Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Who Is Mary Magdalene?
I know I've done these permutations before, but I can't find where I mislaid them. No matter; it's worth doing them again.
The Gospel appointed for St. Mary Magdalene's Day (July 22) is St. Luke 7:36-50. She is not named there, but rather assumed to be the woman "who was a sinner" who crashed the party at Simon's house as Jesus was reclining there. She stood behind him, she was weeping, she wiped his feet with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with precious ointment. Simon the Pharisee grumbled about this, and Jesus, after rebuking him, blessed the woman.
This account corresponds with St. Matthew 26:6-13 and St. Mark 14:23-9, except that in those accounts the flask is broken and the ointment poured over Jesus' head, not his feet; and in Matthew it was "the disciples" who were indignant, while in Mark it is "some" who were indignant. Mark and Matthew identify Simon as "the leper" whereas he is only called a Pharisee in Luke. None of the three synoptic accounts mentions the woman's name.
Then there is the parallel in St. John 12:1-8, in which "Mary" is named, she anoints Jesus' feet, and wipes them with her hair. And it is specifically Judas who complains, not Simon.
In addition, there is the account in St. John 8:1-11 of the woman caught in adultery, who is unnamed.
In the East, this woman, Mary Magdalene, and Mary of Bethany are usually treated as three different women, but not as much in the West. St. Gregory the Great held that they were one and the same: Mary Magdalene is Mary sister of Martha, the woman caught in adultery. Yet St. Ambrose and others left the question unanswered, and the new Roman calendar has capitulated, adopting the Eastern tradition.
But I'm not so sure. I think we're talking about one woman here. Admittedly I am a bit of a Gregoriphile, but that's not why I think his view has merit. Here's my reasoning.
In the first place, the anointing accounts are pretty clearly a match. Enough of the details correspond to leave us with little doubt as to the unlikelihood that two separate such anointings took place, at two feasts held by two Simons where twice a weeping woman's hair wiped Jesus' feet and twice Jesus rebuked her scorners. Too many coincidences would obtain were these separate accounts. And in one of them, the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany.
Moreover, the Lucan account indicates that it was widely known just who this woman was, "a sinner." As in, someone who would also fit the characterization of one having had seven demons, namely Mary Magdalene. It all matches up rather nicely.
St. Mary Magdalene is a central figure in the Gospels. Mary is also an enigmatic figure, likely intentionally so. Shortly after the Lucan account of the unnamed woman with the alabaster box there comes a specific reference to Mary, in the next chapter, as one "out of whom went seven devils." This is part of what leads people to reject the notion that she is the same woman (why would not the evangelist tell us her name in the anointing account, if he did so in the next one?). But perhaps he had reason for not doing so, even as later on in the same chapter he refers to the truths of the Gospel as "mysteries of the kingdom of God."
In addition, the very same pattern can be traced in St. John's Gospel. In St. John 8 the woman caught in adultery is unnamed, but in the twelfth chapter Mary is named as one anointing Jesus' feet.
Perhaps by this kind of reporting the Gospels are relating this to us, that buried in their mysteries we may find Mary, the first witness of the resurrection, who announces it to the twelve, and is remembered as a pure and holy saint, in spite of her many sins. The altar is draped in white on her day. She is one who "became" a virgin. She was filthy, she is clean. She was sinful, she is holy. The great power and result of the forgiveness of sins is manifested nowhere more clearly than in this saint.
That's my view, at any rate.