas! the human race knew not how to await her Bridegroom even in the shades of Eden. Cast out of the garden of delights, she prostituted to vain idols in the groves what was left her of her glory. For she had much beauty still, the gift of her Spouse, though she had profaned it: Thou wast perfect through my beauty, which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord God.
God would not suffer his love to be defeated. Leaving humanity at large to walk in the ways of folly, he chose out a single people, sprung from a holy stock, to be the guardian of his promises. Coming forth from Egypt and from the midst of a barbarous nation, this people was consecrated to God, and became his inheritance. In the person of Balaam, the ancient Bride saw Israel pass through the desert, and filled with admiration at the glory of the Lord dwelling with him in his tent, her heart for a moment beat with bridal love. I shall see him, she cried in her transport, but not now: I shall behold him, but not near. From those wild heights whence the Spouse would one day call her, she hailed the Star that was to rise out of Jacob, and predicted the ruin of the Hebrew people who had supplanted her for a time.
Too soon was this sublime ecstasy followed by still more culpable wanderings! How long wilt thou be dissolute in deliciousness, O wandering daughter? Know thou, and see, that it is an evil and a bitter thing for thee, to have left the Lord thy God. But the ages are passing, the night will soon be over, and the day-star will arise, the sign of the Bridegroom gathering the nations. Let him lead thee into the wilderness and there he will speak to thy heart. Thy rival knows not how to be a queen; the alliance of Sinai has produced but a slave. The Bridegroom still waits for his Bride.
At length the hour came: bending the heavens, he was made sin for sinful men; and hidden under the servile garb of mortals, he sat down to table in the house of the proud Pharisee. The haughty Synagogue, who would neither fast with John, nor rejoice with Christ, was now to see God justifying the delays of his merciful love. “Let us not, like Pharisees,” says St. Ambrose, “despise the counsels of God. The sons of Wisdom are singing: listen to their voices, attend to their dances; it is the hour of the nuptials. Thus sang the Prophet when he said: Come from Libanus, my spouse, come from Libanus.”
And behold a woman that was in the city, a sinner, when she knew that he sat at meat in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster box of ointment; and standing at his feet, she began to wash his feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. “Who is this woman? Without doubt it is the Church,” answers St. Peter Chrysologus in his 95th Sermon, “the Church, weighed down and stained with sins committed in the city of this world. At the news that Christ has appeared in Judea, that he is to be seen at the banquet of the Pasch, where he bestows his mysteries and reveals the divine Sacrament, and makes known the secret of salvation: suddenly she darts forward; despising the endeavors of the Scribes to prevent her entrance, she confronts the princes of the Synagogue; burning with desire she penetrates into the Sanctuary, where she finds him whom she seeks, betrayed by Jewish perfidy even at the banquet of love; not the passion, nor the Cross, nor the tomb can check her faith, or prevent her from bringing her perfumes to Christ.”
Who but the Church knows the secret of this perfume? asks Paulinus of Nola with Ambrose of Milan; the Church, whose numberless flowers have all aromas; the Church, who exhales before God a thousand sweet odors aroused by the breath of the Holy Spirit, viz., the virtues of nations and the prayers of the Saints. Mingling the perfume of her conversion with her tears of repentance, she anoints the feet of her Lord, honoring in them his Humanity. Her faith, whereby she is justified, grows equally with her love: soon the Head of the Spouse, that is, his Divinity, receives from her the homage of the full measure of pure and precious spikenard, to wit, the consummate holiness, whose heroism goes so far as to break the vessel of mortal flesh by the martyrdom of love, if not by that of tortures.
Arrived at the height of the mystery, she forgets not even there those sacred feet, whose contact delivered her from the seven devils representing all vices; for to the heart of the Bride, as in the bosom of the Father, her Lord is still both God and Man. The Jew, who would not own Christ either for head or foundation, found no fragrant oil for his head, nor even water for his feet; she, on the contrary, pours her priceless perfume over both. And while the sweet odor of her perfect faith fills the earth, now become by the victory of that faith the house of the Lord, she continues to wipe her Master’s feet with her beautiful hair, i.e., her countless good works and her ceaseless prayer. The growth of this mystical hair requires all her care here on earth; and in heaven its abundance and beauty will call forth the praise of him who jealously counts, without losing one, all the works of his Church. Then from her own head, as from that of her Spouse, will the fragrant unction of the Holy Spirit overflow even to the skirt of her garment.
