Reflections for the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene

I was awake at 3:00 AM.

Why was I awake at 3:00 AM (I went to bed at 12:30 AM).

I have a morning doctor’s appointment this morning that will require a lot of travel time. I am currently fasting in the hopes that they will draw labs. Fasting? Fasting = legalistic meal at 11:45 PM (because that’s how I roll).

I say all this, because it means I will have a long day. I need sleep. Seriously. Need. Sleep.

Why am I awake at 3:00 AM?????

No clue.

From the tapestries at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles, CA

From the tapestries at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Los Angeles, CA

I started poking around reading devotional stuff on Facebook, and found that today (22 July) is the feast day for St. Mary Magdalene.

She’s one of my favorite saints. Okay, I can work with a little extra time to write this morning (as I certainly won’t be needing time for breakfast).

I preface this with the idea that I am resolutely Protestant and do not believe in saints as intercessors, but in Little fishys and lost souls, I wrote:

I don’t know if there is a patron saint for those suffering from eating disorders. Mary Magdalene, however, comes to mind as a potentially just and beautiful choice. She was healed by Christ from seven demons. It doesn’t say much more than that about the nature of the situation, but here was a woman who we got to quietly follow through various little snippet accounts in the Bible as a person who did not forget what Christ’s compassion, love, and healing did for her and meant to her life. She followed Christ’s body to the grave. She was given the beautiful gift of being the first person to know of Christ’s resurrection.

Stop. Just stop. Stop and think about that for a minute. This was no random thing, there are no coincidences. This was not her good luck — one lesson to learn in the Bible is that God doesn’t work in terms of “luck.” Just stop and consider that of all the people Christ loved who loved Christ, he picked Mary Magdalene to be the first one to encounter his resurrected self. That’s huge. Not Peter, not John, not his mother…Mary Magdalene. If you want an argument for “least” being “greatest,” there’s one. Now, there is a lot of weird mythology around Mary Magdalene (I believe none of it, and neither should you). The three explicit references were that she was healed from seven demons, she was present at the crucifixion and followed the body to the grave, and she was the first person to learn of the resurrection. That is what we know. What we also know is that this is a woman who understood — and never forgot — how much Christ’s compassion and healing had restored her to life. She loved Jesus of Nazareth and became his disciple. She was favored with the honor to be the first to experience the wonder and joy of the resurrection. That’s huge. This is a woman who got up every day with the knowledge that Christ was the one who gave her both life and hope.

I can’t think of a better person to flesh out the hope of a life healed from something like anorexia nervosa.

I have written variously about Mary Magdalene. In my Lenten post on Gratitude I wrote:

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Giotto di Bondone. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 17 11/16 x 12 13/16 in. (45 x 32.5 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, Inv. N. 167. Photo M. Bertola

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Giotto di Bondone. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 17 11/16 x 12 13/16 in. (45 x 32.5 cm). Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg, Inv. N. 167. Photo M. Bertola

In an indirect way Mary Magdalene comes to mind. She was healed from seven demons and was apparently among the patrons of Jesus and his disciples (Luke 8:1-3). She was among the women at the Crucifixion who followed his body to the grave (Matthew 27:55-61), and was the first to witness the resurrection (Mark 16:1-8). What strikes me as extraordinary about Mary Magdalene is that what is referenced in the gospel is not the details of the circumstances of her healing — what is referenced are the marks of her gratitude for that healing. She didn’t merely fall on her face and give thanks to Jesus as Lord — she literally followed him, and put her own resources on the line as well. She was among those who followed him to his death, to the grave, and beyond to take care of his body. That’s love. That’s gratitude.

The Crucifixion; The Lamentation, about 1340, Master of the Dominican Effigies. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 14 3/8 x 12 5/8 in. (36.5 x 32 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Presented by Harold Bompas, 1941, WA1941.14 (A676, A677)

The Crucifixion; The Lamentation, about 1340, Master of the Dominican Effigies. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 14 3/8 x 12 5/8 in. (36.5 x 32 cm). The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Presented by Harold Bompas, 1941, WA1941.14 (A676, A677)

Recently I was at an exhibition at The Getty Center in Los Angeles about art from Florence at the dawn of the Renaissance. It was almost exclusively religious and devotional art of various saints and gospel scenes. One thing that struck me was how Mary Magdalene was most often portrayed at the crucifixion in those paintings and illuminated manuscripts — she was bare-headed, kneeling at the foot of the cross, embracing the cross and weeping, as blood dripped down from the wound in Christ’s feet. There were others in those images who were also clearly experiencing distress and despair, but none with the unrestrained passion of Mary Magdalene.

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Pacino di Bonaguida. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 32 x 17 1/2 in. (81.2 x 44.5 cm). Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell'Arte Roberto Longhi di Firenze

The Crucifixion, about 1315–20, Pacino di Bonaguida. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. 32 x 17 1/2 in. (81.2 x 44.5 cm). Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi di Firenze

Walking through galleries looking at that portrayal in that way…image, after image, after image…it’s haunting to say the least.

It still haunts me, and always gives me pause.

I think of the gospel stories — so many encounter stories, stories of meeting various individuals. In so many ways, her story is the typical “miracle” story somehow inside-out and backwards. It never ceases to amaze me that what was deemed most noteworthy that we should know about this woman, is not Christ’s power in healing her from her affliction, but her faith…her love…her gratitude…her humility.

That inspires me every single day.

We don’t have the “before” story of Mary Magdalene. We don’t know what her circumstances were, where she was living, how she was terrorized by the demons (and there are some powerful stories of lives destroyed by demon possession in the gospel accounts). She was most certainly ostracized for this, possibly abandoned by her family. No mention of any association with any other individuals is mentioned in the gospels anywhere — no family connections.

Christ and the disciples became her family. I “get” that too.

Here, set before us, is this mysterious woman — hiding in the shadows of the gospels, quietly working behind-the-scenes in important ways as a patron (what was the story there?). She is remembered not for her miracle (indeed, we are only given one detail of this), but for her love, her gratitude, and her discipleship. Whether you believe in the patronage and intercession of saints or not (again, I do not believe this), it is worth taking pause to examine and reflect on the life of this woman. To some extent, the date assigned to the saints whose lives are recorded in the Bible is fairly arbitrary, but that’s the date on the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar assigned to her. I’m okay with that. I don’t know if you’ve ever given thought to all of this. In my mind, we can learn a lot about the meaning of true discipleship from this story — the amazing story of an amazing life.

Below, one of my favorite Mary Magdalene paintings, owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. — VKS

Georges de la Tour. "The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame." LACMA

Georges de la Tour. “The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame.” LACMA

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