Among these last we find Mary Magdalen, the once notorious sinner, who became the most illustrious of all holy women, the Virgin Mother alone excepted.
Her story begins upon the day when Christ sat at meat in the house of the Pharisee, and Magdalen hearing that he was there, wentThough a sinner, she knows that Jesus is God, and she has resolved to approach Him. Silently she enters, and falling down before the gentle Saviour, began to wash those sacred feet with her tears and to wipe them with her long hair. An alabaster vase is in her hand full of costly ointment, and opening it she anoints the Lord, not indeed His head—according to the custom of the East—but kneeling, she pours the perfumed oil upon the feet already bathed with tears of penitence and love. She has not spoken, she has not told out the burden of her sin and shame, for Jesus knows it all, and knows too her deep penitence and love, and so in that brief moment she is forgiven, and the sinner is transformed into the saint.
The Pharisee is displeased with the scene which has taken place, and Christ reading his heart says, "Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee," and thereupon follows the passage which has encouraged many a penitent sinner to Him. since that day, whorein Jesus declares that "Many sins are forgiven her because she hath loved much."
It was by Mary Magdalen's conversion that Our Lord seems to have become a friend and a guest in the house of Lazarus and Martha; so loving and so tender a friend that He wept for the grief of these sisters when their brother died, wept tears of human sympathy which Scripture has recorded that we may understand something of what it is to possess the friendship of Jesus. We see Christ a guest in the home of Bethany, Martha busy in serving, Mary sitting at His feet listening to the words which fell from His lips. Martha complained and said,
"Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve ? speak to her therefore that she help me."
Both sisters loved Our Lord, though the expression of that love was different; the active service was accepted and prized, yet Jesus declares that "Mary hath chosen the better part," the silent waiting at His feet.
Time passed, and the hour drew nigh when the Son of man should sacrifice His life upon the Cross, and once more He comes to Bethany, the place where Lazarus had been raised from the dead. A supper was prepared for Christ there in the house of Simon the leper, and Martha served, while Lazarus was of those who sat at the table with the Master.
Again Mary Magdalen enters with an alabaster vase, as once before she had come in penitence and shame; but now she is the friend of Jesus, she may dare to pour the ointment upon the Sacred Head; then— with perhaps a sudden remembrance of her former guilt—she casts herself at Christ's feet, anointing them with what remains, and "wiping them with the hair of her head." The disciples are displeased at this homage; it is a waste they think, for the costly spikenard might have been well sold and its price given to the poor. But Jesus reproved them. He knew why Magdalen had done this, He could read all the love and longing of her heart, and He answers,
"She hath done what she could," and adds that, "Wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done shall be told for a memorial of her."
The terrible agony was over, the cruel scourging had been endured, the crown of thorns had been wreathed around the head of Jesus the man of sorrows. He had borne the burden of His heavy Cross up the steep mountain side, and now He hangs there bleeding and dying.
Are His friends near, His disciples pressing close, they whom His touch had healed of their diseases, whose dead He had given back to them ? Ah, no! Only a few loving, faithful women with the Apostle John—Mary the stainless mother, the Immaculate Virgin, by the side of penitent, loving Magdalen at the foot of the Cross. The three hours of agony went by, the sacrifice was accomplished, and the braised, nail-pierced body had been wound in linen cloths and embalmed with fragrant aromatic spices, after the custom of the Jews, and now it was lying in the garden sepulchre until the resurrection morning.
We see Mary Magdalen hurrying there—so early that it is yet dark—-towatch and pray ; but the stone has been rolled away, the sepulchre is open, and in grief she runs to tell SS. Peter and John, " They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre and we know not where they have laid Him." Yes it was indeed true that He was not there; the disciples come and look for themselves, and then go away to their own homes.
Only Mary Magdalen remains to weep by the empty tomb, to tell her grief to the white robed angels, and to one other who is not far off, and whom she thinks must be the gardener."They have taken away my Lord," she cries. Ah, well may she weep if she thinks that Jesus is lost to her, well may we weep if by our own unfaithfulness, our cold neglect, our sin, He seems lost to us!
"Mary." No other voice could ever be like His, and turning, she sees Him whom she loves so much and calls by the dear name of "Master."
