Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

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Cecilia Olson, OSB | July 22, 2020

The significant role of women in our world and in our Church has often been confined to the shadows or dismissed entirely. Mary of Magdala is no exception. She wasn’t dismissed, but she was saddled with a tarnished reputation that confined her to the shadows for generations.  She is definitely an example of a victim of bad press! The die was cast in the 6th century when Pope Gregory the Great delivered a sermon connecting Mary Magdalene with the sinful, penitent woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.  One need only look at the depictions of Mary Magdalene in art museums to confirm how her image as a prostitute stuck like glue.  It took 14 centuries – 1969 to be exact – for the real Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles, to be canonized and added to the liturgical calendar as a “memorial.”  Forty-seven years after that, in 2016, Pope Francis elevated her liturgical remembrance to a feast.  At long last, Mary of Magdala was placed on a par with the liturgical celebrations of the apostles!

I think of Mary Magdalene as a woman who was not content with living life on the surface, but a woman who desired to go deeper – and who found the answer to her spiritual longings in the person of Jesus.  It must have been something like a tsunami of the heart for the gospel of Luke tells us that she along with Joanna, Chuza, Susanna and many others traveled with the twelve and provided material assistance out of their own resources. Today’s first reading from the Song of Songs and our responsorial psalm mirror Mary’s transformation for it was in her coming to know Christ that she found the One for whom she had been searching, the One who satisfied her thirsty soul.

Sister Imogene, my novice director, had a mantra that she would stress over and over with us —  live with an open hand.  She would tell us that yes, God calls us to love deeply, but it was to a love that did not cling, that did not hold too tightly – whether to persons, possessions, or life itself.  We were called to live in a stance of openness, mindful that nothing is ours for keeps, that all is gift and that the love we give and receive here on earth is but a reflection of God’s love.

Mary of Magdala knew the joy and the pain that accompanies loving deeply and loving with an open hand.  That she was a person of loyalty and faithfulness to Christ shines out in the fact that she is the only person mentioned in the gospels as being present at the foot of the cross, at Jesus’ burial and at the tomb on Easter.  In her book “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity,” author Cynthia Bourgeault writes: “All four gospels insist that when all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm. She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses.”  Mary Magdalene’s tears that Easter morning were a sign of love and of overwhelming sorrow; her hopes seemed shattered. When the unbelievable happens and she recognizes Jesus’ voice, her response is so real – no social distancing for her – she immediately reaches out to embrace Jesus.  Perhaps it’s at that moment she begins to understand that while everything has changed, all that has happened was not an ending, but a beginning.  Now she is being asked to open her hand to a new way of loving and of letting go.  

In his book “Holy Longing”, Ronald Rolheiser writes a reflection entitled “Resurrection”; it’s written as if it were Mary Magdalene herself speaking and coming to comprehend Jesus’ words: “Do not hold on to me!”   

I want to cling, despite your protest
cling to your body
cling to your, and my, clingable humanity
cling to what we had, our past.
But I know that…if I cling
you cannot ascend and
I will be left clinging to your former self
…unable to receive your present spirit.

It might be good for each of us to sit with the question: how does Mary Magdalene challenge me today?  I also thought about questions she might ask us – perhaps: Do you cling tightly or do you open your hand? Have you come to recognize that Christ is the only one who can completely satisfy your thirsty soul? Do you believe that there are times when we must let go and die to the old in order to rise to the new? And perhaps most of all she would ask us: are you a hope-filled witness to Jesus’ promise that the best is yet to come?