SAINT MARY MAGDALENE
Apostle to the Apostles
Feast Day: July 22
Patronage: Provence, contemplatives, converts, druggists, gardeners, glove makers, hairdressers, penitents, perfumers, pharmacists, prisoners, reformed prostitutes
Invoked against: sexual temptation
Symbols: alabaster jar, long hair, skull
“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.”“
Christ to Mary Magdalenee according to John 20:17
The subject of much debate about her true identity, there is one aspect of Mary Magdalene that all ecclesiastical writers agree upon: she never left Christ during His crucifixion and she was the first person to see Him after His resurrection. Because He chose her as His first witness and because He told her to go and tell the others what she saw, she is known as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” But it the example she sets as a penitent and reformed sinner that she is most well known and honored.
According to ancient Jewish texts, the seaside town of Magdala was known as a place of loose morals. Mary had the surname of this town instead of a man’s, signifying her unmarried state. It was said that Mary had wealth and took great pride in her appearance enjoying luxuries and lapsing into promiscuity. Many shunned her because of her reputation for lewdness and it is as this sinner that we are first introduced to her. After Jesus had raised the son of a widow from the dead, a man named Simon invited him to be guest of honor at a dinner. While they were at the table a notorious woman walked into the room carrying an alabaster box. Weeping, she threw herself down and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair then anointed them with the oil. Simon was outraged that Jesus would accept such tribute from someone so disgraceful. Instead of judging the woman Jesus rebuked Simon, “Does thou see this woman? I entered into thy house – thou gave me no water for my feet. But she with tears has washed my feet,, and with her hair has wiped them. Thou gave me no kiss. But she, since she came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou did not anoint but she with ointment has anointed my feet. Wherefore I say to thee: Many sins are forgiven her, because she has loved much. But to whom less is forgiven, he loves less.” He then told the penitent woman to go in peace, all her sins were forgiven.
In the next chapter of Luke he mentions the travels of Christ and his followers in Galiliee, among them is “Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven devils had gone forth.” Though other Christian sects disagree, Catholics believe the penitent woman is Mary Magdalene, who after being exorcized by Christ became one of his greatest and most loyal followers. The day before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem he dined with Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Because she too wipes his feet with her hair and anoints them with oil in the same manner as the penitent woman, it is thought that Lazarus’ sister is Mary Magdalene. When Judas objects to the use of such expensive oil he is rebuked by Christ for being so self-righteous. “…For the poor you have always with you….but me you have not always…”
When Christ was crucified, Mary Magdalene followed His passion on Calvary. Unlike His other disciples, she never renounced Him or ran from Him. She stood with His mother until He was dead, helped take Him down from the cross and wept outside of His tomb. On Easter morning it is Mary Magdalene who returns at dawn to keep a vigil. When she found the great stone covering the tomb rolled away, she ran back to tell Peter and the others that someone had taken Jesus’ body. They ran a head of her, saw that this was true, and not knowing what to do about it, they left. It was Mary Magdalene who stayed behind, searching the tomb and weeping. Two angels dressed in white appeared and ask why she was weeping. “They have taken my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” Another man, a gardener asked her the same question and she begged the man to tell her where he might have put Christ’s body. “Mary,” said the man and she knew who this was. When she went to embrace him he told her “Touch me not!” ( The phrase Noli me tangere in the Latin bible). After she went off to tell the others the good news, the gospels have nothing more to say about Mary Magdalene.
The rest of her life story was written in the early Middle Ages. It says that after the resurrection of Christ, political leaders in Israel tried to quash the cult that was rapidly growing around belief in Him. In hopes that they would perish at sea, Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha, their brother Lazarus and other followers were set out in a rudderless boat. Divine Providence brought them to the coast of Marseilles, France. There they had much success converting the local people to Christianity. Mary took her apostolic mission to Provence and was greeted with equal enthusiasm. After converting the king and helping to install a bishop, she retired to a cave to live out the last thirty years of her life as a penitent. Existing without food or clothing, her hair grew long to cover her body and she repented for her previous deeds as a sinner. Once a day angels would carry her to heaven where she received her “daily sustenance”. Knowing her death was at hand, she sent for Maximinus, the bishop she had installed, received the eucharist and died in tears.
Since each of the 12 original apostles of Christ had areas of the world where they evangelized, and Mary Magdalene and her family were favorites of Christ, early French ecclesiastical writers claimed them as their evangelists. This divine favoritism then extended to France and the French people. Miraculous discoveries of her relics abounded from Provence to Burgundy. The Cathedral at Vezely was dedicated to her in the 12th century and became the center of her cult and an important stop on the pilgrimage to Campostela. Her feast, falling in the heart of summer was happily celebrated throughout France.
To the people of the Middle Ages, Mary Magdalene was a wildly glamorous figure, a beautiful woman with long, red hair. As towns grew into cities, they began to face an onslaught of urban problems such as prostitution. Though there is no mention in the bible of Mary Magdalene ever being a prostitute, preachers invented lurid tales of her youthful sexual indiscretions. The fact that God could extend forgiveness to such a willful, wayward creature gave hope to everyone for their own forgiveness. Homes for reformed prostitutes took her as their patron and the word “magdalene” became a description for a fallen woman. It was not until the 20th century that Mary Magadelene’s role as a penitent and devoted follower of Christ was stressed.
Always a popular subject for artists, Mary Magdalene is depicted as a beautiful, sorrowful woman with long hair. In some images she carries the alabaster unguent jar and in others a skull is present, the symbol of the penitent to remind us of how we are all going to end up. The English word “maudlin” is a derivative of Magdalene. Oxford University has a famous college named for her. Because she loved luxury before her conversion, and bought expensive unguents after it, she is the patron of such trades as glove makers, hairdressers and perfumers. Since devils were cast out of her she is the patron of prisoners who cast off their chains. Because Christ appeared to her as a gardener she is the patron of that profession. Her knowledge and use of unguents makes her the patron of pharmicists.
Prayer to Saint Mary Magdalene
Saint Mary Magdalene, woman of many sins,
Who by conversion became the beloved of Jesus,
Thank you for your witness that Jesus forgives
through the miracle of love.
You, who already possess eternal happiness
in His glorious presence,
please intercede for me, so that someday
I may share in the same everlasting joy.
From the book “Saints: Ancient and Modern” , Viking Studio, by Barbara Calamari and Sandra DiPasqua