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St Mary Magdalen

St Mary Magdalen

Mary from Magdala in Galilee is mentioned by name in the Gospels on only a few occasions, but her meeting with the risen Christ on Easter morning makes her one of the most important Christian saints.

We first hear of her in chapter 8 of St. Luke's gospel where she is described as having become a follower of Jesus after some kind of healing experience. She was one of a number of women who were said to have been set free from evil spirits and infirmities and who provided for Jesus and the disciples out of their own resources.

We do not hear of Mary Magdalen again until the Crucifixion. All four gospel writers mention that she was present, usually in the company of a group of women who had ministered to Jesus in Galilee and accompanied him to Jerusalem. St. John is the most precise and describes her as being among those near the Cross with the mother of Jesus. After Jesus had died Mary Magdalen and her companions waited to see where his body would be taken, so that they could return to perform the customary anointing rites. The next day being the Sabbath they were required to rest, but very early the following morning the women returned and heard the angelic announcement that Jesus had risen from the dead. Mary Magdalen, still confused and grief-stricken at finding the tomb empty, sought help from a man she took to be the gardener. It was when he addressed her by name that she recognised Jesus and so became the first witness of the Resurrection, taking the news to the other disciples. She has thus been nick-named ‘The Apostle of the Apostles’, and in the old Roman liturgy the Creed was always recited on her feast, thus marking her importance in the handing on of the faith.

There has always been much speculation about the identity of Mary Magdalen. The 3rd c. writer Hippolytus in his Commentary on Song of Songs identifies Mary Magdalen with both Mary of Bethany the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42; John 1:10) and also the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). The 6th c. Pope and Doctor of the Church, St Gregory the Great, also helped to popularise this identification of the Magdalen. More modern scholarship has cast doubt on this interpretation, but it has been widely accepted, especially in the Latin Church, and has hugely influenced the portrayal of Mary Magdalen in Western art – not least in the images we see in our own church.

An ancient tradition links Mary Magdalen with the South of France. The Catholic Encyclopaedia sums it up in these words:

'According to a French tradition Mary, Lazarus, and some companions came to Marseilles and converted the whole of Provence. Magdalen is said to have retired to a hill, La Sainte-Baume, nearby, where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of St. Maximinus, where she received the viaticum; her body was then laid in an oratory constructed by St. Maximinus at Villa Lata, afterwards called St. Maximin. History is silent about these relics till 745, when according to the chronicler Sigebert, they were removed to Vezelay through fear of the Saracens. No record is preserved of their return, but in 1279, when Charles II, King of Naples, erected a convent at La Sainte-Baume for the Dominicans, the shrine was found intact, with an inscription stating why they were hidden. In 1600 the relics were placed in a sarcophagus sent by Clement VIII, the head being placed in a separate vessel. In 1814 the church of La Sainte-Baume, wrecked during the Revolution, was restored, and in 1822 the grotto was consecrated afresh. The head of the saint now lies there, where it has lain so long, and where it has been the centre of so many pilgrimages.'

The relics preserved at La Sainte- Baume are still venerated today, and the tradition has been defended in a recent book, St Mary Magdalen in Provence, by Michael Donley (Gracewing, 2008), who demonstrates the credibility of the various elements making up the story. Interestingly, the Marseilles tradition is referenced in the East Window of our church, where the lower panels include four roundels, depicting (from left to right), Simon the Pharisee, Lazarus (supposed brother of Mary Magdalen), St Maximin (allegedly one of the 72 first disciples, who accompanied Mary Magdalen to France, and later became first bishop of Aix) and a certain King Rene (presumably Rene d’Anjou, who promoted the cult of Mary Magdalen in his realms in the 15th Century).

Read more about St. Mary Magdelene on www.catholic.org