Thou despisest, O Pharisee, the poor woman weeping with love at the feet of thy divine Guest whom thou knowest not; but “I would rather,” cries the solitary of Nola, “be bound up in her hair at the feet of Christ, than be seated with thee near Christ, yet without him.” Happy sinner to be, both in her life of sin and that of grace, the figure of the Church, even so far as to have been foreseen and announced by the Prophets. For such is the teaching of St. Jerome and St. Cyril of Alexandria; while Venerable Bede, gathering up, according to his wont, the traditions of his predecessors, does not hesitate to assert that “what Magdalene once did, remains the type of what the whole Church does, and of what every perfect soul must ever do.”
We can well understand the predilection of the Man-God for this soul, whose repentance from such a depth of misery manifested so fully, from the outset, the success of his mission, the defeat of Satan, and the triumph of Divine love. While Israel was expecting from the Messias nought but perishable goods, when the very Apostles, including John the beloved, were looking for honors and first places, she was the first to come to Jesus for himself alone, and not for his gifts. Eager only for pardon and love, she chose for her portion those sacred feet, wearied in the search after the wandering sheep: here was the blessed altar whereon she offered to her Divine Deliverer as many holocausts of herself, says St. Gregory, as she had had vain objects of complacency. Henceforth her goods and her person were at the disposal of Jesus; the rest of her life was to be spent sitting at his feet, contemplating the mysteries of his life, gathering up his every word, following his footsteps as he preached the Kingdom of God. How swiftly, in the light of her humble confidence, did she outstrip the Synagogue and the very just themselves! The Pharisee might be indignant, her sister might complain, the Apostles might murmur: Mary held her peace; but Jesus spoke for her, as if his Sacred Heart were hurt by the least word said against her. At the death of Lazarus the Master had to call her from the mysterious repose wherein even then she was seated; her presence at the tomb was of more avail than the whole college of Apostles and the crowd of Jews. One word from her, though already said by Martha who had arrived first, was more powerful than all the words of the latter; her tears made the Man-God weep, and drew from him that groan which he uttered before recalling the dead man to life—that divine trouble of a God overcome by his creature. Oh truly, for others as well as for herself, for the world as well as for God, Mary has chosen the better part, which shall not be taken from her.
In all that we have said, we have but linked together the testimonies of a veneration universally consistent. But the homage of all the Doctors together cannot compare with the honor which the Church pays to the humble Magdalene, when she applies to the Queen of heaven on her glorious Assumption day the Gospel words first uttered in praise of the justified sinner. Albert the Great assures us that, in the world of grace as well as in the material creation, God has made two great lights, to wit two Marys, the Mother of our Lord, and the sister of Lazarus: the greater, which is the Blessed Virgin, to rule the day of innocence; the lesser, which is Mary the penitent beneath the feet of that glorious Virgin, to rule the night by enlightening repentant sinners. As the moon by its phases points out the feast days on earth, so Magdalene in heaven gives the signal of joy to the Angels of God over one sinner doing penance. Does she not also share with the Immaculate One the name of Mary, Star of the sea, as the Churches of Gaul sang in the Middle Ages, recalling how, though one was a Queen and the other a handmaid, both were causes of joy to the Church: the one being the Gate of salvation, the other the messenger of the Resurrection?
On that great Easter day, Magdalene, like a morning star, announced the rising of the Son of Justice, who was never more to set. “Woman,” said Jesus to her, “why weepest thou? Thou art not mistaken.” He seemed to say, “It is, indeed, the Divine Gardener speaking to thee, the same that planted Eden in the beginning. But now dry thy tears; in this new garden, whose center is an empty tomb, Paradise is restored; the Angels no longer close the entrance; here is the Tree of Life, which has borne fruit these three days past. This Fruit, which thou, O woman, art eager, as of old, to seize and taste, belongs to thee now by right: for thou art no longer Eve but Mary. If thou art bidden not to touch It yet, it is because, as thou wouldst not heretofore taste the fruit of death thyself alone, thou mayest not now enjoy the Fruit of Life till thou bring back to him that was first lost through thee.” Thus by the wisdom and mercy of our God, woman is raised to a higher dignity than before the Fall. Magdalene, to whom woman is indebted for this glorious revenge, has hence obtained in the Church’s litanies the place of honor above even the virgins; as John the Baptist precedes the whole army of the Saints on account of his privilege of being the first witness to our salvation. The testimony of the penitent completes that of the Precursor: on the word of John the Church recognized the Lamb who taketh away the sins of the world; on the word of Magdalene (q.v. the Sequence for Easter) she hails the Spouse triumphant over death. And judging that by his last testimony, Catholic belief is put in full possession of the entire cycle of mysteries; she today intones the immortal symbol which she deemed premature for the feast of Zachary’s son.