Perhaps it was in her heart to press her lips again upon those pierced feet; but Jesus says: "Do not touch me." Is His love less than in past days, the days when she came to anoint Him with precious ointment, when she sat so near and listened to the words of Him "Who spake as never man spake?" No; it is because Jesus is no more what He had been; His body was transfigured now into a higher life, soon he would be at the right band of the Father, and Magdalen must wait till she may fall at His feet in heaven. There is no further mention of this penitent, loving woman in Holy Scripture; but traditionand early history give us the closing part of her life.
Years had rolled on; S. Peter had been crucified at Rome, the Virgin Mother had gone to heaven after her patient waiting, and Lazarus, with his sisters, passed to the shores of France. Tradition tells that a boat containing the family of Bethany left the beautiful coast of Palestine, and by some unseen power was guided to Marseilles, where a little congregation of Christians soon gathered around those who could tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the story of a dear and well known friend. Of Magdalen there is but one remembrance at this port, in the altar bearing her name, which is in the vaults of the abbey of S. Victor. At Aix there was an oratory where it is said she had prayed in the company of S. Maximus, who had accompanied her pilgrimage; but it was in greater retirement that God had chosen the life of His servant to end.
There was a lonely desert in that part, and acave in which the Saint should hold wondrous communications with Him she had loved so deeply, and the same impulse which had guided her once to the house of the Pharisee, led her to this retreat. For thirty years her life was one of mingled prayer and penance, many times in each day she was carried by unseen angels from her cave to the rock above it, where visions were granted her which the tongue may not tell, nor the pen describe.
So the hour approached which Magdalen must long have desired, she knew she was about to pass from brief glimpses of untold glory to that which should be eternal, and she longed once more to receive the Blessed Sacrament of love. Not far removed was the oratory of S. Maximus, and when Mary Magdalen knew the hour had come, she was carried by angels to a spot where the holy Bishop had been divinely inspired to wait for her, and where he gave her the holy communion of the Lord's Body and Blood. Then he placed her remains in an alabaster monument and prepared a grave for himself close by.
At the commencement of the eighth century the Saracens invaded Provence, and thus it was that in fear the monks of S. Cassian, who were dwelling in that part, concealed the crypt in which the relics of S. Mary Magdalen reposed, by a heap of sand and rubbish. They even removed her body from the alabaster tomb to another grave; but they placed two inscriptions in it which should show in some future day what it truly was.
Centuries passed away; the precise spot where the dear Saint lay was forgotten, and strange rumours concerning the removal of her remains went about. At length God inspired the Prince of Salerno to make a pilgrimage for the purpose of discovering the sepulchre of Magdalen, so beloved of Christ, and in the December of 1279 a trench was opened in the old basilica of St. Cassian. Soon the workmen struck on the stone of a grave, and when the prince had it raised, a sweet fragrance was immediately perceived by all; then convinced that his search was rewarded, he caused the sepulchre to be sealed until the Bishops of Provence might be convoked.
In the following spring a vast multitude stood near the tomb of Mary Magdalon when with all honour it was opened, and the eyes of ecclesiastics, of princes, of men, women, and little children, were permitted to see and venerate the bones which had bent in loving adoration at the feet of Jesus. Upon the forehead a small particle of flesh was observed to be transparent, and with one accord the assembly declared their belief that it was the spot once touched by the finger of the Saviour when He said to Magdalen: "Noli me tangere."
Upon the ground where for thirteen hundred years these sacred relics had lain undisturbed, a church was erected by Charles II. of Sicily, but only completely finished by his successors two centuries later.
Beautiful is the story of Mary Magdalen — the story of mingled penitence and love. Sinful, she had nothing to offer Jesus but her tears; pardoned, she had only her love to give Him. But what love it was! so deep, so strong, so abiding; a love which kept her ever following in the footsteps of Him Who had pardoned her so much, even when His path led to the cross and to the grave.
We too have deeply sinned, but alas! our penitence is not that of Magdalen, we have not shed such tears as she did, we do not perhaps feel the same unwavering confidence in the forgiveness of Our Lord.
Oh, pray for us, dear Saint, that we may feel a contrition such as thine, for the many sins of our lives; pray for us too, that rising pardoned from the feet of Christ we may never more turn back from loving and following Him.
Source: Stories of the Saints, 1878