Happy Saint Mary Magdalene Day! One of our scripture readings at Morning Prayer is special for observing this feast day: Luke 7:36-8:3. This is an interesting case, so let’s take a closer look.
Like several New Testament characters (most notoriously the various men named James), the identity of Mary Magdalene has undergone some scholarly debate. She has at times been identified as the same person as Mary of Bethany, though that theory is not in vogue today. She has also been identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears. I’m not sure how commonly-held this view is today, either, however, our Prayer Book does retain the possibility that this is true. The evidence, such as it is, can be found in the appointing of Luke 7:36-8:3 as a single lesson on her feast day.
The tail end of chapter 7 of St. Luke’s Gospel tells the story of “a woman of the city, who was a sinner” who brings an alabaster flask of ointment into a pharisee’s house to wash Jesus’ feet with it and her tears and kisses. An overkill scenario to a sensibility for sure, but it is unmistakably a picture of unadulterated love. Jesus uses this immediately as an illustration for a parable. He concludes with a word of gospel: “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Chapter 8 then opens, “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preaching and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out… and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” There is no explicit connection between the woman in the previous story and Mary Magdalene here, but the ancient writing style might imply that the previously-unnamed woman is now a named follower of Jesus. After all, if Mary Magdalene was able to bring expensive perfume to the literal feet of Jesus, she must have been a woman of some means, and likely able to continue providing for him and apostles, as verse 3 describes. And there are other instances in the New Testament where people refer to themselves very obliquely (like Mark and John), and refer to others by differing names (Nathaniel = Bartholomew, and Thaddeus = Jude).
At the very least, the woman of Luke 7 has a similar spirituality to Mary Magdalene: both are very emotive and physical about their love for Jesus. Perhaps you know the sort in your own church or Christian connections: people (usually women) who have such a profound emotional love for Jesus, who smile at his name and sigh with arms outstretched as if they’re in love. For those who are more intellectually-minded it can be easy to scoff at these enthusiasts and their apparent crush on Jesus. But the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, tears, and kisses, and Mary Magdalene clinging to Jesus in the garden after his resurrection both testify to a legitimate spirituality of emotive love and adoration. If the woman of Luke 7 and Mary Magdalene are not the same person, they sure had a lot in common.
So let’s take a look at how this feast day – and theory of Mary’s identity – can play into the liturgy of the Church. There is a song I came across in the Saint Dunstan Hymnal (related to the Saint Dunstan Plainsong Psalter) which is an Office Hymn from the 17th century, and it illustrates a way of acknowledging her spirituality and example.
O Father of celestial rays, When thou on Magdalene dost gaze,
The flame of burning love appears, Her icy heart dissolves in tears.
Wounded by love, she hastens o’er The feet of Christ her tears to pour,
Anoints them, wipes them with her hair, And prints adoring kisses there.
Fearless, the Cross she will not leave: And grieving, to the Tomb doth cleave:
No ruthless soldiers cause her dread: For from her love all fear hath fled.
O Christ, true Charity thou art; Purge thou the foulest of our heart,
Fill ev’ry soul with grace and love, And give us thy rewards above.
All laud to God the Father be; All praise, eternal Son, to thee;
All glory as is ever meet, To God the Holy Paraclete. Amen.
The testimony of her devoted love ranges from the time of her conversion and repentance, through the Cross, to Jesus’ resurrection. “For from her love all fear hath fled”, applying in her example the teaching perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4:18).
This example she has left us is valuable. You can love God with your emotion. Your devotions can be expensive and extravagant, if that is your honest offering. God’s love, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness should have a serious impact on the sinner’s outlook. The more you realize how much has been forgiven, the more you can love God and others in return. For all the intellectual considerations of right doctrine, and all the logistical considerations of right worship, the value of a exultant heart can never be overlooked. The Gospel is worth “thinking about” correctly, yes, absolutely; but it is also worth celebrating with the fullness of human emotion.