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The Tears of the Magdalene

There are numerous paintings about the Virgin Mary in any art gallery. Nativities, Annunciations, Mother and Childs, Madonnas, Assumptions, among others, are often depicted in religious art, especially in the Medieval period. And like in galleries, an icon or statue of the Virgin would usually adorn churches or chapels. And doubtless, for good reason: apart from being the Mother of God, we also call her our own Mother--our intercessor, our guide, our counsellor.

Aside, however, from the Mother, there is also another woman often portrayed in art, another Mary, this one hailing from Magdala: the Mary Magdalene. The story of Mary Magdalene has been revised many times in Church history. She has gone from being possessed by the devil, condemned as a sinner and a whore, only to transform into being a model of repentance. She has likewise been erroneously confused with the woman who washed Christ's feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and perfumed them (Luke 7:38), as she also at one time was thought to be the same Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. For the more cinematic of mind, the Magdalene was in film or on stage cast as Christ's mistress and seductress, and, as it is in fashion nowadays, rumored to even have been his wife. She is also supposed to have been a writer of a Gnostic gospel, whereby revealing her to be an important figure in spreading the good news after Christ's death. In spite of all this confusion, she has been officially declared a saint by the Church (feast day is on July 22).

Who is this mutable and masked woman who has worn so many faces and has been dressed with different garments? More still, why has she intrigued us so much, becoming a plaything of our imagination, able to speak for different walks of life? (Her resonance with many people is evidence by her being the patron saint of repentant sinners, hairdressers, glove makers and the contemplative life.)

One reason for the many retellings that have been made about her life is the scarcity of information in the Gospels about her person. She is mentioned only fourteen times in the New Testament. The first mention comes in Matthew and Luke where she is described as being exorcised by Christ because  "seven devils" had reportedly possessed her. The two other instances where we hear of Mary are, however, explicit and important--the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ. Mary, as we see in art, was at Christ's feet weeping when he was hanging on or was being brought down from the cross; she also was there at his burial, and it was to her that the risen Christ first appeared after the third day. She figures at the end of Christ's life and in the beginning of that most crucial event in the Christ story, his Resurrection, with which also began the fulfillment of the promise and the salvation of all the faithful.

In John's account of the Resurrection we read that Mary goes to the tomb on the third day to anoint Christ's body. But she discovers the tomb empty, and quickly reports the news to the disciples. Mary goes back to the tomb with the excited apostles (Peter and another apostle ran to the tomb as if they were racing each other) and they again see the tomb without Christ's body. The disciples go back, but Mary stays--and starts weeping. What follows from John 20 is both powerful and perhaps a bit comical:

Correggio, Noli me tangere. c.1522-1525 
Oil on canvas 
Museo del Prado, Madrid
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

As we can gather from the account by John, perhaps another reason why Mary Magdalene has captivated us is because of the emotions she was not afraid to exhibit. In the short passage above, the word "cry" is mentioned four times. She was inconsolable upon discovering that her Master's body appeared to have been taken away from the tomb. She is asked twice by the angels and Christ (who she had first mistaken as a gardener) why she was weeping. Not even the angels could stop her tears, and when she realized that the man in the garden was Christ, she again cries, now in joy, "Rabbi!" The intensity of the Magdalene's emotions is also often depicted in art. If the Virgin bathes in light and shines in glory, and usually has stoical, wise, and knowing countenances, the Magdalenes in art are either sombre or in rapture, pensive or in remorse, alone and in the dark--and, again, in tears. And the most remorseful and tearful Magdalene I have seen with my own eyes is Paulus Bor's Mary Magdalene.

Paulus Bor, Mary Magdalen, c.1635
Oil on wood panel, 65.7 x 60.8
The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

What immediately catch our gaze in this Magdalene are her eyes. The eyes are what we look at first when we encounter an other. Here, one is embarrassed or should be apologetic for seeing her eyes: She has just finished weeping--that moment of greatest vulnerability, that painful instance when we are not yet ready to see an other much more to be seen by him. Her left eye remains pink, more so the area surrounding it. What betrays her most however is not the redness of her eyes or cheeks but their swelling, telling us on the contrary that she has not just finished weeping. It has been a while, perhaps hours or even a day has passed. The marks are still there. The remains of sorrowful remorse that do not vanish as quickly as tears.

Remorse takes time, or better, it takes its time precisely because it needs it or relies on it. But like grief, time is both the cross and salvation of remorse. Apologies, "I am sorry," these are given and said initially and for the most part rather easily. Yet the word "sorry" itself still contains the marks of its initial meaning: you first must pass sorrow before you are able to ask for mercy and forgiveness. This passage through sorrow, the insomnia of conscience, the suicide of the mind--we once called these by the name "valley of tears." That long depressed strait one walks alone that sometimes seems has no end. Upon reaching its end, after bearing the twin weights of sorrow and remorse, only then can any talk about repentance and forgiveness be spoken.

Mary has often been described in art as "The Repentant Magdalene." Repentance in its root comes from the word penance, an amendment pursued or punishment endured before one is finally granted forgiveness. But what was the Magdalene's penance? By what ways was she able to gain forgiveness for her sins (vanity, alleged sensuality, worldliness)? Did Christ even require from her certain acts so that she may gain entry to heaven? Mary, to recall, became a companion of Christ and the disciples; and if she were exorcised by Christ from devils unknown then that meant the transition from sinner to apostle (like most of the other disciples) happened rather fast.

Did the Magdalene's sorrow and remorse take the necessary time required by authentic conversion? Was the change in the Magdalene one that can be called a metanoia, a favorite word in the literary arts and so easily portrayed in film, which means a sudden change (meta) in thought (noesis) and way of living--truly a conversion (literally a turnabout, like an about face), one which is, some say rather lightly, the change from sinner to saint? (It has been said, with jest, that the fastest way to sainthood is to first be a fabulous sinner.)

Probably not. The Magdalene harbored and cultivated inside her heart her sorrow and remorse while being a companion of the Christ. She loved Christ when he was alive while she was in agony for her sins, in agony she loved Christ when he died, in agony still in his Resurrection--and in agony until her own death. Legend has it that when she retired in France, she devoted the rest of her life, thirty years, in solitary penance. Even after bearing witness to the glory of Christ, after successfully spreading Christianity, and well on her way to sainthood, her life was endured in sorrow and remorse. The tears kept falling. Now they fall as raindrops.

She knew that penance never completely absolves anyone, as change never really changes anyone. Bor's painting shows this clearly: the Magdalene is still adorned by the fur from her luxurious past. But her past life is crossed by her present: she holds in her hand the ointment she would use to clean the body of Christ. Remorse dwells in that very crossing, in that moment when the tears have just dried but your eyes still swell--the twilight of conscience, when either a new sun rises or the old one sets. Past and present intersect in remorse, forming a cross, the very same cross we carry to Calgary, the very same cross on which we are crucified.

Metanoia, this is easy to say or believe in, especially by those who wish to change but fail again and again. Those who have gone through it, thought it, understood it, know that remorse never ends and penance is never enough. Most of us just forget--or are given mercy to quickly. But what matters forgiveness and mercy to a remorseful man! We do not do penance for forgiveness, as we do not go through punishment to please the one who required it. We punish ourselves, and that is all that can be said about it. Nor does our apology rest on the possibility of being forgiven. "I am sorry" means what it means: a melancholy unto death that no one can ever take from me.

The point is to bear one's sorrow alone. One learns to live that way.


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