St. Mary Magdalene
The Gospel St. Luke 7.36
Wherefore I say unto thee: Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her: thy sins are forgiven. And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves: who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman: Thy faith hath saved thee: go in peace.
This week, I have decided to throw you all a bit of a curve, and depart from my usual practice of preaching on either the Epistle or Gospel lesson for the Sunday. Instead, I have taken as my text the Gospel lesson from the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, which will be celebrated at Mass this coming Wednesday. Please be assured that I do not think the propers for today to be unworthy of a sermon; all I will say to that is; come back here on Trinity VII next year and find out!
But this particular person, this Mary Magdalene, is someone who not only intrigues me greatly, but also inspires me as well. So rather than wait for her Feast to again fall on a Sunday, I decided to “create” the opportunity to talk about her, and to expound on her story; for it is a very remarkable story, to be sure.
This Mary Magdalene is mentioned both directly and indirectly many times in the Gospels. Perhaps the most noteworthy references to Mary place her next to the Blessed Virgin at the foot of the Cross, and in the garden near the Holy Sepulcher after Our Lord’s resurrection. But taken together, all of the Gospel references to this Mary present us with an example of a life devoted to Christ that is both uncommon and yet a brilliant and easily followed example for us as well.
There are three “roles” or “persons” in the Gospels that the Church has traditionally attributed to Mary Magdalene. The first role is that of the penitent sinner mentioned in the seventh chapter of St. Luke, a portion of which I just read to you. You may remember this particular story; Jesus has come to the house of a Pharisee, one of those “big shots” in Israel. And as he sits down for dinner this woman, who apparently has something of a bad reputation around town, comes to him sobbing uncontrollably.
Now, she doesn’t ask for anything. In fact, we aren’t told that she speaks at all. But as she kneels there, her tears splash on Jesus’ feet. She proceeds to wash his feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and anoint them with an ointment that likely cost her any monetary savings she had. And of course, what does the “big shot” do? He condescends. He looks down on this woman, and on Jesus, and wonders, “how can this man let her touch him? Doesn’t he know that she’s one of those types of women”?
This “big shot” Pharisee doesn’t get it. He completely misses that he’s messed up his own responsibility. You see, in a Jewish household at that time, it was proper for a host to provide water and towels for his guests so that they could wash themselves upon entering. And yet, when Jesus walks into the house, no such courtesy is offered. This guy has arrogantly insulted Our Lord by not even bothering with the most basic of accommodations. How would you like to be him on Judgment Day?
But let’s get back to the woman. Even as the Pharisee is muttering to himself, she doesn’t stop. She kneels there, crying and kissing Jesus’ feet. And not once does she ask for anything. This is why the Church has named Mary Magdalene the patron Saint of repentant sinners. She came to her Lord on her knees. And while she asked for nothing, at the same time she showed a love for Jesus that has never been exceeded by anyone. And because she loved God and Jesus so completely, and knelt before Christ in sorrowful acknowledgment of her transgressions, her sins were forgiven. This woman showed us the way to Salvation.
The second person or role traditionally attributed to Mary Magdalene is as the sister of Martha and Lazarus. As the sister of Lazarus, she joins Martha in petitioning Jesus to come when their brother becomes gravely ill. But when Jesus does finally arrive, sometime after Lazarus has died, St. John’s Gospel tells us that Mary stays at home, while Martha rushes out to meet him (St. John ch. 11, v 1-45).
Now doesn’t this seem odd? When Lazarus appears to be near death, Mary joins her sister in sending for Jesus; and while they wait, their brother does indeed die. But when Jesus arrives, she doesn’t bother coming out just to see him? Certainly, she must have heard the news of her Lord’s coming, but she still remains at home, mourning her brother. Ah, but then, her sister Martha comes to her and says, “The Master is calling for you”. And immediately Mary jumps up and runs from the house.
Now the people there thought that Mary, in her grief, was running to her brothers’ grave, to continue her mourning there. However, she does not go to Lazarus tomb; rather, she goes straight to Jesus. And when she reaches him, she does what any of us would, or probably should do; she kneels before Christ; but not understanding what she is saying, she tells Jesus, “if only you had been here earlier; for now it is too late”.
Of course, as we all know, Jesus shows Mary, and all of us as well, that it was not too late; it is never too late. The lesson here is so obvious; Mary and Martha have called to the Lord in their time of need. And just as we have been promised, such a plea is never ignored, and Christ comes to them. But even then, they do not appear to completely appreciate what that means; even though Mary and Martha openly confess their love and belief in Jesus, still they are unable to overcome that blockage that prevents them from realizing that with God, all things are possible.
But then, God Incarnate shows them the entirety of the Gospel message; Believe in the Lord, as Martha proclaims, “thou are the Christ, the Son of God…”; call upon the Lord, “Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick“; listen to the Lord and respond when he calls to you, “As soon as Mary heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him“; trust in the Lord, “Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid“; and we will then know the Mercy of the Lord, “And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go“.
