The Tears of the Magdalene

St Mary Magdalene has always been one of my favourite subjects, so forgive me if I repeat some ideas I have already written about at length. 

When the Congregation for Divine Worship instituted this feast and explicitly gave Mary the title ‘Apostle of the Apostles’ (previously used by Rhabanus Maurus and St Thomas Aquinas, be it noted), some expressed dismay. How could she be called an ‘apostle’, wasn’t that to confuse her role as prima testis or first witness to the Resurrection with the power of rulership in the Church, which was limited to men? Some rather unsatisfactory discussion followed which seemed to me at least to say more about the participants’ attitudes to women than deepen anyone’s theological understanding. Centuries of misidentification of Mary as a fallen woman — in itself a telling phrase, given that we are all fallen beings — and a certain uneasiness about her straightforward emotional response to Jesus have left their mark. It seems we must either champion Mary as a feminist icon, or dismiss her as a secondary figure in the gospel narrative, outside the circle of those who really count, Peter, James and John and the rest. Then we remember her tears.

When Mary first gazed at the Risen Christ through her tears, she did not know him. Then, with eyes washed clean of sin and deformity, she knew him truly and worshiped him. In the life of each one of us there must be that moment of recognition, that instant of grace, when we pass from not knowing to knowing. It is the moment of the heart’s conversion, of repentance and re-making, and it is all God’s work. I don’t see Mary Magdalene as a feminist icon or as a second-rate figure in the gospel narrative but as an immense encouragement to us all. For monks and nuns particularly, familiar as we ought to be with the gift of tears*, she is a powerful reminder of what we ourselves hope to become. May St Mary Magdalene pray for every one of us, male or female, clerical or lay.

*I am referring here to a phenomenon sometimes experienced in prayer when tears flow freely and sweetly, an effect of divine grace at work in the soul. It is much discussed by early monastic writers and is not to be confused with a morbid or unhealthy response to God. The Sarum Missal contains a beautiful prayer for the gift of tears.


6 thoughts on “The Tears of the Magdalene”

  1. When my husband died, ten years ago now, although it still seems like only yesterday, I confessed to a priest friend of mine that all I did was cry. He said, “Remember Who gave you those tears”. I know that your reference to “the gift of tears”, is on a much higher level than my grief, but it has given me much comfort. Thank you, Sister.

    • No, my reference to the prayer of tears is not on a higher level than your grief. In both cases, love is the origin; and I think we all do well to remember that Jesus himself was moved to tears by the death of his friend, Lazarus. May God bless you.

  2. I have shed tears for the living, the afflicted, the dying and the dead. The physical expression of grief is indeed a gift from God, the antithesis of laughter. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine for this invaluable piece.
    Mary Magdalene has been traduced too much by the misogynists within the Church as has the importance of women in the development of Christianity. Time for Rome to recognise the status of women in ministry.
    God bless and care for you. Peace and love be with you xx.

  3. I love Mary Magdalene…. the fact that Jesus appeared to her and called her by her name is so significant…. what a privilege… if I had become a nun, I would have taken her name… I would have been Sister Mary Magdalene of The Risen Jesus. Thank you Sister for this posting. Beautiful!

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