Life & Soul

The truth about Mary Magdalene

A 15th-century fresco depicts Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene after his Resurrection (Photo: CNS)

The scriptural accounts of the Resurrection tell us a great deal not only about the risen Jesus but also those encountering him. It is important not to think of them just as happy endings, but as revelatory beginnings. No relationship is ever as it was before for those who have truly mourned the sufferings of Christ and interiorised his Cross – our own included. Nor is this the “snakes and ladders approach” to grace, where I get back the ground I had lost. It is the remaking of my inner self, a new creation. The old has passed.

Nowhere is this more vivid for me than in St John’s gospel and the account of Jesus meeting Mary of Magdalene. We know from the Gospel that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary. Christian tradition has often identified her with the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet with her hair, the woman who has a bad reputation. Some of the Fathers even believed she was the woman taken in adultery. In other words, tradition seems to indicate that Mary had a struggle with chastity. Who can honestly say he or she doesn’t, or hasn’t, at some point? In itself, this is worthy of meditation: that one of the first recorded witnesses to the Resurrection was a woman who had struggled with her sexuality.

Many good men and women endure prolonged struggles with chastity. These can be a source of deep shame to good Christians, a disintegration of spirit and flesh. Where this is prolonged there is often a psychological wound at a foundational level. It can help to recognise any pathology here, so that the grace of conversion can be welcomed, so that I can stop clinging to the past, so that I do not mistake a problem of human making for a lack of grace.

A perverse anti-tradition, epitomised by the popular Da Vinci Code, has also made Mary Christ’s lover. Apart from the preposterous notion of a resurrected Jesus marrying, such nonsense is what people who do not understand chastity, and therefore love or sexuality, always think. They reason from instinct and distrust the possibility that any such relationship could be based on a spiritual, chaste bond. They value only her bad name.

Chastity is not the denial of sexual attraction – if this were indeed a factor in Mary’s feelings for Jesus – nor the name for some effort to subdue it by force of will. The idea that sexual attraction can only be affirmed by giving it full expression is like wanting to attest to the beauty of every butterfly by catching it in your net. Real chastity involves loving the thing you are trying to catch so much that you could not possibly harm it, and loving it so much that you desire to see it free. So your only option is to become like it yourself, similarly free and able to fly if you are to catch it without also maiming it.

Perfect love casts out fear, both the fear that I cannot live unless I capture someone and the fear that if I do I might harm them or render them less than they were before by loving them. This is why I think Mary of Magdalene’s love for Jesus could be expressed in the words of St Paul: all things are yours, for you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.

Desire is cast out by desire. The woman of the Gospel loved much because she had been forgiven much. The touch of anointing Jesus’s feet and wiping them with her hair is a chaste one, even though it also may look like an erotic one. The same is true of the account of the woman who anoints him with scented ointment. In fact, it is only by intimate contact with Christ that our earthly desires are elevated and purified. For Mary, the very thing that has been the problem, the sign of her woundedness, becomes the access to a great love.

Grace builds on nature; it does not obliterate it. Sins against chastity are often like the original Greek word for sin: a missing of the mark. They are a desperate search for the right thing in the wrong direction. They manifest a desire for intimacy which has become perverted. The risen Jesus shows their true intimacy when he speaks Mary’s name and she finally recognises him. His own illimitable love and victory over sin reveal to her a new dignity. Such intimacy is so real and spiritual that it does not require her to cling to him. In other words, it is no longer dictated by the needs of the flesh. True chastity then, is a fruit of the Resurrection at work in us. No wonder the Exultet proclaims: “This is the night which restores lost innocence.”

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/4/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!