Thursday, July 21, 2016

Mary, Quite Contrary

The Quasi-Assumption of Mary (Giotto)

Last month Pope Francis promoted the commemoration of St. Mary Magdalen in the new kalendar to a feast, prompting a small flurry of discussion about the true identity of the Apostolorum Apostola. The western conflation of Magdalen with the sister of St. Martha has a long and noble tradition dating back at least to Pope Gregory the Dialogist, but in the east the Orthodox have long considered them to be distinct persons.

After finishing my Josephology series, I had considered writing a short series on the history of Mary Magdalen in liturgical history, but most of the books on the subject were written either from a neo-Gnostic or an egregiously feminist philosophical base. The few Orthodox sources I could find were polemically anti-occidental, so finding a sober consideration of this great saint was next to impossible. (Honestly, is it really so difficult to think that a woman from whom was cast seven devils might have been a great sinner?)

Personally, I find the scriptural argument for conflating the two Marys and the female “sinner” reasonable if not absolutely compelling. It would be strange if the women Luke and John describe as having anointed the feet of Christ with their hair were two separate people, and John’s Gospel suggests that Mary of Bethany indeed anointed his feet twice. “Mary who is called Magdalen” is named just after Luke’s narrative of the penitent prostitute, suggesting but not necessitating a connection. But it is reasonable that the Mary who had anointed Christ’s feet in preparation for his burial would also be the one to go out to the Holy Sepulchre to anoint his dead body.

Hugh Pope constructs this possible sequence of events for the “conflated” penitent and Marys:
In the view we have advocated the series of events forms a consistent whole; the “sinner” comes early in the ministry to seek for pardon; she is described immediately afterwards as Mary Magdalen “out of whom seven devils were gone forth”; shortly after, we find her “sitting at the Lord’s feet and hearing His words.” To the Catholic mind it all seems fitting and natural. At a later period Mary and Martha turn to “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, and He restores to them their brother Lazarus; a short time afterwards they make Him a supper and Mary once more repeats the act she had performed when a penitent. At the Passion she stands near by; she sees Him laid in the tomb; and she is the first witness of His Resurrection—excepting always His Mother, to whom He must needs have appeared first, though the New Testament is silent on this point. In our view, then, there were two anointings of Christ’s feet—it should surely be no difficulty that St. Matthew and St. Mark speak of His head—the first (Luke 7) took place at a comparatively early date; the second, two days before the last Passover. But it was one and the same woman who performed this pious act on each occasion.
The Protestant separation of the Marys was not ubiquitous even among the heretics. Although John Calvin explicitly separated Mary of Bethany from Mary Magdalen in his Gospel commentaries, the Lutheran and Anglican sects retained the Gregorian hagiographical tradition.

I cannot agree with Fr. Erlenbush that the Latin tradition and the common post-Gregorian papal opinion of Marian conflation easily proves the Roman martyrology correct, as if the eastern tradition was not worthy of account. Perhaps someday a future Council will consider this topic worthy of dogmatic clarification, but for now we must live with some measure of uncertainty.

The Greeks say that the Myrrh-Bearer Magdalen lived with St. John and the Blessed Virgin in Ephesus for many years until her death. The Latin tradition has her being cast into the sea on a small boat with Martha and Lazarus until their ship found the coasts of France. From there, Mary made her retirement as a hermit until her death. The medieval Golden Legend describes her desert life:
In this meanwhile the blessed Mary Magdalene, desirous of sovereign contemplation, sought a right sharp desert, and took a place which was ordained by the angel of God, and abode there by the space of thirty years without knowledge of anybody. In which place she had no comfort of running water, nor solace of trees, nor of herbs. And that was because our Redeemer did do show it openly, that he had ordained for her refection celestial, and no bodily meats. And every day at every hour canonical she was lifted up in the air of angels, and heard the glorious song of the heavenly companies with her bodily ears. Of which she was fed and filled with right sweet meats, and then was brought again by the angels unto her proper place, in such wise as she had no need of corporal nourishing.
The head of Mary Magdalen is believed to be held in La Sainte-Baume, in the south of France.

Mary Magdalen, feminist icon, pray for us!



    I've always loved the Commentary of Lapide

  2. This inspired me to go on a small quest to find information about the three women: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the Sinner that annointed the Lord's feet. My humble reflection on this:

    Conflating Martha's sister with the sinner is reasonable, John 11:2 basically proves it that she had already annointed the Lord's feet before doing it again in the next chapter, though some beg to differ and it would not be that outlandish as probably people already knew the story so John could refer to her earlier in the account. Still, conflating the Magdalene with Martha's sister appears forced to me, the only argument I read at Catholic Encyclopedia was at the bottom were they said that since she anticipated the Lord's burrial by annointing him, it's fitting that she would be present at the foot of the cross, but the evangelists mention the Magdalene.

