Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, 2018.
On this Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, traditionally one of the most beloved Saints in English/Anglican Christianity, three words come to mind. Those three words are peace, strength and courage. Peace, strength and courage are what we ask God in the Collect after Communion to grant us so that we can love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart. Jesus teaches us that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength. And that we are to love our neighbor as our self. And so we ask to be sent into the world in peace with strength and courage, knowing that for us, the baptized who have been nourished with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, God sends His grace because He knows that to love Him and our neighbor, to be agents of heavenly peace in our world, requires divinely given strength and courage.
Peace born of strength and courage describes Judith perfectly. Judith was a Jewish widow who lived a quiet devout life, in a village called Bethulia (which means “virginity”). In the story is moved by God to speak up. The reason she is moved to do so is that her city is surrounded and besieged by Holofernes, a foreign Assyrian general, and his army. More specifically, Judith is dismayed by the lack of faith and trust in God shown by her compatriots, who face admittedly long odds in being victorious. The best prayer that that they can muster is prayer for rain that they might have water before being conquered. Judith, on the other hand, constantly prays and exhorts others to prayer. Furthermore, people respond to her in prayerful ways, recognizing God’s power in her, a divine presence, and furthermore, praising God after hearing her speak. Imagine having such a presence that all of one’s words and being throw others into prayer and praise!
We pick the story in the ninth chapter of the Book of Judith. Judith has hatched a plan to save Israel. She will pretend to give up her people and give herself and her maid over to the enemy so as to infiltrate their camp. She will present herself to Holofernes as his servant. In our passage, she was praying, and let us hear again these words:
“For thy power depends not upon numbers, nor thy might upon men of strength; for thou art God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior of those without hope. [Indeed this is the God of the Old Testament, and the God of Our Lady the mother of Jesus.] Hear, O hear me, God of my father, God of the inheritance of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all thy creation, hear my prayer! [Note that “King of all creation” echoes the Berekah prayer of Jewish seders that we use during the Offertory over the Offerings of bread and wine.] Make my deceitful words [that is, her deception] to be their wound and stripe, for they have planned cruel things against thy covenant, and against thy consecrated house, and against the top of Zion, and against the house possessed by thy children. And cause thy whole nation and every tribe to know and understand that thou art God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who protects the people of Israel but thou alone!” [Note here that Judith is praying for all Israel; her prayer is on behalf of the entire people.]
Just before this passage is one more verse that adds necessary clarity: “By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.” She is asking for strength and courage. Strength because the plan is to cut off the head of Holofernes, and she is asking for courage to pull off this deceit. And, she succeeds. She beheads him while he is asleep in a drunken stupor. She returns and is celebrated by the people, the priests, even those from the temple in Jerusalem. Of her it is spoken, “You are the exaltation of Jerusalem, you are the great glory of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation!” You: a woman.
Judith, then, is one of the great women in the Old Testament, a woman-savior who takes her place alongside the great salvific figures of Esther and Deborah. Through the prayer of the People of God, these woman-saviors embody a defeated Israel, here like a widow (Judith) wasting away in sorrow (her people). Yet more deeply they personify Israel’s unconquered spiritual strength. In them, the powerless becomes the savior because that is where the locus for the revelation of God’s power is found. The great women must also include Eve, as described in Genesis, because in her the pattern is born. Just as Eve was only named the mother of life after the fall into sin, after every fall into sin of Israel there remains a woman, here Judith, who is a mother of life.
This is the best way to understand Mary Magdalene: as a representation and embodied theology of God’s people. This woman once possessed by seven demons—demonic, that is, in her heart, her soul, her mind, and her strength; that is, total possession—indeed regarded as perhaps one of the most infamous women in Israel, became in the eyes of all in heaven a success of the highest order. The greatest of sinners had become by God’s grace—His peace, which gives strength and courage—among the greatest of Saints. By anointing twice the head and feet of Jesus with the oil of her most precious faith kept in her most precious alabaster jar, Mary Magdalene was an example in the highest order of love and devotion poured out to Jesus the true messiah of Israel, the eternal Word of God. By listening at the Lord’s feet, Mary Magdalene teaches us in the deepest way about true discipleship, and echoes the example of Blessed Mary, who pondered in her heart what her Son did and said. Perhaps Mary Magdalene learned this from Our Lady herself.
This is why all it took was only a word said by Jesus—the word, “Mary,” her name—for Mary Magdalene to recognize her Lord and instantly obey Him. She went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” She became an apostle to the Apostles. In the Bible, men play a central role in the unfolding of the Gospel, obviously. But it is women who are best disciples. The theology of all this, what is called the biblical theology of woman, is indispensable for the structure of biblical faith. Through women is expressed the reality of creation and the fruitfulness of grace. Through women, strength and courage are embodied. Through Mary Magdalene is expressed specifically an inexhaustible and unquenchable love for Jesus that adores Him passionately, intuitively, and bodily, for indeed He is Love, incarnate.
Saint Mary Magdalene, prophetess of eucharistic love, teacher of true penitence, and apostle to the Apostles, pray for us.