Saint of the month: St. Mary Magdalene learned to receive mercy

On July 22 we celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, patroness of contemplatives, converts, penitent sinners and evangelists. Who this amazing woman is and how she appears in Scripture can be a bit confusing, but what she has meant to the church over millennia is not in doubt.

Mary Magdalene is portrayed in film and art as the woman who was caught in adultery and would have been stoned to death were it not for our Lord. However, the church’s tradition has not associated this saint with that moment. Rather, her reputation as having lived a sinful life comes from other references in the New Testament, and her traditional identity is the result of several stories.

All four Evangelists agree that Mary Magdalene was among the women at the crucifixion. They all agree as well that she was at the tomb on Easter Sunday and that she was either the only one or among other women who first told the apostles of the resurrection. This is why Mary Magdalene is a patroness of evangelists.

In his Gospel, St. Mark identifies Mary Magdalene as the woman “from whom seven demons had gone out” (cf. 16:9). St. Luke echoes this description in his Gospel (8:2) immediately after telling the story of “the sinful woman” who came into a Pharisee’s home to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair (7:36-50). The woman is not identified, but because Mary had demons expelled from her, the presumption is that she was “the sinful woman.” This is why Mary Magdalene is the patroness of converts and penitent sinners.

If Mary Magdalene is the sinful woman in Luke, then perhaps Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, are the same. In St. John’s Gospel we read that Mary of Bethany took expensive oil and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair (cf. 12:3), which is almost exactly the same thing that “the sinful woman” of Luke’s Gospel had done. 

This explains why Mary Magdalene is the patron of contemplatives: It was Mary of Bethany who sat at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha labored. Mary chose “the better part” in contemplative consideration of our Lord (Lk 10:42). 

Over the centuries the details of Mary’s identity have been lost to the more important point that she was a woman who experienced the mercy of Christ and who responded with total dedication to him. John’s telling of the events of Easter Sunday are astonishing in their intimacy and they start with Mary Magdalene’s journey to the tomb. 

What did she imagine she would do there? She left so early that it was dark outside. One can imagine that perhaps she only meant to sit outside the tomb by the large stone blocking the way to weep. In fact, the English word “maudlin,” which refers to one who is “tearfully sentimental,” comes from the Old English version of her name, “Mawdleyn.” 

What we get with Mary Magdalene is not a scholar or a martyr or a miracle worker but a great example of a soul who struggled to receive the deep love of God. That struggle manifested itself in tears at first, but it ultimately became a fierce courage that kept her at the foot of the cross when all the apostles but one fled. That struggle also resulted in her deep devotion to her Lord that brought her to the tomb before dawn on Easter morning.

May we too learn to receive God’s merciful love so as to become courageous followers of Christ Jesus.

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