This Wednesday we will celebrate St Mary Magdalene (originally this day was an Obligatory Memorial, but Pope Francis elevated it to the level of Feast). Who is she, and why would Pope Francis have such regard for her? I think in part it’s because her life (as traditionally told) is a model for the Pope’s own motto: miserando atque eligendo.
Let’s be clear, first, who she is not—she is not the Mary who is sister of St Martha and Lazarus. She is also probably not the “woman caught in adultery” from chapter 8 of the Fourth Gospel. She is who she is.
The Gospels tell us she (with some others) was a witness to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus; she was the first (or one of the first) to see the risen Lord. And the so-called “Longer Ending” of Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus cast out seven demons from her.
It has been tempting (and even fashionable) to regard her demons as sexual; this is why some have suggested that she was a prostitute (linking her to the woman of John 8). But everyone knows there are many other demons! What we do know is that she was suffering, and Jesus set her free.
Tradition has also regarded her as a sinner who, liberated by Jesus, became a life-long penitent—lamenting her sins and longing for her Lord. This understanding of Mary Magdalene is powerfully captured in a carving by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello (seen above this essay). This image is in the “Treasury Museum” of the Duomo in Florence, and it alone is worth a visit to that museum.
What was it that, bottom line, set Mary Magdalene free? It was mercy—Mercy Incarnate. While suffering, she (like the tax collector in the parable) could have made her prayer “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Once healed and forgiven, her prayer might well have become “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me” (Psalm 30).
This is the power of Mercy, of Forgiveness—to turn other people into passionate lovers. This is why Mary Magdalene stayed at the foot of the Cross, why she witnessed Jesus’ burial, why she went to the tomb early in the morning just after the Sabbath, and why she not only saw the risen Savior but became the “Apostle to the Apostles,” as Jesus commissioned her to preach the Resurrection to them. There is no more beautiful “love story” than the tale of that first Easter morning as recounted in John 20:11-18. Read it, and weep for love.
St Mary Magdalene, pray for us who are also sinful and afflicted; pray for us who long to see the Savior who loves us with everlasting love; pray that the Master will cast the demons out of us, and so may we fall deeply in love with Jesus whom you loved (and still love) with all your heart—the Jesus we want to love with all our hearts, along with you.