15th Saturday in Ordinary Time
St. Mary Magdalene
Song of Songs 3:1-4b; John 20:1-2, 11-18
In our Responsorial Psalm we just heard this verse from Ps. 63: “My soul clings to you; your right hand holds me fast.” What a beautiful image of our cloistered, contemplative vocation. You might call it “clingy spirituality,” with no derogatory overtones.
Mary Magdalene is a wonderful icon of “clingy spirituality.” After Jesus cast out seven demons from her, she followed him and looked after his needs. She was such a faithful clinger that even an up-close view of Jesus’ passion and death did not shake her steadfast love and devotion. She kept clinging even when it hurt and broke her heart. She was one of only four followers named at the foot of the cross. The cruelty of the Roman soldiers and the crowd could not separate her from the one she clung to.
Fidelity to the Sabbath pried her away, but as soon as it was over she went right back again. And then in this morning’s gospel what do we find her doing? Clinging to Jesus. He says to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
I would like to think that her active ministry of being an apostle to the Apostles was only a temporary assignment, and that after it was over she was allowed to go back to being a contemplative, since she was so good at it.
We should treasure our contemplative vocation because sometimes a person may have a strong desire for it but it just isn’t his vocation. I’m thinking of the Geresene demoniac after the pigs rushed down the steep cliff into the lake (Mk 5:1-20). Like Mary Magdalene, he wanted to stay close to Jesus after his life had been so radically changed. The verb “to remain” has a very rich meaning and can also be a good description of the contemplative life. In this passage we are told that as Jesus was getting into the boat, “the man who had been possessed pleaded to remain with him.” Jesus, however, had a more active vocation planned for him. The passage concludes, “But he would not permit him but told him instead, ‘Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you.’ Then the man went off and began to proclaim in the Decapolis what Jesus had done for him; and all were amazed.”
Speaking of “remaining” or “clinging” versus a more active vocation, who is not reminded of Mary of Bethany and her sister, Martha (Lk 10:38-42). Mary was content to sit at Jesus’ feet. It was her gift just to be, rather than to do. I would hope, though, that Martha too was able to spend some time at Jesus’ feet just “being” after her tasks were done. Active ministries need time in quiet prayer also to make them more effective.
This same Mary of Bethany exemplified the wasteful, un-pragmatic nature of the contemplative life when she anointed Jesus before his passion and death (Jn 12:1-11; Mk 14:3-9; Mt 26:6-13). She broke an alabaster vessel of very costly perfume and anointed the object of her devotion. Her heart was throbbing with love, and she expressed it with her actions.
This episode, however, is not to be confused with the similar anointing in Luke 7. There, it is a sinful woman with a bad reputation. Modern-day scholars see this event as distinct from the anointing at Bethany. Unfortunately, St. Jerome in the fifth century and St. Gregory the Great in the sixth combined the three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed woman who was a sinner in Luke 7. Ever after that, poor St. Mary Magdalene had the reputation of being a reformed prostitute, when in fact, there is nothing to support that in Scripture. She might have had seven demons expelled, but there are plenty of other demons besides sexual ones.
Lastly, I would like to point out that our first reading was from the Song of Songs. The Bride, in this wonderful book, definitely exemplifies “clingy spirituality.” The passage from it chosen for our first reading is so beautifully matched to the sentiments of Mary Magdalene in our gospel reading. Our Cistercian Fathers wrote more commentaries on this Book than any other since it expressed best the “clingy spirituality” of our vocation. The Bride is sick with love for the Bridegroom and alternates between the consolation and desolation of his presence and absence that we contemplatives are so familiar with.
St. Mary Magdalene, obtain for us the grace to cling steadfastly to Jesus through the vicissitudes of life and the darkness of our final hour so that we may be found still clinging to him in the glory of his resurrected life.