Lent with St. Mary Magdalene

“But I don’t have a patron saint,” I thought to myself. It was the first night of my lenten retreat and we were encouraged to ask for our patron saint’s intercession for the weekend.

In the past five years since my conversion to the Catholic faith, I’ve wanted to have a special friend in heaven, but no one stepped forward. Maybe St. Monica? St. Elizabeth Ann Seton? A mother like me? Someone bookish? A fellow convert? Crickets.

”The funny thing about patron saints,” said the speaker, “is that they usually find you, you don’t find them.”

“Well nobody’s making much of an effort to find me,” I thought. After a brief sigh of disappointment, I headed into the chapel for prayer and forgot all about patron saints. As my thoughts slowed down and settled into the silence, I tried to focus on what it meant to experience the lenten season, what it meant to go into the desert. Would I have to go all alone?

Then, there she was. Not in a vision or a mystical voice. Just the simple memory of a statue by Donatello that I studied 8 years ago in college: Magdalene Penitent. A wooden rendering of an old and weathered woman with only her long, wild hair to cover her emaciated body. Her hands in prayer. Her hollowed eyes in a gaunt face. Grotesque and yet beautiful, all at once.

Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene (sailko/Wikimedia Commons)

The art history lecture was coming back to me: the statue depicted St. Mary Magdalene in her declining years offering prayers of love and repentance, living as a hermit in the wilderness. The story behind the statue might have been conflated with St. Mary of Egypt’s life of solitude in the Egyptian desert, or perhaps it was displaying the legend of the Magdalene’s latter years lived out in the wilderness of Gaul. Either way, this was the image of a woman who had gone into a desert of penitence, prayer, and suffering out of her great love for Jesus. As I tried to gather the courage to enter my own desert of penitence and self-examination in the Lenten season, what a perfect companion!

And yet, how unexpected! She isn’t a woman with children in her lap reading a book, the sort of saint I thought would find me. She isn’t a respectable or composed wife and mother. St. Monica or St. Elizabeth Ann Seton she certainly is not. Nope. My saint was the mad woman possessed by seven demons and set free by Christ. Although it isn’t explicit in Holy Scripture, some have claimed that St. Mary Magdalene was also the prostitute of Luke 7 and John 12 who poured the precious ointment over Jesus in preparation for his burial—an act that scandalized those who thought Jesus should have nothing to do with such a woman. Judas criticized her for wasting a year’s wages on this act of love. But she didn’t count the cost. Jesus was her only treasure. She knew who she was: a woman who owed everything to Him. And she found in Him the deep and precious love of a God who found her valuable. More than valuable—worth dying for.

When it came time for Jesus to sacrifice himself for her and for all humanity, she followed him all the way to the Cross. Her love was not like the love of the disciples who fell asleep in the garden while He prayed in agony. She did not cower under scrutiny or deny her Lord, like St. Peter, when faced with the dangers of following him. At the foot of the Cross, the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and this redeemed prostitute watched the scandalous Love of God, suffering before their eyes. And even after his death, she did not give up, move on, run away, or hide like the disciples. She went to the tomb and wept. Finding it empty, she told some of the disciples, but after seeing the empty tomb, they went home.

When everyone else walked away, she stayed. And she wept and went on weeping because she knew she had nothing else in the world but Jesus. Jesus was her treasure and they had taken even his lifeless body away from her. She wept so much that the Gospel of John says she bent into the tomb. Perhaps she was holding onto the entrance with her hands to keep from fainting, her head down, weeping with hysterical grief. Or perhaps her anguish so consumed her that she could not physically stand and she fell into the grave.

Why would this sort of fanatical, hysterical saint find me–a homeschooling mom of three whose idea of excitement is a third cup of coffee and reading in the bath tub? She’s a wild bundle of emotional volatility. She just couldn’t seem to keep it together!

“I’m not like her,” I thought, almost disdainfully.

“No, but you should be,” prompted the Holy Spirit. “Why did she grieve more than the disciples? Why did she stay, weeping, when everyone else returned to their homes.”

“Because she loved more.”

“Why did she love more?”

And St. Mary Magdalene started to make sense to me. “Because she knew who she truly was: a woman in desperate need of God’s mercy and love. She knew that Our Lord that was her only hope, that He had found her, freed her, and died of love for her.”

That’s why she couldn’t leave the tomb. That’s why she fell into the grave where her beloved had been laid, as if by doing so she could follow him into death and find him once more. Her reaction was not foolish. Her vision was clearer than the disciples. She knew who the Lord was. She knew that if the God of the universe loved her, nothing else mattered. Christ was her true home and if He was gone, she had no where to go. She knew that to place her hope, her worth, her love in anything else was folly, madness.

And when Christ was resurrected, He didn’t appear to the twelve disciples first. He didn’t appear to St. Peter, the first Pope on whom he founded his Holy Church. Our Lord came to St. Mary Magdalene, a soul on the margins of society, a redeemed sinner who had nothing but her love for Jesus to distinguish her. And because of this deep love, she was given the great joy of the first sight of the risen Lord.

In her grief Jesus spoke to her and she knew it was him. When he said her name it was like the parable of the sheep who know their Shepherd’s voice. She knew her Lord. And she grabbed ahold of Jesus because her joy upon seeing him was overflowing. She held on to her Lord so tightly that He actually had to tell her to let go of him!

I pat myself on the back for giving God the time of day. Could I ever posses a love of God so strong that He would need to tell me to “Calm down! Let go! Stop holding on to me!”

Outside of the empty tomb, Christ sent St. Mary Magdalene on a mission and she carried it out with joy. She ran to share the good news of the Resurrection. And two thousand years later, she’s still running, sharing the joy of the Gospel with me, reaching out to teach me how to love Jesus with the sort of scandalous, foolish love that is reviled by the world. The sort of love that pours out everything we have for love of Jesus. The sort of love that makes our vision clear to understand that He is our only hope and that because He loves us, we are free to run with joy to his embrace.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

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Haley Stewart is a writer, speaker, blogger, Catholic convert, mother of three, and wife to Daniel of the big beard and the green thumb. She's a homeschooling, bacon-eating, coffee-drinking southern girl with a flair for liturgical feasts and a penchant for bright red lipstick Haley muses about faith, motherhood, and books at her blog Carrots for Michaelmas and is the author of Feast! Real Food, Reflections, and Simple Living for the Christian Year. She also podcasts at Fountains of Carrots.

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