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Domenico Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598

Domenico Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene, c. 1598

The sinner turned extraordinary Saint

St Mary Magdalene—what an extraordinary saint! In the beginning she was the woman of great wealth, the sister of Martha and Lazarus with friends at the palace of Herod in Tiberias and more notoriously she was “the sinner from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons” (Mark 16:9). She then turned into the repentant sinner who anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume and bitter tears, and wipes them dry with her long hair, thus becoming the converted sinner and disciple who accompanies Jesus from Magdala in Galilee to Bethany in Judea, and later the faithful disciple who follows Jesus to Calvary, who remains steadfast at the foot of the Cross, is at the tomb during Jesus’ burial, and the last one to leave after. Above all, she is the chosen one to whom the risen Christ first appears on Easter Sunday, making her the “apostle to the apostles”. She is the messenger that Christ has conquered death, the Good News that became the very basis of Christian belief.

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From the lips of Mary Magdalene came the most wondrous news of all time that would ring throughout Christendom in all the centuries to come: “Christ is risen!” and add to this the fact that she is mentioned 11 times in the four Gospels in connection with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus, and from this we can see that with Mary Magdalene we have a case of an exceptional woman because of the prominence she is given in the Gospels.

Jesus made a great sinner the symbol of hope for all sinners. Who then could ever despair when recalling Jesus’ love for Mary Magdalene? Gathered together in the person of Mary Magdalene, we find all the reasons for believing in the goodness of God, who sent His Son to rescue those who are lost. She became and remains the perfect symbol of the sinner who finds Christ and is transformed by His love.

Through the Gospel, we discover her extraordinary presence in the life of Christ, and the elevated place that He reserved for her in the heart of His Church. After she had anointed His feet, Jesus said “I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.“ (Matt 26:13) Thus, she is venerated even to this day. Her love was exceedingly great and pleasing to Christ, and like a heavenly luminary, it continues to be the beacon of hope of those who have sinned and strayed from God.

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Her remarkable life after the Resurrection of Jesus

What is often not brought out about Mary Magdalene is her life after Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension into heaven and in particular her remarkable mystical life as revealed in the tradition of the Church as presented in early Church documents. The life of Mary Magdalene, as reflected in the Gospels, needs no embellishment, dramatization or glorification. The beauty, the drama, the dignity and grandeur are all there, ennobled with the divinity of Christ’s presence.

Church tradition, legend and the historical record need not add anything to this already extraordinary life of repentance, conversion and love. The Gospels reveal that she had been given a mission, namely to announce the Good News; that she had seen Christ risen from the dead. As the first eyewitness to this greatest event in Christian history, Mary Magdalene could not and would not keep this wondrous news to herself. Her mission did not begin and end as the Apostle to the Apostles. She was a woman of fervor and courage and total devotion to Christ. Such great love must find expression.

When the first persecutions scattered the little Church of Jerusalem, those who were scattered went everywhere, preaching the word of Christ. Thus the persecuted Christians went about numerous ports around the Mediterranean basin that included Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and many other countries within the Roman Empire. France was then called Gaul; and the new life of Mary Magdalene begins there, on its Mediterranean coast. The area which cradles her tradition is known as “La Sainte Baume”.

The tradition that tells of the arrival of Mary Magdalene and her companions on the coast of Gaul (France), goes back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Her flight from the persecutions in Palestine is set at the year 42, the same year that James the Greater was executed in Jerusalem.

Accompanied by Martha, Lazarus, Mary Salome and Mary Jacoby, the disciples Maximin and Sidonius [two of the 70 disciples referred to in the Gospels], with Marcella their servant, Mary Magdalene embarked [or were forced onto?] a small boat, crossed the Mediterranean, and arrived near the city of Marseilles [France], then known as Massilia. The small port where they came ashore was called Rha that later became known as Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Holy Marys of the Sea). Tradition maintains that the boat with its eight passengers docked safely, and that it had neither oars, sails, nor steering device. It could have run into a storm that destroyed its gear, or it could have been pushed out to sea in that unstable condition by their persecutors; whatever the actual cause of the crippling of their boat, they all set foot in Rha.