Mary and her sister called out to Christ on behalf of their brother. They did so believing that only he could heal Lazarus; that only he could save Lazarus. And even though their Faith was limited, still they ran to their Lord when he called them. But when they truly left the matter in the hands of Christ, only then did were they shown the Glory of God; “And he that was dead came forth“. By this simple act, Mary Magdalene showed us that not only should we give up our problems to God, but that we also need to have faith that he will take care of them and that all things will turn out according to His plan.
Continuing in this vein, this same Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, also shows us where our priorities should lie. In St. Luke’s Gospel, we are told about a visit of Jesus and his followers to Martha’s house; and while poor Martha is rushing around serving everyone, Mary is just sitting there, listening, hanging on her Lord’s every word. But when Martha asks Jesus to kick her sister in the rear and get her to help with the serving, he tells her “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (St. Luke, ch 10, v 38-42).
Mary has chosen that good part! Now it may seem odd to us that this “good part” appears to include ignoring all the work that her sister is doing and that Martha could really use some help. But what Mary is actually doing is showing us the necessity to set aside all the worries and annoyances and anxieties, all the folderol that we allow to consume our daily lives; and she is instead listening intently to the Word of God.
Given the same situation, what would we decide? Is the Word of God our top priority, or do we allow the concerns of this world to consume us? If the choice is between our daily troubles, worries, and desires, or listening intently to Our Lord and Savior, what do we do today? Have we decided to concentrate our efforts on the needs of the world, or do we, like Mary, choose “that good part”?
The third role is that of Mary Magdalene herself. This is the woman from whom Christ had cast out seven demons (St. Luke ch. 8, v 2); after which she then becomes one of a group of women who “ministered” to Our Lord. And as I mentioned earlier, Mary also joins the Mother of Christ at the foot of the Cross, witnessing the Crucifixion.
She watches as Jesus dies, and is placed in the tomb. But her duties to her Lord do not stop there; she returns on the third day to perform one last service, to anoint his body, according to the custom of the day. And by the oldest Gospel accounts, she becomes the first to see the Risen Christ (St. John, ch 20, v 14-18). Because of this, and because she then takes this news of the Resurrection to Peter and the other disciples, Mary Magdalene is sometimes also referred to as the “Apostle of the Apostles”.
The stories and traditions about Mary Magdalene are remarkable in that she doesn’t seem to be all that remarkable. In many ways Mary is an ordinary person, doing what she must just to get through the day; much like us. But this fact makes the examples of her life and experiences that are presented in Holy Scripture all the more extraordinary.
This is the Mary Magdalene who embodies the Christian journey. We must first and foremost kneel before Our Lord and Savior and humbly admit (using words only when necessary) that not only have we committed the most grievous sins, and that we are wholly ashamed of them, but that even in our shame, still we recognize, acknowledge, and worship the one who has bestowed upon us His Grace, by which we are saved. It is by such love of God that our sins are forgiven.
Second, once we have come to so complete a love of God, we must be prepared to run to him when he calls. We must be ready to drop everything and respond to his invitation. And then, once we have come to him, and knelt in his Presence, we must be willing to submit to His Will, and believe with all our hearts that no matter what may come to pass, it will be in accordance with His plan. We must be convinced that what God desires and what He will make happen will always be for the greater good, regardless of what our thoughts might be about the matter.
Third, we must get our priorities straight. We must never let our earthly priorities ascend above our Heavenly priorities. We must never allow our commitments to family, friends, or leisurely activities to be higher in importance than our commitment to the Church. We must never allow ourselves to be “careful and troubled about many things”; but rather, we must always choose “that good part”, “which shall not be taken away” from us. We must always choose, first and foremost, to hear the Word of God.
Finally, as we do all these things, we must also seek to become his ministers. By doing so, we join St. Mary Magdalene, and all the faithful, at the foot of the Cross; witnessing to our Lord’s Redemptive act. And we must continue in that service to Him confident in the knowledge that we will one day be in the Eternal presence of Our Lord; and we must likewise bring that wonderful message of His Resurrection to others. Though the term “Christian” was unknown in her day, Mary Magdalene shows us how to truly follow Christ.
We may not necessarily have seven demons in us that need casting out, but we do have our demons nonetheless. We might have had times where we truly thought we were turning our troubles over to Christ, but still we have nevertheless been anxious and worrisome about them. And we may even have thought that our priorities are in the right order because we have placed them in our perception of the correct sequence; “family, Church, me”. But when we think all these things, we forget that simple and yet great example of Mary Magdalene.
We are all sinners after all; and we know that God has, by His Grace, given us a second chance; the redemption of our sins. Upon being given that same second chance, Mary Magdalene humbled herself before God; she called upon her Lord, and answered when he called to her; she chose “that good part”, and entered into the simplicity of service to God.
We do not hear about Mary Magdalene performing miracles. Scripture does not contain any word of her outside of the Gospels. No, this woman simply acknowledged her sins, received forgiveness, focused her attention on the very Word of God, served the Lord, loved Jesus with all her heart. That’s it. Nothing that we couldn’t do, right? And then, she witnessed the Risen Christ; again, something we all can do eventually, if we simply follow the example of St. Mary Magdalene.