Every painting of St. Mary Magdalene depicts her seated sorrowfully in a darkened cave. But that is not the detail that captures the observer: the human skull is. With eyes filled with tears, the Magdalene stares at the skull as though she was reading a book or listening to a message. She was. Not a morbid one, but a profoundly Catholic one, driven through with realism about the human condition.
In Catholic iconography the human skull is an arresting symbol of this passing world, as in I Pet 1:1: “I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims.” Or Heb. 13:14, “For here we have no abiding city.” Under the power of the Faith, an otherwise ghoulish object translates into a luminous sign of the transient pleasures of human existence which titillate but never satisfy. Pleasures which, in T.S. Eliot’s sobering rendering in the Four Quartets, are like a “distraction from distraction by distraction.” In the end, all that the world offers becomes old, heavy with ennui. Except Christ.
When we consider the Magdalene our minds turn to that dramatic scene when she washes the Savior’s feet with her tears. Finished, she breaks an expensive bottle of perfume, one of the many gifts she had received for her rendered carnal services, and anoints His feet, wiping them with her hair. Ah, that silken hair, whose beauty had once been a summons to her many suitors, becomes a token of adoration for the Redeemer. Judas wastes no time in protesting that the poor had been cheated. The traitor becomes the model of those who shout social justice, rather than Viva Cristo Rey! Iscariot is the paradigm of those who put chic causes above the Savior’s Divine Mission. For Judas, religion is no longer serving Christ through serving others, but merely serving others. Such a striking contrast: Magdalene, swept in the perfect love of God; Judas, scheming self-interest under the veneer of generosity. This temptation will harass our Holy Religion till the end of time. It is the solvent of religion; the dominant heresy of our time.
After Judas’ demurral, a mild scold falls from the lips of the Savior, “she has done something beautiful for me.” (Mt 26:10). Love always expresses itself with beauty. Thus Pope Benedict XVI:
I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian Faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth…are the saints and the beauty that the Faith generates.
Yet, the beauty of Christian life is even more effective than art and imagery in the communication of the Gospel message. In the end, love alone is worthy of faith, and proves credible. The lives of the saints and martyrs demonstrate a singular beauty which fascinates and attracts, because a Christian life lived in fullness speaks without words. We need men and women whose lives are eloquent, and who know how to proclaim the Gospel with clarity and courage, with transparency of action, and with the joyful passion of charity.
So it is that the Church constructs grand churches, never counting the cost. She clothes her priest with sumptuous vestments, and festoons the vessels that carry the Body and Blood of Christ with precious jewels. Priests routinely wear a simple black cassock as a sign of his death to the world and his poverty without Christ. At the altar all is transformed. There, the priest is alter Christus, and dazzles the faithful with splendid vestments. Here the priest represents Christ, the King of Kings, who fills us with His divine riches.
First among those riches is His mercy, as the Magdalene had known so well. The Magdalene’s contrition (prompting the Savior’s amazing words, “wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that the woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her” Mt. 26:13) made her a special object of His election. She accompanies Our Lady and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross; she is chosen to be the first herald of Our Lord’s Resurrection; she is the first to have a conversation with the Risen Savior. Why this lavish favor from the Redeemer? For she has “loved much”. At the heart of love is the sorrow of love, or contrition. The Magdalene is the model of contrition. She knows her sin and refuses to call it anything but sin. She promises to change, or the purpose of amendment. She doesn’t ask for accommodation, compromise or to be “accompanied” in her sin. She desires only to be perfectly united with her Savior; for that, truth alone suffices. Upon such contrition and amendment, Christ pours forth His mercy. Nothing less. Divine mercy is not a cover-up for sin; it is the reward for struggling to sin no more.
All Catholics, especially those who have strayed into a caricature of mercy, should imitate St. Mary Magdalene. Otherwise they will never know how guileless love meets Incarnate Love. The way the impure meets the All-Pure. Unless Catholics learn to see through her wetted eyes, they shall never know how the merciful eyes of Christ can ever meet their own.