St. Mary Magdalene has long been a figure surrounded by controversy, curiosity, and a bit of confusion. In recent years, Dan Brown’s bestselling The Da Vinci Code, portrayed her—against all evidence and logic—as the goddess-like wife of a rather boring Jesus. Unfortunately, that ridiculous claim is, for many people today, the first thing they think of when they hear her name. Her role in the life of Jesus, her sinful past, the fact that (as recorded in the Gospels) she was the first witness to see and talk to the Risen Christ—all have made her one of the most intriguing and mysterious figures in history.
Fr. Sean Davidson, a member of the Missionaries of the Most Holy Eucharist, may also be considered an unofficial missionary of St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast is celebrated on July 22nd. In a book entitled Saint Mary Magdalene: Prophetess of Eucharistic Love (Ignatius Press, 2017), Fr. Davidson details with great care and devotion the life and influence of this holy woman. Fundamentally, and perhaps closest to his own heart, he chronicles what Mary has to show us about having a deep and abiding relationship with our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. And he does while debunking a number of Magdalene-centric myths along the way.
Fr. Davidson corresponded with Catholic World Report about his new book.
CWR: You have a particular devotion to St. Mary Magdalene. Where did this come from?
Fr. Sean Davidson: Well, I didn’t know all that much about her until a few years ago when I discovered the ancient Provençal tradition about how she ended her days in Gaul, that is, modern day France. The way in which her life has traditionally been described there intrigued me greatly and brought me back to a biblical meditation of the saint’s life. On the pages of the Gospel, I discovered a woman who loved Christ deeply; we might say radically! Since part of my mission is to spread perpetual Eucharistic Adoration, which is essentially a question of radical love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, I felt like I had found a new patroness for my work.
CWR: What brought you to the area of France where she is believed to have lived out her last days?
Fr. Davidson: My community, the Missionaries of the Most Holy Eucharist, was founded in Toulon about ten years ago by Father Florian Racine and Bishop Dominique Rey. This is the diocese in which Saint Magdalene is said to have spent her final years and in which her relics have always been kept. She was exiled from the Holy Land and ended up in that region with a small group of the first Christians. She helped to evangelize the area, before going on to spend her final years in perpetual contemplation in a grotto halfway up the mountain of Sainte Baume. She is said to have been one of the first great mystics of the Church, the prototype of women like Saint Catherine of Siena and Marthe Robin.
Magdalene was eventually buried in the nearby village of Saint Maximin, and on that spot a magnificent basilica still stands to this day. In the Middle Ages, this sanctuary was known as the third most important tomb in Christendom! About five years ago, Bishop Rey entrusted the basilica to our community. So I had the privilege of serving there as a priest for a couple of years, and I still return there every summer to help organize our annual Eucharistic Congress.
CWR: One of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of the question: “One woman or three?” Does the answer to this question change anything significant in our understanding of Mary Magdalene?
Fr. Davidson: It certainly does! This is a controversial question. The Provençal tradition has always maintained that the woman whom Saint Luke describes as “Mary, the one called Magdalene” (Lk 8:2) is in fact the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and the person we first see in Scripture weeping at Christ’s feet in the seventh chapter of the Gospel of Luke. This belief was taken for granted in the entire Roman Catholic Church for most of its history, and right up until the twentieth century. As late as the 1960s, if one had gone to Mass on the feast day of Saint Mary Magdalene one would have heard the opening prayer of the Mass speak about how Lazarus was raised from the dead thanks to her prayers, while the Gospel for the day was that text which we mentioned from the seventh chapter of Luke. (I suppose these must be the liturgical texts still used by those who attend the Latin Mass today.)
