St Mary Magdalene is the only saint in the liturgical calendar to have received the title “Penitent”. Other holy women are called either “virgin”, or “widow”, or simply “holy woman”. The titles the Church gives to saints are titles of glory. She praises her martyrs, confessors, bishops, doctors, virgins, etc…. Today she sings the praises of her special “penitent”. What other reason could there be for this if not that Magdalene is the penitent par excellence? She has received a special grace which she is prepared to share with us, by which she has made atonement to God for her many grave sins. According to tradition, Magdalene went with her brother Lazarus to France where she lived many years as a recluse, praying, contemplating, making reparation to God and to the world for the scandals she had given by her former way of life.
Is this not touching, and is it not a source of immense hope and confidence for us? Whatever might be the number or the gravity of our sins, the example of Mary Magdalene reminds us that redemption, reintegration, salvation, and even the loftiest heights of sanctity are at our disposal.
I have sometimes met women who, having reached a certain age in life, look back, and realise how seriously they have offended God. It might be for having lived a life similar to that of Magdalene, it might be for having foolishly lost their virginity at an early age, for marital infidelity, for having aborted a child, or for having refused children or prevented them from coming into the world. Bitter tears can be shed when the attractions of the senses no longer blind the heart to reality, and when one considers the just judgments of God whom we will meet one day very soon, for we shall soon die.
Magdalene can be a tremendous consolation to such women. How many sins did she commit? How many men did she cause to sin? God knows. What we do know, and this is what is most important for us, is that when the Divine Physician entered her life, when she heard about Him and the mercy He was preaching, far from hardening her heart and justifying her actions, she let herself be touched by divine grace. It is so beautifully recounted by St Luke (ch. 7) who depicts at one and the same time her courage, her humility and her love as she enters the banquet in the pharisee’s house, and before all present, prostrates herself at the feet of Our Blessed Lord, washing them with her tears, wiping them with her hair, covering them with kisses, anointing them with precious oil. Such a beautiful scene which shows what Divine Grace can do in a soul that opens itself to it. It can transform us, wipe out sin, and make all things anew.
On that day, Mary Magdalene who had up till then been a woman barren by profession, a veritable disgrace at whom people pointed their finger, becomes — oh marvel of Divine Grace! — both mystical Bride of Christ and Mother of souls. Yes, the Good Shepherd not only forgives her many sins, but He deigns to receive her among consecrated souls for whom she becomes a model of rediscovered purity. But she is also Mother, as we sing in the hymn for her feast: “Pia mater et humilis, Naturae memor fragilis, In huius vitae fluctibus, Nos rege tuis precibus — Mother kind and meek, Think on our nature frail and weak, And raise prayer that we may gain, A passage safe o’er life’s rough main”.
May Saint Mary Magdalene, the harlot turned saint, the great penitent, the chaste Bride of Christ, the Mother of all penitent souls, obtain for us all the grace of true repentance for our sins, and may she give us to realise the loft destiny of sanctity to which we are all called.