the Feast of
Saint Mary Magdalene
by the Rev. Dr. Robert Crouse
shall cover the multitude of sins."
1 Peter 4:8
the Church keeps the Festival of St. Mary Magdalene, and the
Scripture lessons appointed for today's services all have to do with
her place as a witness to Jesus' Resurrection. And she witnesses to
his Resurrection, not just because she was present at the empty tomb
on Easter morning, and met the Risen Christ in the garden, but also
surely, because she was one whose life was made new in Jesus Christ.
By her conversion of life, she witnesses to the Resurrection, and
proclaim new life to all who follow Jesus. "Go and tell my
brethren", he bids her.
know very little with accuracy about St. Mary Magdalene; but, in
general, she is the example of a notable sinner who became a great
saint. Just what her earlier life had been, we do not know
precisely. St. Luke remarks that seven demons had gone out of her.
Probably she is to be identified with that sinful woman who crashed
the Pharisee's banquet with an alabaster box of ointment and
anointed Jesus' feet, and received forgiveness of sins. "I tell
you", says Jesus, "her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she
loved much". "Charity shall cover the multitude of sins."
St. Mary Magdalene is a witness to the
triumph of love. But what is this love, which winds new life, this
charity which covers the multitude of sins? We can hardly mention
the word "Charity" without recalling St. Paul's great hymn of
charity in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians, one of the
best-known and most loved passages of scripture.
Chapter 12 of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, from which
today's Epistle comes, St. Paul's writes to the Christians in
Corinth about spiritual gifts - gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, of
faith, of healing, of prophecy, of miracle-working, of
administration, and so on. All these gifts are desirable, he say;
but he will show us "a still more excellent way" - the way of
charity, without which all those gifts are worthless.
Obviously, we use the word "charity" in
a much narrower sense than St. Paul has in mind. For us, it usually
means gifts to the poor, or contributions to tax-exempt
organizations, or perhaps a generous attitude towards somebody's
foibles. Modern versions of the scriptures generally translate the
word as "love"; but it is doubtful whether that really goes very far
towards clarifying the meaning of the passage. If the meaning of
"Charity" has become too narrow, the meaning of "love" has become
too broad: so broad as to include even our attitude towards our
favourite breakfast cereal.
We use the word "love" to refer mostly
to feelings and sentiments, to natural affections and preferences,
and that is not really what St. Paul is talking about at all. He is
talking about a condition of reason and will, focused upon the
eternal good, that is, upon God - a reason and will focused upon
God, and in that perspective attending to the eternal good of one
another. This is not principally a matter of affections of
sentiments - it is a matter of perceiving clearly and steadfastly
willing the eternal good.
Our natural affections and preferences
are not charity, though they many sometimes be it accoutrements.
Sometimes they help and support charity, and that is a happy
circumstance. But sometimes they obstruct and distort it; and
sometimes charity requires that our affections and desires be
crucified: because, far from seeking the eternal good, they are
subjective and self-seeking. "Charity seeketh not her own".
Even in the resurrection garden, Mary
Magdalene is tempted to cling to the earthly body of Jesus. "Touch
me not", he tells her, "do not cling to me." "For I am not yet
ascended to my Father". True charity is to know and will the eternal
good, to see beyond this or that particular earthly thing.
Without charity, says St. Paul, all our
gifts are worthless - :sounding brass and tinkling cymbal -" noisy
nonsense - a cacophany of lifeless things, worthless: and it does
not matter how much we know, or what wonderful and heroic things we
do. Worthless, because none of these gifts is finally of any use, if
we miss th end of all knowing and doing, the eternal good.
It is charity- the will perfected in its
focus upon the good- which holds all things together towards that
end: "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things,
endureth all things". Without that end, all things fall apart into a
meaningless chaos, a mere series of episodes.
All our knowings and doings are parts:
"We know in part, and we prophesy in part." But the parts make no
sense without the pattern of the whole. They are like the pieces in
a jigsaw puzzle - useless and ridiculous except for their place in
the whole puzzle.
"When I was a child, I spake as a
child". - I babbled; "I understood and thought as a child" But when
I became a man", says St. Paul, "I put away my childish things". It
is the essence of childishness to hold to a part, a fragment, as
though it were the whole. In childhood, the immediate, the
particular object or objective is the whole world. To possess this
or that, to taste this or that, to touch this or that, seems
infinitely desirable, an end in itself.
To grow up is to see these things in
perspective, to relate them tot a perfection which is beyond this
moment. "Do not cling to me." "Touch me not", says Jesus to Mary,
"For I am not yet ascended to my Father." She would cling childishly
to his particular earthly form - He would have her espouse the
absolute, eternal good which is God.
Charity is not gushing sentiment, nor is
it indiscriminate affection or generosity. Charity requires rather
the clearest possible discernment and discrimination of the good in
every situation, and the most steadfast will in pursuing that good.
Beyond faith and hope, charity is the ultimate mark of the maturity
of the saint.
doubt we are still children. "We know in part, and we prophesy in
part." Our discernment is feeble; we "through a glass darkly" -
vague and shadowy images of the good. We must pray and work for
clearer vision and more steadfast will, that the new life of Jesus'
resurrection may be perfected in us, that we with Mary, may be
witnesses of that resurrection.
Mary Magdalene, in the Resurrection
garden, through the midst of her tears, mistook Jesus for the
gardener. But he is, after all, the gardener, who will cultivate in
our barren soil the gifts and graces of his kingdom, and raise in us
that best gift of "charity which shall cover the multitude of sins".
And then we shall see him as he is, and know even as we are known.
"It will be said on that day,
'Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save
us. This is the Lord. we have waited for him; let us be glad and
rejoice in his salvation.' "