St. Mary Magdalene and the Art of Surrender

By: Rebecca Ruiz, Staff Spotlight

The story of Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrated last month, has always disturbed me a little. I have always gotten hung-up on the fact that she dried Jesus’ feet with her hair. It seems so impractical. Why not take a nice, clean, linen cloth? Much more absorbent. Why the hair?

I resolved to sit with the story of Mary Magdalene and try to get beyond the hair. I decided to employ the Ignatian practice of imagining myself in the Gospel scene so as to try to understand more about what it really is that we are to learn from this story.

I imagined myself there with the apostles who had just eaten dinner with Jesus. They were wary of this woman who had come into the home. She was known, after all, as having been completely sinful (having seven sins – seven representing completeness in Judaic tradition). They did not want Jesus’ name to be tarnished by any association with this sinful woman.

So, as she approached Jesus, the apostles tried to stop her. Jesus, however, held them back and allowed her to approach. How interesting it must have been to be with Jesus, and maybe a little frustrating for His disciples, too – He was always breaking with tradition and doing the unexpected!

“Beautiful, Beautiful” – Francesca Battistelli

She was a beautiful woman with long locks of hair. She approached Jesus and brought before Him the two things that she may have put treasure in – her beautiful hair and her perfume. Overcome by emotion, her tears fell onto His feet. She dried His feet with that very part of herself that may have brought her pride and may have also caused temptation. And He allowed her to bring those two things that may have caused her to sin to His feet, and He allowed her to give them to Him.

When she entered the home, He already knew everything about her. He knew her struggles. He didn’t shy away. Instead, He allowed this woman, who had previously been forced to live on the periphery, this woman who dared to approach Him, to touch His holy feet.

When those around her berated her for “wasting” her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, Jesus came to her defense. Why? Because He knew that her intention was pure. She wanted to give Jesus all that she had. She was operating out of love.

So we see in Mary Magdalene an offering of the whole self – the good, bad, and the ugly — a suscipe offering, an Ignatian prayer of complete surrender to God. The required precondition of this offering being that she overcome her own feelings of shame and abandon her pride and sinfulness and trust completely and confidently in Christ.

And Jesus loved her for this. He did not judge – as did the disciples around him – who were still learning. He accepted her offering and offered her His love and a new life without stigma in return. A life without fear. A life of peace.

The story of Mary Magdalene is a story of love and of relationship. Mary’s is a brave love – a love brave enough to approach Christ Himself, painfully aware of her own sinful state. And hers is a confident love – a love confident in the redeeming love of her savior.

And, it is a story of a God who desires to live in relationship with each individual person – not a nebulous relationship – but a real, life-giving relationship. Ours is an approachable God who cares to receive our offerings of self and reciprocates with a love greater than we could imagine. A God who offers a redeeming love that restores dignity to the brokenness of each individual person. A God who offers a beautiful relationship that makes those who enter into it, like Mary Magdalene, become healthy, strong, and truly free. And, it is a love that brings unspeakable joy and peace.

Pope Francis speaks eloquently to this relationship in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel:

“No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness that never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and start anew (Evangelii Gaudium, 3).”

The story of Mary Magdalene does not end here though. At the resurrection, it was not the apostles, but Mary Magdalene who first saw the Risen Christ. It was she, who was entrusted with the duty of going out and telling the apostles that Christ had risen. Healed by Jesus – brought to wholeness – and perhaps chosen because she had known great brokenness herself, it was this woman that Christ first chose to spread the good news to broken humankind.

Pope Francis reminds us that when we accept the gift of Christ’s transforming love, we too will be called to go out and share this love:

“Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others. As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good (Evangelii Gaudium, 9).”

Through the example of Mary Magdalene, we are invited to relationship with Christ. Mindful of her example, we are called to announce the Good News to every periphery, to approach those liminal situations and to draw upon our healed-woundedness to connect with the Mary Magdalenes of today. We are called to connect with those in situations that make us uncomfortable – to let go of fear and to approach in love. We are called to extend that hand, to offer the ear, the touch, the love that heals.

Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.

Rebecca Ruiz holds a B.A. from the College of the Holy Cross and an M.A. from Tufts University. She serves as Development and Communications Manager at Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services.

2 thoughts on “St. Mary Magdalene and the Art of Surrender

  1. I’m curious about why you assert that Mary Magdalene was the repentant sinner who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. There is nothing in Scripture that directly or even indirectly supports that theory. In fact, there seems to be more to support the idea that she was Lazarus’ sister Mary from John. Most Scripture scholars agree there is no Biblical basis for confusing or merging the two women. Mary Magdalene, (“Mary of Magdala”) was the one from whom Christ cast out “seven demons” (Luke 8:2)—an indication, at the worst, of extreme demonic possession or, possibly, severe illness.

    Although there is some basis in Tradition (St. Gregory, St. Augustine) to merge St. Mary of Bethany and St. Mary Magdalene, the idea doesn’t hold up. Father Wilfrid J. Harrington wrote in the New Catholic Commentary that “seven demons” “does not mean that Mary had lived an immoral life—a conclusion reached only by means of a mistaken identification with the anonymous woman of Luke 7:36.” Father Edward Mally, S.J., writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, agrees that she “is not…the same as the sinner of Luke 7:37, despite the later Western romantic tradition about her.” The Archdiocese of NY had this to say in 2012: http://blog.archny.org/faith/?p=542

    Thanks for any explanation you can provide.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply. While there is debate among scholars regarding the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, tradition holds that it was St. Mary Magdalene, (as you mention, Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote in a homily, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary [of Bethany], we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark” (Homilies on the Gospels).”

      Many faithful Catholics believe that she is this penitent woman (see Catholic News Agency, Fr. William Saunders of Catholic Education Resource Center, and Catholics United for the Faith, among others.) If she is not the same, however, the story, and the blog, still hold meaning and guidance for Catholics. Thank you again for reading Encourage & Teach!

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