Monday, 22 July 2013

On strong women: feast of St Mary Magdalene

Holbein: Noli me tangere

Today is the feast of St Mary Magdalene, one of those strong female saints who often seems to present such a scandal to many.

Great sinner to great saint

Strong women scare some.

And St Mary Magdalene - who had the courage to go from being a greater sinner to a great saint by accepting and co-operating with the grace of conversion; who followed the disciples around on their travels seeing to their needs; who sat at the feet of Our Lord soaking up his teaching while her sister became more and more upset at her perceived neglect of her womanly household duties; who stayed the course at the foot of the Cross when many of the disciples fled or hung back from afar; and who was the Apostle to the Apostles in conveying the news of Christ's Resurrection - has attracted many attempts to rewrite or creatively reinterpret history.

Some, for example, have refused to accept the identification of her with the sinful woman of Luke 7.  The Greek Father, Origen (who believed in the heresy of universalism, the ultimate reconciliation of all souls), for example, found it ‘incredible’ that “Mary, whom Jesus loved, the sister of Martha, who had chosen the better portion, should be said to have been a sinner in the city".  And the revised Office for her in the Novus Ordo has dropped the traditional reading for the day which makes precisely this identification!

Mulier fortis

The traditional Office today, however, applies to her the description of Proverbs: mulier fortis.  The words are often translated in ways which weaken the force of the descriptor: the RSV for example, gives it as a 'good woman' (RSV) and the Knox translation is only slightly better with 'a vigorous woman' (Knox).

But the normal meaning of the Latin word fortis is strong, powerful, courageous or steadfast.  And the Greek of the Septuagint makes it ἀνδρεία, or manly!  The Hebrew, chayil, is consistent with that, used elsewhere in Scripture to mean strength, might, efficiency, wealth, or army according to Strong's Concordance.  So in fact the Douay-Rheims' 'valiant woman' seems closer to the mark on the face of it.

St Mary Magdalene is an important figure for us all, but especially for women I think, precisely because she presents the opposite type to Our Lady: Our Lady was holy from her very conception, and so in some ways represents an ideal that we must strive for but can never hope to equal.  St Mary Magdalene, however, in her conversion from sinfulness demonstrates that all women can choose redemption - Our Lady is not, in fact, alone of all her sex in being numbered among the saints!

Gender aside, the modern day Western reluctance to accept the identification of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman of St Luke's Gospel also, in my view reflects a theology that rejects the power of grace and conversion, and above all of the capacity of Christ to forgive our sins through the sacrament of confession.

We need to recover this sense of the power of grace.

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