    Still, the evangelists not mentioning someone doesnt meant they did not arrive. They were in a nearby city, still, we dont know at what time who became aware of the arrest, sentencing and death of Christ. They could have arrived a little late, or not. Maybe they came to the burrial, maybe they were there the whole time witnessing the crucifixion, death and entombment. Magdalene was most probably at Jerusalem already, she would have known earlier, hence here constant appearance on the accounts. The Mother of God is only mentioned by John at the foot of the Cross. So this seems fitting that she'd be there so she is the Magdalene seems a little unnecesary.

    Analyzing Papias of Hierapolis' Fragments of the exposition of the oracles of the Lord (X) he names four women named Mary: the Theotokos, the Magdalene, Mary Cleophas/Alpheus and Mary Salome. Still he also says Salome is due to her husband and that its a masculine name, but its neither is a masculine name nor she is called Mary Salome, just Salome so it has certain flaws which include putting not a Mary among the Marys. He also just ignores Mary of Bethany, the account just mentions Mary Magdalene by name. I dont recall he saying this were the only and this are fragments. So I dont think this proves of an acient Father supporting this view, and if he did, he erred with the placing of Salome so might have erred in this too.

    St. John Chrysostom (Matthew, Homily 88) and St. Ambrose (De virginitate 3,14; 4,15) suggest that she was even a virgin. The Benedictine Calendar has always celebrated the Magdalene on the 22 and Mary of Bethany with Martha and Lazarus on the 29. Some claim that a Father that associated the three of them was St. Ephrem the Syrian in his homily of Our Lord (46-47). But he actually did the opposite, he claims Mary of Bethany is the woman who annointed Our Lord's head and talks of the sinner who annointed his feet as a different woman. We know its Mary of Bethany for he mentions her sister Martha in connection with her and recalls the episode in which Mary was seated at Our Lord's feet while Martha was troubled by house chores. He nowhere mentions Mary Magdalene in relation to this episodes.

    So in conclusion its reasonable to argue that Mary of Bethany is the repentant sinner, but arguing that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene in what I have seen offers no solid ground on scripture or tradition other than the famous homily by St. Gregory the Great, which is probably why some Latin Catholics have started to dismiss it. Eastern Orthodox have always differed between them and I dont know what were the position of the Eastern Catholic Churches soecially in periods of latinizations and those that returned the churches to their more ancient tradition. The Benedictines celebrate the whole household of Bethany which might offer insight to a traditional latin commemoration of them.

    1. I do think that conflating Mary of Bethany and the repentant sinner is more obviously reasonable than conflating Magdalen with either.

  3. Gil, your account suggests that those authors postulating at least 2 different woman, and your own analysis, are not unanimous how to "divide" them: 1) Mary of Bethany (=sister of Martha) = penitent sinner, 2) Magdalene; or 1) Mary of Bethany (=sister of Martha), 2) Magdalene = penitent sinner; or some more "combinations". No wonder St. Gregory went the easiest way conflating them all.

    "The Benedictine Calendar has always celebrated the Magdalene on the 22 and Mary of Bethany with Martha and Lazarus on the 29." What does mean "always"? Until when? And then "The Benedictines celebrate (present tennse) the whole household of Bethany". Which benedictines? The Antiphonale Monasticum (1935) has only St. Mary Magdalene, penitent, on July 22, and a whole different company of saints on July 29. The Liber Hymnarius (1983), a Solesmes (i.e. Benedictine) edition, has St. Mary Magdalene on July 22 (not classed as "penitent") and St. Martha alone (again without any designation) on July 29.

  4. Mea culpa! The Appendix of Liber Hymnarius (1983) called Proprium Monasticum has indeed on July 29 Ss. Mariae, Marthae, et Lazari, hospitum Domini. The year 1935 edition does not have it in the proprium of Solesmes. This makes me to think that the feast of the three saints is a recently introduced one. Or maybe not? Anyway, blessed feast of St. Mary Magdalene to all!

    1. The Novus Ordo missal has a brief introduction to the saint of the day wherein the feast on 22 July is for St. Mary Magdalene, not any of the other two women. So I suspect it is new.

    2. Pulex,

      My late nineteenth century Breviarium Monasticum simply has St. Mary Magdalene on the 22nd and St. Martha - on her own - on the 29th.