St. Mary Magdalene: 22 July

Br. Columba Maria

Saint Mary Magdalene, Penitent, was born to a Syrian father, Theophile, and a Jewish mother, Eucharie, in the house at Bethany, later so honoured by Our Saviour's resort there to repose a little from the heat of the day's' toils. She was richly endowed with all the talents of nature, mental and physical. Yet, as often occurs, her beauty, talent, and family fortune, proved a source of temptation beyond her defences, and she spiralled downwards: so far down that Our Lord subsequently exorcised her of seven devils, desiring that she “be converted and live” (Ez 18:23). This event is described in St. John's Gospel, when Our Lord takes his meal with Simon the Pharisee. As Saint Paul tells the Romans, “As hitherto you have used your bodies to serve sin, so now use them unto sanctification” (Romans 6:19). Mary Magdalene used her lips, her hair, and her perfumes to obtain the cure of her soul. And she is the only person in the whole of the bible to ask for such a cure, according to many patriarchal writers.

Having left her sins behind her, Mary Magdalene became Our Lord's most devoted follower. The family were already known to Our Lord and He would spend increasingly more time under their roof. As the Passion drew closer, Our Lord would raise Lazarus from his grave, a further proof of His great love for this family. What he had done for Mary's soul, buried in sin, he would do for her brother's body too.

Struck at heart by what she saw: Jesus dead to this world, and Lazarus' and her resurrection from death, she came to find Our Lord at the house of another Simon, just cured of leprosy, and there anticipated the embalming of Jesus that she would attempt to complete after His death just a week later. “As the king was at his repose, the spikenard sent forth its sweet perfume” (Cant 1:11).

Simon the Pharisee and Judas respectively, on these separate occasions, would deny her the reward promised by Our Lord for every little charitable act. And on the first Sunday, on her way to the tomb to embalm the Body of Jesus, the Resurrection would obviate this charity too. But Our Lord Himself paid His dues by granting her His first recorded apparition in glory.

After the Ascension, it is a pious tradition that Mary Magdalene, with her brother and sister, laid her patrimony at the feet of St. Peter, and that the house at Bethany was confirmed as a house consecrated to the Lord. It was in this house, once his home, that Lazarus was consecrated Bishop, and laboured for twelve years after the Ascension, until the extent of the persecution took him to Cyprus as this island's first Bishop. Some years later, during the persecution which carried off St. James, even the Holy Women were rounded-up. Mary Magdalene, Martha, Marcian and Maximin (one of the 72 disciples) were put in a boat without any means of navigation. It found its way to Cyprus where, reuniting with Lazarus, they set off again and arrived on the Mediterranean coast of Gaul, at Marseilles. There, Lazarus became its first Bishop, Maximin that of Aix, Martha and Marcian went on to Avignon.

Mary Magdalene found in Maximin a worthy companion. While he built up the Church in this hitherto pagan land, she preached to these delicate souls of Christ's redeeming sacrifice. There were many miracles and many conversions. Yet she yearned for penance and contemplation, and eventually parted from Maximin to the seclusion of La Sainte-Baume (Holy Balm).

This enormous rock, between Marseilles and Toulon, rises to nearly 4,000 feet above sea level. At the top, one can sometimes look down on the cloudy forested valley below from a clear summit. Mary Magdalene made her own hermitage in a cave three quarters of the way up.

Like St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, it is a tradition that all the reptiles departed this barren spot on her arrival. As a proof, it is free of them even today, despite the rock holding plenty of water within. Here then is where our saint spent the remaining 30 years of her earthly exile. Daily, the angels came and carried her in the air further up the top of the mountain, where there has since been a chapel erected. They also brought her the scanty nourishment to sustain her. One can hardly imagine what must have passed through her heart and her soul during these long years, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom.

Her sister Martha, not very far away on her deathbed, saw a luminous form mounting heavenward, surrounded by a host of angels. She immediately recognised her sister and called out, "Be happy. Don't forget." A week later Mary Magdalene visited her sister, in company with Jesus, and invited her to quit this valley of tears and re-join Jesus forever.

St. Maximin, her long time friend, had her precious remains placed in an alabaster tomb in a church named after her. Here it lay until 710, when the Saracens threatened all of Gaul. To avert its destruction, the body was uncovered and reset in a marble tomb close-by.

It was then unearthed again in 1280. This time, the forehead, which tradition speaks of being touched by Christ when He uttered His Noli me tangere, was found still fresh and supple, and subsequently separated from the body, and the relics are now in the Church of St. Maximin.

Most of the relics were very nearly destroyed during the French Revolution of 1789, but the ingenuity of a few saved them from the desecration.

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