July 22, 2013
St. Mary Magdalene
“How beautiful […] are the feet of him who brings the gospel.” Isaiah 52:7
Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messianic age clearly echoed in the heart of the woman who anoints Christ’s feet early in his ministry. As the scene unfolds, the evangelist Luke describes her as a “sinner” and “woman of the city” (Lk 7:37). As Jesus dines at a Pharisee’s house, she arrives with an alabaster flask of ointment to anoint him. Luke’s description of the scene emphasizes Christ’s feet repeatedly: “standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment” (Lk 7:38). Because she is unnamed, speculation abounds concerning her identity. One early Christian tradition sees her as St. Mary Magdalene.
Luke formally introduces the reader to Mary Magdalene in the very next verses of his gospel in chapter 8. The early band of Christ’s followers travels throughout Galilee preaching the gospel, composed of the twelve apostles along with several generous women who provide for them out of their own means (Lk 8:3). One of those women is “Mary, called Magdalene, from who seven demons had gone out” (Lk 8:2). It is interesting to observe that Mary’s prominence among the disciples is emphasized by the fact that whenever the female disciples from Galilee are mentioned in the gospels, Mary Magdalene’s name is listed first.
The surname Magdalene may indicate that she was associated with the town Magdala on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Or, another possibility is the proximity of the word Magdalene to a Jewish rabbinical comment found in the Talmud which refers to curling women’s hair, or euphemistically, a prostitute. Yet another possibility is that it is an Aramaic title which means, “great” or “magnificent”. According to the French historian, Henri Daniel-Rops, Magdalene is a playful corruption of the Aramaic word for “perfume”, thus making her Mary, “the perfumer” or “the anointer.”
Mary Magdalene may also be the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Following this line of thought, the next scene in the life of Christ that involves Mary is another dinner, this time at the house of Mary’s sister, Martha. As Martha prepares the meal, Mary is sitting “at the Lord’s feet” (Lk 10:39). Here, in the posture of a disciple, she listens to the rabbi preach the gospel message. In fact, she is at the feet of the Good News of God Himself—Jesus Christ. And, even though Martha famously drags Jesus into a family dispute over whether Mary should be helping prepare the dinner, Jesus commends Mary’s decision: “one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:42).
We can presume that Mary continued to choose the good portion throughout the remainder of Christ’s ministry. Sometime later, we find Mary and Martha at the death bed of their brother, Lazarus. Word is sent to Christ but he does not arrive until after Lazarus has already died. Consistent with what we have seen in Luke’s portrayal of the sisters, the evangelist John states that Martha challenges Jesus to do something while Mary remains seated in the house contemplating the event. When Jesus calls for Mary, she comes quickly to meet him and falls “at his feet” (Jn 11:32). Again, we find Mary at the beautiful feet of Christ, imploring him to bring good news to their family. Jesus lovingly complies, raising Lazarus from the dead and thus by this action foreshadows his own impending resurrection from the dead.
The week before Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary again anoints Christ at a dinner. Three of the four evangelists recount the scene which takes place the evening before Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, commemorated by Palm Sunday. Mary carries an alabaster flask of pure nard ointment and pours the entire contents upon Christ’s head and feet. This incredibly expensive ointment was made from a root found in India and cost a year’s worth of wages. Her extravagance is condemned by everyone present except for Christ. Thinking it wasteful and not considerate of the poor, the apostles challenge her. Jesus, on the other hand, sees Mary’s action as a prophetic preparation for his burial. His lifeless body will be taken down from the Cross on the eve of the work-free Sabbath so he will not receive the proper burial ceremony.
Mary’s anointing is also prophetic in that she foreshadows Christ’s total self-offering on the Cross. She has poured out her entire costly ointment upon Christ. In his passion, he will pour out his whole and priceless life. John, as an eyewitness of the event, remembers that the “house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (Jn 12:3). Jesus’ death will also fill the entire world with the beautiful fragrance of the gospel of salvation. Mary’s action is so commendable that Christ solemnly promises that “wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mt 26: 13). In her honoring the beautiful feet of the one who is the Gospel Incarnate she has received a perpetual place in the future proclamation of the gospel message.
As Jesus’ death approaches, Judas betrays him, Peter denies him, and the rest of the apostles abandon him. Jesus carries the Cross to Calvary and in his darkest hour only a few faithful disciples are present. Mary Magdalene takes her familiar place at the feet of Christ—this time, they are crucified feet.
As Christ’s dead body is laid in the tomb, St. Matthew recounts for us that Mary is sitting opposite the sepulcher (Mt 27:61). One can sense Mary’s broken heart as she keeps vigil at the lifeless feet of Christ. Since the Sabbath approaches, she leaves to gather the spices and ointments needed to properly prepare the body for burial on Sunday.
Mary arrives at the tomb very early Sunday morning eager to give Jesus’ body the respectful burial it deserves. This would be her chance to anoint him once more—the one whose beautiful feet had brought her the good news of the forgiveness of her sins years before. The empty tomb and angels signal the Resurrection but it is not until she actually hears her name called by the Risen Lord that she believes (Jn 20:16). Even if the detail was not given in the gospels our imagination would supply the scene with Mary’s posture at this incredible encounter. As Jesus greets her, she “took hold of his feet and worshipped him” (Mt 28:10).
After this embrace, Jesus commissions Mary to announce the goods news of the Resurrection to his apostles. This charge by Christ earns the Magdalene the beautiful designation of “apostle to the apostles.”
As she runs to proclaim the good news, the prophet Isaiah’s words now apply to her: “How beautiful […] are the feet of [her] who brings the gospel.”
Editor’s note: The portrait of Mary Magdalene above was painted by Pietro Perugino in 1500.