I keep meeting people with deep scars on their consciences, festering wounds of guilt they cannot fully suppress. It seems they cannot find forgiveness. Pope Francis often recommends that we seek reconciliation. Only God's forgiveness can affect true inner healing and make us rise to new life through the embrace of God's infinite mercy and love, he tells us. But will we accept forgiveness?
While doing research on Mary Magdalene, my attention was recently drawn to a Dutch medieval mini drama entitled "Sunte Maria Magdalena Bekeringhe," or "St. Mary Magdalene's conversion." It belongs to a series of dramatized readings, readings with a narrator and key speakers we still use when reading the passion during Holy Week. These readings prepared the way for the full-scale mystery plays that were to follow later.
The playlet in question was very popular and has been preserved in four variations to be dramatized in churches during Lent and Easter. Mary Magdalene was considered the perfect model of a sinner who obtained forgiveness by showing contrition and doing penance. It is an image of the Magdalene which does not naturally appeal to me.
Preacher or sinner?
The Magdalene was not looked upon as a sinner during the first centuries after Christ. On the contrary, she was hailed as a close friend of Jesus, an early disciple who sat at his feet while her sister Martha prepared the dishes (Luke 10:28-42). She stood under the cross with Jesus' mother and Maria Salome. She informed the apostles that the tomb was empty and, afterwards, became the first person to meet the risen Lord (John 20:1-18).
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The second-century apocryphal Gospel of Mary relates that the Magdalene played a leading role in saving the faith of the apostles after the crucifixion. She convinced them that Jesus had truly risen. It earned her, in early tradition, the title "Apostle of the Apostles," a title still used by Francis last June when he raised the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene to the dignity of a feast.
Ancient legend describes how she sailed from Palestine to Marseilles, then called Massilia, from where she began to spread the faith in the South of France. A string of pilgrimage centers throughout the Provence and Languedoc record her progress. Her story was documented in frescoes on church walls, through illustrated accounts on parchment, stained-glass windows in the many churches dedicated to her. On all of them evangelizing Mary figured supreme. In days when women were forbidden to preach, Mary was the counter heroine, the woman depicted as addressing large crowds in village squares and lecturing the faithful from the pulpit. But this role had to compete with a sober image, that of being the exemplary penitent.
The Latin fathers St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great stressed that seven demons had been cast out of "Mary called Magdalene" (Luke 8:2). They did not realize that in Gospel times demons were disease-inflicting spirits, not devils tormenting a wicked person. Mary had been possessed by evil, they thought. So they amalgamated her with the repentant woman who wept at Jesus' feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Their interpretation gained ground. The detailed "life of Mary" in the influential medieval Legenda Aurea sings of her sin and repentance.
The need for penance was felt deeply in the Middle Ages. Death reigned supreme in those days, an era of leprosy and the plague, of ravaging raids and violent wars, of unpredictable floods and famines. And sin was blamed as the cause of it all. Priests castigated their flocks with predictions of dire punishments to come. Thousands joined strict monastic orders. Flagellants wandered from town to town whipping themselves and each other with scourges. The menacing hymn on God's judgment day of wrath, the "Dies Irae," was sung at every funeral. Abject protestations of unworthiness were inserted at every stage of the Eucharist. It is in this context that we must place the mystery play on the conversion of Mary Magdalene.
Fighting as I have been for women's rights in the church, how could I trust a drama dreamt up in the sin-obsessed, misogynist Middle Ages? Even fiction can offer profound insights.
Resurrection through meeting Jesus
In Jerusalem, there lived a knight of royal descent named Lazarus, we are told. He had two daughters, Martha who lived an exemplary life managing the household, and Mary who wallowed in earthly pleasures.
"My dear sister," Mary would call out, "don't you agree that I am beautiful? So why not surround myself by the luxuries of the world and the attention of young men? With a happy heart, I will enjoy the wealth of my father, and fulfil myself in indulgence!"
The arrival in the town of Jesus of Nazareth changed everything. To cut a long story short, through Jesus' message and personality Mary came to see sense. She felt intense remorse.
"Why was I so keen to live, I who have deserved eternal death! What satisfaction will all worldly pleasures give to me once I will be handed over to the pains of hell? Pleasure, why did you seduce me? How could I let you destroy the honor of my virginity! You are the cause that instead of being a virgin I am known as a public whore!"
The story then relates how Lazarus brings Jesus to his home. Mary has her first meeting with Jesus. He looks at her, his gentle eyes piercing her soul. Mary however recoils with feelings of guilt. She runs to her room, closes the door, and weeps. The narrator addresses the audience: "O sinful people, if you had seen at that time the remorse and the outpouring of tears of that woman, you too would have been converted like her. And even if you had a heart as hard as unbreakable rock, it would have become soft as wax!"
The next day, Simon the Pharisee, one of Lazarus' neighbors, invited Jesus for a meal. While there Jesus prayed for Mary. By spiritual impulse Mary now left her bedroom and entered Simon's house. She knelt down before Jesus, kissed his feet and washed them with her tears. She dried them with her hair and anointed them with ointment. Jesus talked kindly to Mary and said: "Your sins are forgiven!"
This is the climax of the story, or so you would think, but not according to the pastoral teacher who authored the mystery play. Mary went home sad and depressed. She could not believe she had been truly forgiven.
Forgiveness is forgiveness
Still full of remorse, Mary returned to her room. She continued to wring her hands, pull out her hair, to weep and beat her cheeks. Fortunately for her, Jesus' mother Mary was also in town. She heard about the Magdalene and decided to comfort her, but Mary Magdalene was petrified. Was the mother of Jesus not the utterly stainless of saints, the one without sin, the immaculate?
She called out: "O most holy virgin, keep your distance from me. It is not right that I the greatest sinner in the world, who have served sin in my body and who am dirty and impure inside, should come close to the immaculate virgin."
But the mother of Jesus embraced her and kissed her. "Has Jesus not forgiven you?" she asked.
"Yes, he has," Mary replied.
"Then what's your problem?" Jesus' mother continued. "God's completely cleansing you from past sins is as generous a gift as his preserving me immaculate since my conception."
This is God's liberating gift in both cases, freeing both from sin — equally. If we are truly sorry, God's love obliterates bygone sins. Forgiveness amounts to what Paul calls a new creation and we are immaculate again.
For many Catholics, confession has gone out of fashion. Understandably so, perhaps, considering the fruitless frequency with which it was inflicted on us in the past, but also at a cost. If we are truly contrite, God will pardon us also outside the confessional.
But the sacrament adds a dimension. When we have hurt another person, we cannot normally presume forgiveness, only the injured party can offer it to us as a gift. If we accept the gift, healing takes place. A face-to-face admission of guilt in confession and the priestly absolution transcend the subjective sphere. It is Christ giving us peace: "Your sins are forgiven!" But whether God absolves us in our inner prayer or through the sacrament, there is no room for a permanent breast beating.
The Magdalene's conversion was not complete until she wholeheartedly accepted God's love. The playlet says that after Mary's words she rose up and danced with joy. She could shed her sense of guilt, rise from the tomb of her ugly past. Forgiveness wipes the slate clean. We can start a new life.
[John Wijngaards is a theologian and writer, professor emeritus of the Missionary Institute London, and founder of the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.]