Heroic in Love: On the Feast of St Mary Magdalene
“Love Jesus with all the strength of all the hearts of all those who have loved him most. Be daring: tell him you are carried away with more love than Mary Magdalene, more than Teresa and little Therese, more carried away than Augustine and Dominic and Francis, more than Ignatius and Xavier.”
St. Josemaria Escriva
The Way, no. 402
Love is most in its element in hearts that dare to replicate the Savior’s love for them. Heading St Josemaria’s ‘list’ of such ardent souls is Saint Mary Magdalene, in whose love we see answered the boundless love and mercy shown her by Christ. In her holy ‘excess’ an icon emerges of what loving God heroically means, and what it means for Him to love us heroically. On either side, an unselfconscious outpouring of self focuses entirely on the good of the beloved.
Saint Josemaria’s counsel here might sound extreme, but it is not an isolated outburst in The Way:
“Daring child, cry out: ‘What love was Teresa’s! What zeal was Xavier’s! What a wonderful man was Saint Paul! Ah, Jesus, well I… I love you more than Paul, Xavier and Teresa!'” (no. 874)
Like a good father, St Josemaria tries to draw the best out of his spiritual children by these surprising outpourings of love. He wants his “excess” to overflow into his children so that we will understand: not only can we love heroically like any of the Saints, but this love should be the normal ambition of the normal Christian.
St Mary Magdalene shows us concretely that a saint who loves much is simply a person who is aware of the extent to which she has been loved—and forgiven. But it is not enough simply to have been forgiven. Many penitents with many sins are forgiven daily in the Church. Not all of them equal Mary Magdalene. It is her love in response to forgiveness that makes her, and every Saint, so great.
Jesus wants us to fan into flame the ambition to love like a Saint. At the dinner when St Mary lavishly anointed Jesus’ feet not only with aromatic nard, but also with her tears and kisses, the He tells us to consider her example closely:
“Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman?’ …. ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me. … And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her'” (cf. Lk 7:44; Mk 14:6, 9).
Jesus loves this! Jesus rewards and blesses her excess! Even if His host is indignant and certain guests protest this “waste,” the Lord approves of everything she does. Yes, Jesus is even encouraging this embarrassing abandon. Amazing. The dramatic spectacle of this woman carrying out all of these things to the full, in the middle of the meal, in the wrong place and at the wrong time, this is what saves her.
Not only this, but the Lord welcomes her excessive love as a force that overrides her numerous sins: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47).
The intensity of this love is further shown in the proper Gospel for the feast of St Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1-2, 11-18). In her encounter with the risen Lord before the empty tomb she reveals the extent to which she is carried away by love simply by lingering there, weeping inconsolably, and making “unreasonable” requests and promises: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
But a voice unlike any other interrupts her searching and her sorrow, much as it had when she bent over His feet with tears and kisses and had heard that her faith and love had saved her. From behind, that voice utters her name: “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’, which means Teacher” (Jn 20:16).
There was a lot of history behind that simple utterance of her name; an entire host of memories and feelings was rekindled in her. St Gregory the Great says that it was “as though He were saying: Recognize me as I recognize you… I know you as yourself.” St Josemaria frequently cited a beautiful passage from Isaiah that comments fittingly on this brief dialogue: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Is 43:1).
Jesus never held the past over her head. As her Redeemer, He both claims and dignifies St Mary in calling her by name, unlike others who had dismissed her as a “sinner.” She was indeed a sinner, but by His merciful love for her, the Lord drew the Saint out of the sinner, by drawing out of her an heroic love—with His own everlasting and faithful love (cf. Jer 31:3).
St Mary did not arrive, nor do we arrive, at this love overnight. Before she first came to Jesus, she had to see in herself a misery that none could cure. She needed to weep. She had to pass through stages of personal disgust with her life, sorrow for the past, and a hope that this Jesus could do something with her.
Since we all have a past, not the same past, but a time before we decided to serve the Lord, who among us cannot relate to her? Our kinship with her is our shared awareness of how good God has been to us. It is not necessary for us to have committed her sins in order to understand. If we have committed only one sin and sought forgiveness, or if we have been spared from many others, we can relate to her.
Twenty centuries after the Gospel events featuring her, in the spring of 2011, this kinship with St Mary Magdalene experienced a surprising renewal in California. When her major relic, brought from her shrine in France, toured the state, people recognized it as belonging to the woman who had been loved so fully by our Lord. Those who came clearly wanted to have the same type of personal connection, to be loved by Jesus through her intercession.
To the casual observer it was the tibia, the shin bone, of a former prostitute or sinful woman that people were coming to see. But how to explain why this almost archeological object was so special?
About this relic, men, women, and children had the most remarkable things to say. For one young man it was “a great honor” to carry it in procession. An older gentleman was overawed that this was a part of the body of one who “knew Jesus and touched Jesus.” A middle-aged woman said, in tears, “To think that she was what she once was and was able to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair, and to have become this,” the object of such universal honor and devotion.
Could it have been so meaningful for so many because St Mary Magdalene is one with whom everyone in some way can identify? Everyone needs to be forgiven, to be loved, to be touched by the Redeemer. We see St Mary not only as one who received what all of us want to receive, but as one who gave as all heroic souls wish to give: pouring out upon Christ every last bit of our poor love, knowing that it is not too poor for Him.
We learn from her that in loving Jesus we have really been loved first, with a mercy that redeems and restores the sinner, rendering us capable of returning to the Lord something of the love He has given us.