O Mary! how great didst thou appear before heaven at that solemn moment when, before the world knew aught of the triumph of life, our Emmanuel the conqueror said to thee: Go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God. Thou didst represent us Gentiles, who were not to obtain possession of our Lord by faith, till after his ascension into heaven. These brethren, to whom the Man-God sent thee, were doubtless those privileged men whom he had called to know him during his mortal life, and to whom thou, O apostle of the Apostles, hadst to announce the mystery of the Pasch; and yet, in his loving mercy, the Divine Master intended to show himself that same day to many of them; and both thou and they were soon to be witnesses of his triumphant Ascension. Is it not evident that thy mission, O Magdalene, though addressed to the immediate disciples of our Lord, was to extend much further both in space and time? As her entered into his glory, the Conqueror of death already beheld these brethren filling the whole earth. It is of them he had said in the Psalm: I will declare thy name to my brethren: in the midst of the Church will I praise thee; in the midst of a people that shall be born which the Lord hath made. It is of them and of us, the generation to come, to whom the Lord was to be declared, that he said to thee: Go to my brethren and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. Thou didst come, and thou comest continually, fulfilling thy mission towards the disciples, and saying to them: I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me.
Thou camest, O Mary, when our West beheld thee, treading the rocks of Provence with thine apostolic feet, whose beauty Cyril of Alexandria admires. There seven times a day, raised on Angels’ wings towards the Spouse, thou didst point out more eloquently than any speech could do, the way he took, the way the Church must follow by her desires, until she is reunited with him forever. Thou didst prove that the apostolate in its highest reach does not depend on words. In heaven the Seraphim, and Cherubim, and Thrones gaze unceasingly upon the Eternal Trinity, without so much as glancing at this world of nothingness; and nevertheless, it is through them that pass the strength and light and love which the heavenly messengers in the lower hierarchies distribute to us on earth. Thus, O Magdalene, though thou clingest ever to the sacred feet which are now not denied to thy love, and thy life is unreservedly absorbed with Christ in God, thou seemest more than any other to be always saying to us: If ye be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth.
O thou, whose choice, so highly approved by our Lord, has revealed to the world the better part, obtain that that portion may be ever appreciated in the Church as the better, viz., that divine contemplation which begins here on earth the life of heaven, and which in its fruitful repose is the source of all the graces spread by the active ministry throughout the world. Death itself does not take away that portion, but assures its possession forever, and makes it blossom into the full, direct vision. May he that has received it from the gratuitous goodness of God never strive to dispossess himself of it! “Happy house,” says the devout St. Bernard, “blessed assembly, where Martha complains of Mary! But how indignant we should be if Mary were jealous of Martha!” And St. Jude tells us the awful judgment of the Angels who kept not their principality, the familiar friends of God who forsook their own habitation. Keep up in religious families established by their fathers on heights that touch the clouds the sense of their inborn nobility: they are not made for the dust and noise of the plain; and did they come down to it, they would injure both the Church and themselves. By remaining what they are, they do not, any more than thou, O Magdalene, become indifferent to the lost sheep; but they take the surest of all means for purifying the earth and drawing souls to God.
From thy church at Vézelay thou didst look down one day upon a vast multitude eagerly receiving the cross; they were about to undertake that immortal Crusade, not the least glory whereof is to have supernaturalized the sentiments of honor in the hearts of those Christian warriors armed for the defense of the holy Sepulchre. A similar lesson was given to the world at the beginning of the nineteenth century: Napoleon, intoxicated with power, would raise to himself and his army a Temple of glory; before the building was completed he was swept away, and the temple was dedicated to thee. O Mary! bless this last homage of thy beloved France, whose people and princes have always surrounded with deepest veneration thy hallowed retreat at Sainte Baume, and thy church at Saint Maximin, where rest thy precious relics. In return, teach them and teach us all, that the only true and lasting glory is to follow with thee in his ascensions him who once sent thee to us, saying, Go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God!
