On 22nd July the Church celebrates the feast day of St Mary Magdalene. From the Gospels we know that this highly-honoured woman was among those who accompanied Our Lord and ministered to Him, that she had been exorcised of seven demons, was present at His Crucifixion and burial, and that she was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. From at least the fifth century until the early twentieth century, Western Catholic tradition considered Mary Magdalene to be the same person as Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus), and the “woman who was a sinner” who so upset a Pharisee by entering his house to pour ointment and tears on Our Lord’s feet, as recorded in the Gospel of St Luke, chapter seven. Modern sophisticates pooh-pooh this threefold identification, but the author of the Provost’s letter is a simple convert who learnt what he knows from the Penny Catechism and is happy to bow before the ancient and almost unanimous tradition of the Latin Church.
Assuming that the Provost and Pope St Gregory the Great are not mistaken, it would seem that there were at least two separate occasions on which Mary Magdalene anointed Our Lord’s feet. The first is that mentioned above in St Luke’s Gospel, when Our Lord is dining in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. We read that “a woman of the city who was a sinner” appears at the table with an alabaster flask of ointment and proceeds to wash His feet with her tears, her hair and the contents of the flask.
It transpires from the way this account develops that there are two ways of looking at Mary Magdalene. The first is the way of the Pharisee. Simon heartily disapproves of this woman’s presence in his house. How brazen of her to appear so shamelessly in such elevated company. His opinion of his guest of honour is set firmly in the negative when Our Lord allows this outcast to come into such close contact with Him. Simon is a classic puritan. He is concerned with the woman’s reputation. His vision is fixated on sin and corruption.
Our Lord shows us the other way of looking at Mary Magdalene. He is not really interested in her sins at all. His gaze sears through whatever corruption might be there. His vision is fixed on the magnificent image of God that He recognises in her soul. He sees her capacity to love and to flourish; and because she is willing to open her heart to receive His forgiveness, Divine Grace floods into her being and elevates her to a life of communion with the Blessed Trinity. Liberated from the shackles of her sins, she will become one of the greatest saints and contemplatives that human civilisation has ever known. Such is the love of God for those who are moved to embrace it – healing, restorative and creative.
Puritanism exists in every generation. We can detect its influence whenever we hear someone say: “Confession is too easy. How can anyone expect their sins to be forgiven by a priest in a few minutes?” The answer to this is that such instantaneous restoration to friendship with God is actually something that occurs on a regular and frequent basis within the walls of the Oratory church. Whole lifetimes of sin are forgiven in the time it takes to pronounce the words “I absolve you …”.
We are all created in the image of God. But in all of us that magnificent image is liable to become obscured by sin and selfishness. Sin is like grime on the surface of a looking glass that prevents the image of God from reflecting in our lives with the brilliance and the beauty it is intended to. The gaze of Our Lord, however, remains fixed on this divine image. Like Mary Magdalene, all we have to do is open our hearts to receive His forgiveness. Allow it to happen and, with divine grace and our co-operation, that image will be burnished into a perfect and glorious likeness to God. He has given us the Sacrament of Penance to make this easier for us, and Holy Communion to bring the process to perfection.
The first recorded occasion of Mary Magdalene’s appearance with ointment happens around one year into Our Lord’s public ministry. The second comes two years later, just six days before the Passover that will mark the beginning of His Passion. Our Lord is dining in Bethany with Martha and Lazarus, who has recently been raised from the dead. This time we are told more precisely that the ointment is a pound of pure nard worth a small fortune. Again Mary wipes His feet with her hair, and with the ointment which fills the whole house with fragrance.
Once again Mary’s behaviour attracts disapproval. This time it is Judas Iscariot who complains: “Why is this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Just in case we are naive enough to think Judas really gives a fig about the poor, St John informs us that Judas had sticky fingers and would have been planning to pocket the proceeds for himself. Our Lord tells Judas to hold his tongue and to let Mary keep the nard for the day of his burial.
Recently the Oratory Fathers were taken to task at the end of a Sunday High Mass. An elegant woman marched towards the Provost through the lingering fog of incense and demanded to know what we Oratorians thought we were playing at. The causes of consternation included expensive-looking flower arrangements at the Lady Altar, vestments and golden vessels that had been spotted in the Sanctuary. Surely these extravagances were from funds that should have been given to the poor?
It was explained that the flowers were leftovers from a wedding the day before and that the silver gilt chalice and ciborium had almost certainly been picked up for a song in the 1850s when ecclesiastical Swabian rococo was not much in vogue. The vestments are thread-bear from a century and a half of use and, while still charming for their faded beauty, are too far-gone to fetch good money at auction. The dialogue ended in a slightly more serene atmosphere than it had begun and the articulate woman drove away placated in a gleaming new car which Google searches revealed to have cost £90,000.
Yes, we do make an effort to give the best we can to God. This is because we are grateful that He has given so much for us. Above all, we are grateful that Our Lord gave His Precious Blood on the Cross for our salvation. It is in the spirit of St Mary Magdalene that we lavish the most precious materials we can acquire around the Altar of Sacrifice on which Our Lord makes Himself present at Mass. At the London Oratory we are blessed to have some of the most accomplished musicians and singers in Christendom enriching the liturgical worship in which our hearts are transported regularly towards the heights of Mount Zion. All of this is only made possible by the sacrifices of those who maintain this high quality of worship by means of donations.
Of course, this experience of coming to Mass is supposed to change us. Our Lord transforms bread and wine into His Body and Blood so that we might ourselves be transformed and, in turn, go out to transform the society in which we live and work. We are supposed to leave the precincts of the church with a renewed sensitivity that motivates us to search for and recognise that image of God that is in our neighbour. We should go out from Mass aiming to serve God more faithfully by ministering to Him in the disadvantaged. Worshipping God at the Altar and honouring His image in our neighbour are complementary.
If we are genuinely transformed by the embrace of God’s love that we encounter when receiving Holy Communion, then perhaps, like Mary Magdalene, we shall be inspired to give something that really costs. Someone might even decide to sell her new Porsche at a loss and donate the proceeds to the Catholic Children’s Society. No one here is suggesting that there is a moral obligation to do such a thing. It is a matter for the individual conscience. But such a generous offering would certainly go to an excellent cause.
In St Mary Magdalene, we see how gratitude begets generosity. Together, gratitude and generosity crush the puritan spirit that gives religion a bad name. Sin is the greatest possible evil. But to have repented of our sins and tasted the forgiveness that was won on the Cross gives us an experience of divine love that has the power to transform us into something truly beautiful. Repentance and confession also require in us a humility that is very precious to God. This humility is an essential foundation for the great blessings He wishes to build in our lives.
May the intercession of St Mary Magdalene save us from the puritan spirit. May it increase within us the gratitude and the generosity of soul that are the fruit of knowing that were are sinners who have been granted forgiveness.