This was the belief that nourished the spiritual life of Catholics for centuries, not to mention the role it played in the mystical experiences of saints like Catherine of Siena, Gertrude the Great, Teresa of Avila and Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich. (I personally find it hard to believe that they could have all erred in their mystical insights into the saint, as well as the graces they felt they received through her intercession.) Our Protestant brothers and sisters moved away from that belief in the sixteenth century, but we continued to cling to it, until the Catholic biblical scholars of the twentieth century began to insist that this belief was not clearly enough explained in Scripture for it to be imposed upon the entire Church through the liturgy. Thus the decision was made to modify the liturgical texts. However, as certain scholars, such as Mgr. Jean-Pierre Ravotti, have pointed out, the case for the identity of Mary Magdalene is not closed. Her identity is not a question of dogma or anything that could be definitively defined by the Church. A legitimate debate has been opened up, and there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate. Even after the liturgical changes were made, some great biblical scholars, such as Father André Feuillet and the contemporary Dominican scholar, Father Renaud Silly, remained convinced that the traditional belief was correct. They offer us compelling biblical reasons to demonstrate its coherence. I am certainly no biblical scholar, but I must admit that I have personally found more light in their arguments than I did in those which oppose the tradition.
They provide many interesting arguments, but two of the more important ones in favor of the tradition are the following:
• An anonymous woman in Luke 7 anoints Christ’s feet and dries them with her hair in the early days of his public ministry in Galilee. Then, just a few days before his Passion, Mary, the sister of Martha, does an almost identical gesture in Bethany in Judea. It is such a highly unusual gesture that it seems unlikely that it was performed by two different women. In chapter 11 of his Gospel, before describing the second anointing in Bethany, Saint John speaks of Mary as the woman who had anointed the Lord and dried his feet with her hair – in reference to a past event. It would also be useless to clarify the identity of the woman who did this most curious thing, if there were in fact two women who had done it. There appears to be one personality shining through both of these events. As Henri Lacordaire once said: only one loving heart could conceive both of these anointings. Many modern biblical scholars will admit this probability, but rather than accept that the two events speak of one woman, they will try to fuse the two events into one. This ultimately tends to call into question the accuracy of the Gospel narratives.
Feuillet concludes that it would be safer to speak of one woman who performed two different anointings, rather than one event described with erroneous details by some of the evangelists. Saint Augustine had already drawn the same conclusion in the fifth century. A French scholar called Raymond Bruckberger speaks of how the reluctance to make this identification—even among some ancient writers—is rooted in what he calls a “puritanical prejudice.” In other words, people do not want to associate the virtuous Mary, sister of Martha, with a once sinful woman; as though a sinner can never hope to become virtuous. Augustine, having deeply experienced the mercy of God in his own person, and knowing for certain that sinners can become saints, was not afraid to make the identification.
• If then the anonymous woman in Luke 7 and the sister of Martha are in fact one and the same woman, we are still left with the problem of linking this woman to that Mary who is also known as “Magdalene.” The key text that can help us to do so is in chapter 12 of the Gospel of John. When Mary, the sister of Martha, anoints Jesus just before his Passion, and Judas complains, Jesus responds: “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial!” “Let her keep it…” Hmm. What a curious statement! Fr. Renaud Silly, O.P., says that Jesus is giving her the sacred right—and we might say the obligation—to be involved in his anointing for burial. In her mind, she would have perhaps later understood from these words that she had been given a loving command to be at his tomb on Easter Sunday, when the anointing ritual was to be properly concluded. In light of Christ’s words, one would reasonably expect Mary, the sister of Martha, to be at the tomb a few days later, yet we find no mention of her at all. How could this woman, who is simply called Mary in Scripture—and not Mary of Bethany as we like to say today—who loves Christ so much, who was chosen by heaven to anoint him for burial, not make the two-mile trip to Calvary? Unless, of course, she is in fact that Mary who also has the familiar name of Magdalene, and who certainly seems to understand that she is the one especially chosen to anoint Christ’s body for burial. This is why she is so eager to get to the tomb as early as possible on Easter Sunday morning, and so devastated when his body is absent. With his body now gone, she has been deprived of her sacred right and obligation to carry out in a worthy manner the burial anointing of the Christ.
Of course, none of these arguments are absolutely conclusive, and one is free to reject them, but they are certainly interesting to ponder.
CWR: The subtitle of the book is “Prophetess of Eucharistic Love”. What is intended by this?