During the different seasons of the year Holy Church inserts in their proper places, as so many precious pearls, the various passages of the Gospel relating to St. Mary Magdalene; for the particulars of her life after the Ascension we are referred to the feast of her sister, St. Martha, which we shall keep in a week’s time. To the liturgical pieces already given in praise of St. Magdalene we add the following ancient Sequence, well known in the churches of Germany, to which we subjoin a Responsory and the Collect of the feast from the Roman Breviary:
|Laus tibi, Christe, qui es creator et redemptor, idem et salvator,||Praise be to thee, O Christ, Creator, Redeemer, and Savior,|
|Cœ, terræ, maris, angelorum et hominum,||Of heaven and earth and seas, of Angels and of men,|
|Quem solum Deum confitemur et hominem.||Whom we confess to be both God and Man,|
|Qui peccatores venisti ut salvos faceres,||Who didst come in order to save sinners,|
|Sine peccato peccati assumens formulam.||Thyself without sin, taking the appearance of sin.|
|Quorum de agrege, ut Chananæam, Mariam visitasti Magdalenam.||Among this poor flock, thou didst visit the Chanaanite woman and Mary Magdalene.|
|Eadem mensa Verbi divini illam micis, hanc refovens poculis.||From the same table thou didst nourish the one with the crumbs of the Divine Word, the other with thy inebriating cup.|
|In domo Simonis leprosi conviviis accubans typicis,||While thou art seated at the typical feast in the house of Simon the Leper,|
|Murmurat pharisæus, ubi plorat fœmina criminis conscia.||The Pharisee murmurs, while the woman weeps conscious of her guilt.|
|Peccator contemnit compeccantem, peccati nescius, pœnitentem exaudis, emundas fœdam, adamas, ut pulchram facias.||The sinner despises his fellow sinner; thou, sinless One, hearest the prayer of the penitent, cleansest her from stains, lovest her so as to make her beautiful.|
|Pedes amplectitur dominicos, lacrymis lavat, tergit crinibus, lavando, tergendo, unguento unxit, osculis circuit.||She embraces the feet of her Lord, washes them with her tears, dries them with her hair; washing and wiping them, she anoints them with sweet ointment, and covers them with kisses.|
|Hæc sunt convivia, quæ tibi placent, o Patris Sapientia.||Such, O Wisdom of the Father, is the banquet that delights thee!|
|Natus de Virgine qui non dedignaris tangi de peccatrice.||Though born of a Virgin, thou dost not disdain to be touches by a sinful woman.|
|A pharisæo es invitatus, Mariæ feculis saturatus.||The Pharisee invited thee, but it is Mary that gives thee a feast.|
|Multum dimittis multum, amanti, nec crimen postea repetenti.||Thou forgivest much to her that loves much, and that falls not again into sin.|
|Dæmoniis eam septem mundas septiformi Spiritu.||From seven devils dost thou free her by thy sevenfold Spirit.|
|Ex mortuis te surgentem das cunctis videre priorem.||To her, when thou risest from the dead, thou showest thyself first of all.|
|Hac, Christe, proselytam signas Ecclesiam, quam ad filiorum mensam vocas alienigenam.||By her, O Christ, thou dost designate the Gentile Church, the stranger whom thou callest to the children’s table;|
|Quam inter convivia legis et gratiæ spernit pharisæi fastus, lepra vexat hæretica.||Who, at the feast of the Law and at the feast of grace, is despises by the pride of Pharisees, and harassed by leprous heresy.|
|Qualis sit su scis, tangit te quia peccatrix, quia veniæ optatrix.||Thou knowest what manner of woman she is; it is because she is a sinner that she touches thee, and because longs for pardon.|
|Quidnam haberet segra, si non accepisset, si non medicus adesset?||What could she have, poor sick one, without receiving it, and without the physician assisting her!|
|Rex regnum dives in omnes, nos salva, peccatorum tergens cuncta crimina, sanctorum apes et gloria.||O King of kings, rich unto all, save us, wash away all the stains of our sins, O thou, the hope and glory of the Saints.|
|Congratulamini mihi, omnes qui diligitis Dominum; quia quam quærebam apparuit mihi: * Et dum flerem ad monumentum, vidi Dominum meum, alleluia.||Congratulate me, all ye that love the Lord; for he whom I sought appeared to me: * and while I wept at the tomb, I saw my Lord, Alleluia.|
|℣. Recedentibus discipulis, non recedebam, et amoris ejus igne succensa, ardebam desiderio. * Et dum.||℣. When the disciples withdrew, I did not withdraw, and being kindles with the fire of his love, I burned with desire. * And while.|
|Beatæ Mariæ Magdalenæ quæsumus Domine, suffragiis adjuvemur: cujus precibus exoratus quatriduanum fratrem Lazarum vivum ab inferis resuscitasti. Qui vivis.||We beseech thee, O Lord, that we may be helped by the intercession of blessed Mary Magdalene, entreated by whose prayers thou didst raise up again to life, her brother Lazarus, who had been dead four days. Who livest, etc.|
This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)