Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Apostola Apostolorum

Today the Church commemorates Saint Mary Magdalene, a particularly prominent figure in the Gospels (and one of the patrons of the Paulist Fathers). Having been healed of some sort of demonic possession, she became a disciple of Jesus, one of several female disciples who followed Jesus and apparently funded his ministry (cf. Luke 8:2-3). She was present at Jesus' crucifixion, and was the first to see the Risen Lord and to witness to it to the apostles (Mark 16:9-10; John 20:11-18). Hence her medieval title apostola apostolorum - “apostle of the apostles.”  (The attached photo is of Fra Angelico's fresco version of the Risen Christ's Easter morning appearance to Mary Magdalene.)

The strange misidentification of Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who washed jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (cf. Luke 7:36-50) has had a long history. It seems to owe much of its staying power to a famous 6th-century homily of Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who then compounded the error by also misidentifying Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Saint Martha. (This was in spite of the obvious fact that Bethany and Magdala are geographically different places!) One result of this unfortunate misidentification was the idea - which I can definitely recall learning as a child (when, incidentally, the liturgical calendar officially entitled her as "Mary Magdalene, Penitent") - that the seven devils  driven out of her by Jesus were actually the seven capital sins!

Historically, not everyone agreed with this, of course. The Eastern Churches always emphasized instead her primary status as a disciple. In the West, Saint Ambrose seems to have considered her a virgin, and the Benedictines in their calendar kept Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany on different days. But certainly still the standard western (and secular) view when I was growing up remained that of Gregory.

Thus, in the old Missal, the Gospel for her feast was the story of the sinful woman in Luke. while the identification with Mary of Bethany was reflected in the collect, which referred to Jesus having raised her brother Lazarus back to life. The fact that Saint Martha was (and still is) celebrated alone exactly one week later certainly seems consistent with the once standard belief that Martha's sister had already been honored when celebrating Mary Magdalene one week earlier.

In the 1950s, in the deliberations of Pius XII's Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the sacred Liturgy, serious attention was given to correcting (at least in the liturgy) Mary Magdalene's historical misidentification. Thus, at the Commission's 39th meeting on April 27, 1954, it was generally conceded that Mary Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany were not identical with each other and that neither was identical with the sinful woman in Luke's Gospel. It was proposed to turn the July 29 feast of Saint Martha into a feast of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and to create a completely new feast of Mary Magdalene on May 8 focusing on her presence at the foot of the Cross and the Risen Christ's appearance to her on Easter. Nothing came of that proposal, however. 

It was only with the introduction of the 1969 Missal that, without altering any feast days, the historical identity of May Magdalene was at last clarified and her significance for the Church properly highlighted. So now the Gospel for her feast is John 20:1-2, 11-18, the account of the Risen Christ's first appearance to her on Easter morning and her mission to tell the Apostles the news. And the new collect prays, O God, whose Only Begotten Son entrusted Mary Magdalene before all others with announcing the great joy of the Resurrection, grant, we pray, that through her intercession and example we may proclaim the living Christ and come to see him reigning in your glory.

On the other hand, the old liturgy did at least honor Mary Magdalene's role as "apostle of the apostles" by requiring the recitation of the Creed at Mass on her feast. Sadly, she lost the Creed in the rubrical reforms of 1955, and so far at least has never gotten it back! (Of course, in the current missal not even the Apostles are entitled to the Creed anymore!)

Everything about the story of Mary Magdalene that is actually certain - her healing by Jesus, her response by becoming a disciple, her generous financial support for Jesus' mission, her fidelity at the foot of the Cross when most of the others had abandoned Jesus, her Easter encounter with Christ, and her commission to evangelize - highlight her true importance in the early Christian community and her continued significance for the life of the Church in every age.

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