Fr. Davidson: The “Eucharistic” part has to do with what I said about her being a model for all those who wish to adore Christ. She is the perfect adorer of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Gospels. Saint Francis de Sales has a beautiful homily on her life in which he notices that the “excellent Magdalene”, the great “perfumer of the Lord” is only ever to be found at Christ’s feet. A true posture of adoration! He finds her at Christ’s feet in Luke 7, again in Luke 10 while her sister Martha complains. She falls at his feet just before he raises Lazarus from the dead. She is literally at his feet at the foot of the Cross, and we find her at his feet once again in the joyful moment of the Resurrection. She is like one of those beautiful souls whom we find rapt in contemplation at the foot of the monstrance in our adoration chapels. There are also some other little Eucharistic connotations which I explain in the book, not to mention the fact that some of the Catholic mystics and ancient traditions show the important role of the Eucharist in her life in Gaul, and how she ultimately died there in some kind of Eucharistic ecstasy.
The “prophetess” part is more subtle. As well as being the first person in history to proclaim the Gospel—for the Good News of the Gospel includes the Resurrection—Magdalene is also the prophetess of the Ascension, the one told by Christ to announce that He is ascending to His Father (Jn 20:17). However, there is more. A prophet is one through whom the Spirit of God speaks. A prophet will often foretell an important event or rebuke one who has offended the Lord. Sometimes a prophet uses words, but sometimes he uses gestures. In the second anointing of Christ, Mary Magdalene was the one whose gestures of love prophesied and foretold the most important event in human history: the impending death and burial of the Son of God! Jesus, the Eternal Word himself, interpreted the meaning hidden in her prophetic gesture of love. In the first anointing scene, her loving gesture was also used by Christ to bring to light the disrespectful behavior of the Pharisee towards Him. He had deliberately neglected to pay Jesus the signs of respect due to a guest of honor. He didn’t kiss Him at the door, he didn’t wash His feet, and he didn’t anoint Him with oil. Magdalene was inspired by the Spirit of Love to perform all three of these actions in spectacular fashion. Jesus interpreted the lesson hidden in her prophetic gesture for those present. Like a good adorer, this prophetess of love had made fitting reparation for the insult to Christ’s dignity. When Jesus sees the love of his adorers at his feet, he forgets about all of the sins and sacrileges which daily pierce his Sacred Heart. (This secret of “consoling the Heart of God” was also taught to the children of Fatima by an angel from heaven.)
CWR: What do you see as some of the most important things we can learn from the example of Mary Magdalene? How can we learn from her life, experiences, mistakes?
Fr. Davidson: She teaches us that the spiritual life is very simple. Love for Christ is everything. No matter how far we may have fallen in the past, we can dare to hope to become great saints. This is the confidence and inspiration that she instills into the heart of sinners. One of the most ancient stories of her life, which had traditionally been attributed to Blessed Rabanus Maurus (780-850 AD)—but whose authorship is called into question by modern scholars—shows that during her own lifetime, as she evangelized in Gaul, she would hold herself up as a personal witness to the infinite mercy of Christ. The people who heard her speak would invariably be moved to tears and set on fire with love for God.
The “Apostle to the Apostles” was not only an apostle of the Resurrection, but also of the Divine Mercy. Saint Gertrude the Great once had a vision of her, radiantly beautiful in the glory of heaven, adorned in precious stones and flowers. She was given to understand that there were as many flowers as there had once been sins in her life. The mercy she received for each of her sins now resounds to the glory of God for all eternity. The Lord can bring good out of evil, even the evil of our past sins! All we need to do is confess them, sincerely change our ways, and trust in his mercy.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fr. Davidson: When Jesus was anointed for the second time, he defended this holy but misunderstood woman—as he defends her in almost every text—for having done “something beautiful” for him. There are few people in Scripture who receive as much praise from Christ as she does, simply because she understands love. She didn’t care what anybody but Jesus thought of her and the things she did. That is the secret to her holiness. Her example of audacity and extravagant love for Christ is something we can all learn from. Saint Catherine of Siena said that Mary Magdalene was “as self-conscious as a drunken woman.” (Maybe it is just my Irish sense of humor, but that made me laugh when I read it first.) Perhaps what is preventing us from becoming great saints is that we are a little too self-conscious and overly concerned about the opinions of others. May Saint Magdalene intercede for us and help us to do “something beautiful” for Jesus with our lives and talents. We could start by making sure that in every one of our parishes, He is surrounded by the most beautiful homage of perpetual Eucharistic Adoration!
(Editor’s note: This interview was first posted on the CWR on April 23, 2017.)
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