The Holy See recently announced that, in the Ordinary Form calendar of the Roman Rite, St Mary Magdalene’s annual liturgical observance on July 22 would be elevated to a feast. Her new feast was even given a new, proper Preface. There is no way to arrive definitively at the identity of this fascinating figure. Nevertheless, it is good to see her day restored to greater dignity.
Speaking of Mary Magdalene’s identity, we know from Scripture that she came to Jesus’s tomb in the garden to anoint His Body. Mary, the first witness of the empty tomb, then went to tell Apostles. Hence, she is called “the Apostle to the Apostles”.
At first Mary mistook the Risen Lord for the gardener. St Augustine (d 430) says that “this gardener was sowing in her heart, as in His own garden, the grain of mustard seed.” When He said her name, she recognised and tried to cling to Him. Christ mysteriously forbade her to touch Him (“Noli me tangere” – John 20:17), saying: “I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Augustine proposes that Christ wanted to be touched spiritually, believed in, before being touched in any other way. Reflect on that before receiving Communion.
The 3rd-century writer Hippolytus identified Mary Magdalene with both Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet. Mary Magdalene and/or Mary of Bethany are often identified as sinners. Pope Gregory I “the Great” (d 604) called her a peccatrix, “sinner”. Eventually she came to be called also meretrix, “prostitute”. Another tradition supposes that Mary Magdalene was the woman the Lord saved from stoning. This is the tradition referenced in Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. Scholars today believe that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, the woman Jesus rescued and the woman who anointed His feet are all different people.
Rightly or wrongly, Mary Magdelene has long been associated in art and literature with ongoing penitence for past sins. Hallow her feast with an examination of conscience, which can be bitter. You could then celebrate her feast with the little scallop-shaped cakes called madeleines. They aren’t really named after our saint, but who cares? They might sweeten your remembrance of things past.