Saint Mary Magdalene: Sinner Turned Saint
By Chris Sparks (Jul 22, 2015)
On July 22, her memorial, one of the first recipients of Jesus' Divine Mercy offers hope in the modern age.
"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.' So he told them this parable: 'What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost." Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.'"
— Lk 15:1-7
Many people today insist that every time we identify St. Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute we marginalize her. They view the traditional western consensus that she is the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) as an attempt to oppress women.
The ancient belief that Mary Magdalene is the repentant sinner who anointed Christ's feet with costly ointment and bathed them in her tears, wiping them clean with her hair (Lk 7:36-50; Jn 12:1-8), must have been an attempt to downplay her role as a leader in the early Church. There are a number of books dedicated to "rehabilitating" her, trying to make out that she was an ordinary, wealthy woman of the first century (Lk 8:1-3), respectable, perhaps liberated from seven demons or merely healed of mental illness, but not lifted out of a life of marginalization, exploitation, use.
I think they're wrong.
The model for Christians are Jesus and Mary, His Mother, so it's true that the ideal Christian is someone who has never fallen, never sinned. But they are the two exceptions to the rule. As for the rest of us, "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23). All of us — Catherine of Siena and Thérèse of Lisieux; John Paul II and John XXIII; Padre Pio and Jean Vianney; Bartolo Longo and Paul of Tarsus, every saint of the Church, every sinner in the Church, every human being from the time of Adam and Eve to our own (save the two exceptions of Jesus and Mary) have sinned. It is only by the Divine Mercy, by God's merciful grace sent through Jesus, that our sins are forgiven and glory restored.
The English playwright Oscar Wilde once said, "Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." He certainly knew what he was talking about. As biographer Joseph Pearce describes in The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Wilde was a notorious hedonist, known for any number of debaucheries — indeed, he fully lived up to his name. Towards the end of his life, Wilde was jailed on charges of sodomy. He entered the Catholic Church on his deathbed.
"Wilde had a lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church," says Pearce. "His art is always overtly moral and the morality is overtly Catholic in nature. He is a timeless Christian writer." Wilde's deathbed conversion is not somehow reduced by his life, but magnified by it.
"Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future." Mary Magdalene as she has been traditionally remembered is perhaps the greatest example of this truth in the Christian heritage. She "had a past," and then she met Christ, who opened the way into a future of sanctity, of life in the Spirit and eternal joy. She was once a sinner, and then she encountered her savior — just like every other Christian, save the Queen of us all, she who was saved in the highest and most perfect way by being preserved from the slightest stain of sin from the moment of her conception.
But the rest of us have not been immaculately conceived. Most of us must live the daily dying to self for a long time before ever we reach the heights of holiness. We need Mary Magadalene, the sinner made saint, just as much as we need Our Lady's model of spotless purity. We need to have the hope of the Magdalene that even when we are in the depths, in the valley of the shadow of death, we can still cry out to the Lord and be saved (Ps 130:1-2; 23:4). We need the model of the woman who was forgiven much, and so loved much (Lk 7:47), since "faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13).
We especially need the model of the prostitute turned penitent, of the woman who had been exploited and used until she found in Jesus the man who would never abuse her, the God who would not condemn her but rather raise her up to everlasting life. We need an icon of hope for the trapped, the trafficked, the sinful and sorrowful in this vale of tears. In an age of objectification and a rising tide of online pornography, when people are reduced to sources of pleasure, the powerless bought and sold for the gratification of greed and lust, when the world slides as far into darkness as any age we have ever known, we need the hope offered by a repentant sinner turned saint. We need someone who has been there at the heart of darkness, who turned again to God and was saved.
What does it say to the prostitutes that we dare not call Mary Magdalene a prostitute, for such a thing would invalidate her witness of the Resurrection? What does it say to those coming out of lives of exploitation and abuse that the saint who once would have been their model and guide now cannot have had a past like theirs if she is to be an icon of femininity in Christianity? What does it mean for us as a Church that we believe that Mary Magdalene cannot have been one of those living on the margins if she is to be empowering for women? What could be more empowering to women — to us all — than a saint who says, "No matter what you've done, no matter what you've been, no matter what they've done to you, come to Jesus as I did. Come to the One who is Love and Life Everlasting — there is a place for you in His Heart. I know — there was a place in His Heart for me." As St. Faustina heard directly from Jesus, "The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy" (Diary, 723).
So on this memorial of St. Mary Magdalene, let us ask her prayers for those under her patronage, such as penitent sinners, reformed prostitutes, and those struggling with sexual temptation. Let us pray in reparation for our sins of the flesh and the sins of others, especially those who profit from the pornography industry or sex trafficking. Let us intercede for those enslaved to addictions or forced to sell themselves to satisfy the greed and lust of others. Let us go out with our prayer to the marginalized, those deepest in darkness, those most in need, as Pope Francis and Jesus call us to do, and help draw the lost sheep, the people in darkness, into great light.