The Real Mary Magdalen (On the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalen)
“Many sins are forgiven her, because she hath loved much.” —Luke 7:47
The Church has presented Saint Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner who, treated by the Savior with great mercy, attained a high degree of sanctity by the intensity of her contrition, faith and love.
For this reason, devotion to her was always extremely popular in the Church, especially in an age of faith, when people understood the beauty of repentance and penance.
AN ADMIRABLE EXAMPLE OF CONVERSION
In keeping with Saints Augustine, Cyprian, Gregory the Great and Bernard, the Scripture scholar Fr. Cornelius à Lapide (1567–1637) explains:
Undoubtedly, Christ allowed St. Mary Magdalene to wallow in lust so that, once she was cleansed, His grace would stand out in her so that, from a sinner, she would become an angelic creature; for the greater the illness, the more it makes stand out the power of the doctor that heals it. Nor does the fact of having been a sinner destroy the honor of Magdalene, but rather increases it: because however great and constant she was in sinning, she showed an even greater courage to break free from sin and to do penance. Thus, God gave Magdalene as a living example of perfect penance to all sinners so they do not despair facing the enormity of their sins but rather confide in God’s immense mercy. For as Saint Paul teaches, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. But for this cause have I obtained mercy: that in me first Christ Jesus might show forth all patience, for the information of them that shall believe in Him unto life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15). [Cornelius à Lapide, Commentaria inScripturam Sacram, Commentaria in Lucam (Paris: Ludovicum Vivès Bibliopola Editor, 1881), Vol. 16, p. 121.]
A LIFE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY
The Gospels give only a general profile of Saint Mary Magdalene, leaving us with an image that is both mysterious and sublime.
This is why Church scholars differed from the beginning on how to interpret some New Testament passages that seem to refer to her, especially Saint Luke’s passage on the repentant woman [Luke 7: 36-50]. However, beginning with Saint Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century, the thesis that Saint Mary Magdalene was the repentant sinner prevailed at least in the West and molded the piety of the faithful, as well as literature and arts.
The Church made no official pronouncement on the matter. She did, however, accept the identification of Saint Mary Magdalene with the repentant sinner both in the Mass and in the Divine Office until the 1969 liturgical reform. The feast day Mass on July 22 was that of “Saint Mary Magdalene, Penitent,” and the Gospel reading was Saint Luke’s narrative of the sinner who washed Our Lord’s feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and then anointed them with precious ointment [Cf. Luke 7: 36-50].
Therefore, even if scholars still dispute among themselves, there is no reason to challenge a whole culture of devotion to this saint as a model of conversion and penance that has been fashioned over centuries. This is all the more true since neither scholarly current carries sufficient weight to elicit adhesion in the absence of a definitive Church pronouncement. Without taking sides in this scholarly debate, we will present the position that has modeled the piety of the faithful, simply to demonstrate that it is not fruit of “mere confusion” as some claim, and even less of a “campaign” against Saint Mary Magdalene as The Da Vinci Code would have it.
AN ARDENT SOUL AT THE SERVICE OF GOD
The Gospels place Saint Mary Magdalene among the women who accompanied and served the Divine Master [Luke 8: 2-3] though seven devils had been expelled from her [Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9]. She remained faithful and stood by the Cross with Mary Most Holy, Mary Cleophas and Mary Salome [Mark 15:40; Matt. 27:56; John 19:25; Luke 23:49]. She attended the burial of Christ and was the first witness of the Resurrection, having received the mission of announcing it to the Apostles [Matt. 27: 56-61; Mark 16: 1-10; John 20: 1-19; Luke 24:10].
These facts are indisputable since the Evangelists expressly refer to her by name. The doubt arises over whether she was the woman who anointed the feet and head of the Savior [Luke 7: 36-50; Matt. 26: 6-13; Mark 14: 3-9; John 12: 3-7].
Saint Luke cites neither the name of the city nor that of the woman, but designates the host that day as Simon the Pharisee. This evangelist is the only one who mentions that the woman was a “sinner in the city.”
Saints Matthew, Mark and John name the city as Bethany. However, the first two name the host as Simon the Leper, while Saint John says Our Lord was a guest of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. Saints Matthew and Mark do not name the woman, but Saint John clearly states it was Mary, the sister of Lazarus (Mary of Bethany). Likewise, in the preceding chapter, as he introduces Mary of Bethany he clarifies: “And Mary was she that anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair: whose brother Lazarus was sick.” [John 11:2].
Generally, commentators admit that the gesture of anointing the feet and head of the Savior took place on two different occasions: the first, by the repentant sinner in Galilee, and the second in Judea. Since in the phrase above, Saint John refers to an anointing that happened before the one he is about to narrate, that of Judea, many have concluded that he is referring to the Galilee anointing by the repentant sinner, narrated by Saint Luke. Hence, Saint John would be identifying Mary of Bethany with the repentant sinner.
Thus, there would have been two anointings, at different times and places, but carried out by the same woman. This argument is reinforced by the fact that the four Evangelists present the same moral and psychological profile of the woman, making it difficult to visualize two different people.
MAGDALENE, FROM WHOM SEVEN DEMONS WERE EXPELLED
As stated above, Saint John, before narrating the second anointing, says that the sister of Lazarus was the one who anointed the feet of Christ and wiped them dry with her hair. Fr. Cornelius à Lapide argues that if the repentant sinner Saint Luke refers to was not the same sister of Lazarus, Saint John should have clearly distinguished between the two so as to avoid confusion in such an important matter. And Alcuin comments that, as there were many Marys among the pious women who followed Jesus, Saint John, in order to clearly identify the sister of Lazarus, mentions her most noteworthy action, that is, the anointing previously narrated by Saint Luke. This is also the opinion of Saint Augustine.
For his part, soon after recounting the case of the repentant sinner, Saint Luke mentions Saint Mary Magdalene among the pious women who followed Our Lord and the Apostles to serve them and clarifies that seven devils were expelled from her [Luke 8:2]. Although he does not establish a link between the sinner and Saint Mary Magdalene, this is thought to be a discreet way of implying that she was the sinner who had just been mentioned.
The fact that seven devils were expelled from her is said to further reinforce that supposition. For while it is certain that diabolical possession can be permitted by God as a trial without the person’s guilt, God can also allow it, as Saint Bonaventure says, “be it as a punishment for sin, be it to correct the sinner.”
Starting from these leads, Saints Augustine, Cyprian, Gregory the Great, Bernard, Bernardine of Siena, Alphonsus Liguori and many others have understood that the repentant sinner, Saint Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Lazarus were one and the same person.
Many problems remain unsolved, such as the fact that Magdala is in Galilee and Bethany is in Judea. However, Fr. H. Lesêtre says:
The difficulties found in evangelical texts are not insuperable, and bearing in mind above all the sameness of characters, one has the right to affirm as probable that the three Marys are but one and the same person.
For his part, Fr. Cornelius à Lapide says that, by her family, Mary could be from Judea (Bethany) but actually lived in Galilee (Magdala) by reason of marriage or because she possessed there a property received as inheritance.
However, as we have said, the data provided by the Evangelists are not sufficient to solve all the mysteries involving the narratives about Saint Mary Magdalene.