Mary Salome, Mary Jacoby and Marcella remained in Rha while the others made their way overland to Massilia. Arriving in Massilia was like entering any other Roman-occupied city with its paved streets, shops, villas, gardens, pools, a stadium or theater, and inns. It was an important commercial port. Whether its people were familiar with the news concerning the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is not known.

In any event, it is said that the small group began to preach near the temples where the pagan Gods were worshipped. Statues of these Roman deities-Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Diana, Venus, Mars, Apollo and others -adorned the temples, and religious ceremonies were held at the altars dedicated to them.

Mary Magdalene and her companions denounced the false Gods, and told them the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They converted many. Some time later, Martha leaves them to go to Tarascon, a place roughly 25 miles northwest of Massilia, Maximin goes to Aix, 20 miles north of Massilia, while Mary Magdalene, Lazarus and Sidonius continue to preach in the city.

After some months, Mary Magdalene and the disciple Sidonius leave Lazarus in Massilia, where he becomes its first bishop, and travel northward, following the Huveaune river until they reach its source in the hills that would become known as La Sainte Baume. The immense natural cave they discover in the rocks, the size of a large house, becomes the new home of Mary Magdalene. Some miles down the valley was the village bearing the Roman name of Villalata that in centuries to come would be known as Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume.

Her extraordinary mystical life and mystical graces

The magnificent cave-grotto must have been even more out of the way then it is to the pilgrim of today. It is here in this hermitage that Mary Magdalene spends the next 30 years of her life in solitude, in meditation and contemplation. But her solitude is only that of the world, for seven times a day angels came down to the cave and took her to the top of the hill where she is given the grace to hear the music and songs that are the sounds of heaven. From this height, the view stretches as far as the Mediterranean, and overlooks the surrounding forest, hills and valleys. On a clear day, one can visualize right across the sea, the coast of Africa; and further east, Palestine. It is presumed that she is here often drawn into ecstasy, although details of which are not in the written record. The record does state however that she neither ate nor drank for the thirty years that she lived in the grotto. It is also presumed that during her 30 years as a hermitess in the cave of La-Sainte-Baume, she suffered and sacrificed in reparation not only for her own sins, but also as a soul victim for others, and that the early Church benefitted greatly from her sacrificial life of penances and mortifications, offered in union with her beloved Jesus, for the sake of His Church.

Following 30 years spent in prayer and longing to be reunited with Jesus, the day came when Jesus enlightened her that death was approaching, and He guided her down the hill toward the village of Villalata. On the way there (and a pillar still marks the place), she was met by Maximin who had been divinely inspired to go to meet her and lead her to his church. Once there, having received holy communion from his hand, she falls lifeless before the altar. The date was July 22, around the year 72 A.D.

St Maximin ordered her body to be interred with great dignity and pomp, and commanded that he himself be buried near her tomb after his death. And such was her beauty in the eyes of the Lord that during seven days the oratory was filled with the holy perfume of her sanctity.
One of the earliest documents on the life of Mary Magdalene after the death of Christ is a text in Latin, by an anonymous author. It dates back to the fifth or sixth century. In part, it reads as follows:

“After the glory of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the triumph of his Ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the word of God was spread far and wide, and the number of the faithful grew day by day. But the Priests of the Jews, the Pharisees and Scribes, kindled the fire of persecution, and chased most of Jesus’ witnesses out of Judea. During the terrible persecutions, the disciples traveled to different places of the world to announce the Good News to the Gentiles.

Penitent Magdalene, Guido Reni, In art, Mary Magdalene is usually shown with long flowing hair, worn down over her shoulders. Her hair is over her shoulders because she possibly used her hair to cover her nakedness in the desert and to dry the feet of Jesus after washing them

Penitent Magdalene, Guido Reni, In art, Mary Magdalene is usually shown with long flowing hair, worn down over her shoulders. Her hair is over her shoulders because she possibly used her hair to cover her nakedness in the desert and to dry the feet of Jesus after washing them

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