Translation to English (2006) of the Life of Mary Magdalene by Henri Lacordaire, OP (1859)
Concerning the First Anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany (also known as Mary Magdalene)
Jesus Christ had embarked on his public ministry.It would last a short time, and from the first moment one notices three kinds of people around him:simple disciples at first, men converted by his words, looking upon and treating him as the Saviour of the World; then, between the two, twelve apostles chosen to be the foundation of the spiritual society of which their Master would be the eternal life; finally, amongst those apostles and disciples, several souls predestined to be the friends and consolers of God made Man. All doubtless were united to Him by the link of charity; all, apart from one traitor and several deserters, loved Him with a sincere love which Jesus Christ returned, to all of them, and which, greater for his apostles, permitted Him to tell them:“I have called you my friends.”But it is evident, in reading the Gospels, that the apostles themselves, every one of them chosen as they were and holding the first place in the works of redemption, were not, however, by the privilege of their future role, the most dear to the heart which had called them.Jesus, the image of our life, in the same way as he wanted to have a mother, wanted to have friends who were friends not merely by dint of their office, but out of an affection independent of any other principle but itself.St.John was one of them, and he himself, in his Gospel, distinguishes himself from the others by these words so beautiful in their grace and simplicity:"The disciple whom Jesus loved.”
We do not see in the gospel the first causes of the preference for St.John.He was the son of a fisherman of Galilee, and had a brother called James.One day when they were repairing their nets in a boat, Jesus saw them, and called them.“Straightaway,” says the Gospel, “they left their nets and followed him.”That is all we know of a friendship that makes of the fisherman John an apostle, an evangelist, a martyr, the last of the prophets.However, this is not the case where Mary is concerned, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, and here is the scene where she appears before us for the first time, at the feet of the one who would make her the most famous among women, one alone excepted.
The account is from St.Luke, in his 7th chapter.
36.A Pharisee having invited Jesus to eat with him, Jesus entered into the house of the Pharisee and seated himself at the table.
37.And behold a woman who had been a sinner in the town, having known that he was at the table in the house of the Pharisee, arrived with an alabaster vase filled with perfume;
38.She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears began to fall on his feet.She dried them with her hair, kissed his feet, and anointed them with perfume.
39.Seeing this, the Pharisee who had invited Jesus said to himself, "If this man were a prophet he would assuredly have known what kind of woman is touching him and that she is a sinner.”
40.And Jesus, responding to his thoughts, said to him, "Simon, I have something to ask you.”And Simon said to him, "Master, say it."
41."A lender had two debtors, one who owed him 500 denarii and the other 50.
42."Neither one nor the other having any way to pay him, he remitted the debts of both.Which one of these two then loved him more?"
43.Simon responded, "I suppose it was the one to whom he had given more.”And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly."
44.And turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "You see this woman? I entered your house, and you did not wash my feet, but this woman has washed my feet with her tears, and she has dried them with her hair.
45."You did not greet me with a kiss, but this woman, from the time she entered, has not ceased kissing my feet.
46."You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume.
47."This is why I say to you, many sins will be remitted to her because she has loved much.The one who has been forgiven little shows little love."
48.Then he said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven."
49.And those who were at the table began to say to themselves, "Who is this who forgives sins?"
50.But Jesus said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you, go in peace."
Few pages in the Bible have left in the hearts of men so profound an impression, and without doubt no friendship on earth has begun like this one.From the depths of the deepest abjection to which her sex could fall, a woman lifts up her eyes towards divine purity and does not despair of the beauty of her soul.Still a sinner, she has recognized God in the flesh of the Son of Man and, full of shame, she decides to go right up to Him.She takes in a vase of alabaster, symbol of light, a precious perfume.Perhaps it was the very same vase from which she had extracted the means of adorning her features to make them sinfully alluring and this perfume that she was carrying for another purpose, perhaps she had looked in it for a means of increasing her shameful pleasures.She had profaned everything and she could only present the ruins of herself before God.Thus she enters without saying a word and leaves in the same fashion.Repentant, she will not accuse herself before Him who knows everything; pardoned, she will express no words of gratitude.The entire mystery is in her heart, and her silence, which is an act of faith and of humility, is also the last effort of a soul that is overflowing and can do no more.It was the custom in this voluptuous East to anoint the head with perfume, and it was a cult to touch in this way a man with an anointing on the very summit of his beauty.Mary knew this better than anyone, and often, during the time she lived in sin, she had honoured in this way those enslaved by her charms.For this reason she is careful not to come near the blessed head of our Saviour, but, like a servant girl used to performing the vilest function, she leans down towards his feet, and, without touching them at first, she waters them with her tears.Never, since the beginning of the world, had such tears fallen on the feet of any man.People had adored them out of fear and out of love; people had washed them in perfumed waters, and the daughters of kings had not disdained, during the times of primitive hospitality, this homage to the weariness of the traveler, but it was the first time that repentance sat in silence at the feet of a man, and let fall on to them tears capable of ransoming a life.
Still crying and without waiting for a word of encouragement that is not uttered, Mary lets her hair fall down about her head, and, making of its splendid tresses an instrument of her penitence, she dries with its humiliated silk the tears she is shedding.It was also the first time that a woman condemned or rather consecrated her hair to this ministry of tenderness and expiation.Women had been known to cut their hair as a sign of mourning; others had been seen offering it in an act of homage on the altar of some divinity:but history, which has noted down everything unusual in the actions of humanity, nowhere shows us repentance and sin creating together so moving an image of themselves.It struck the disciple of love, fully initiated though he was into the inner secrets of the holocaust; and wishing to transmit to future times what distinguishes Mary, he found nothing better to paint her and to make her known than to say of her, “It was this Mary who anointed the Saviour with a perfume and who dried his feet with her hair.”
That done, the sinner was emboldened.She approaches the feet of our Lord with her dishonoured lips and covers them with kisses that efface the mark of all those she has ever given and of those she has received.At the contact with this more than virginal flesh the last fumes of old memories vanish; the inexpiable signs of degradation disappear, and this transfigured mouth breathes only the living air of sanctity.Only then, and so as to consummate all the mystery of penitence through love, she opens the alabaster, that contains with the perfume the image of immortality, she pours it onto the feet of the Saviour, on top of the tears and the kisses with which she has covered them; her purified hands no longer fear touching them and anointing the Son of God, and the house is filled with the virtue that comes out of the fragile vase and the immortal vase, of alabaster and of the heart.
Who would believe it? The man has not understood this spectacle; he has understood neither the repentance, nor the expiation, nor the love, nor the pardon, and his sole thought is a doubt about the God who has just given such a penetrating revelation of his presence.
It is then that there begins between Jesus Christ and the Pharisee this sublime dialogue that opens with these words:“Simon, I have something to tell you,” that terminates by these words:“Many sins are remitted to her because she has loved much.”Ah!it is not in vain that posterity has heard it.It is not in vain that such acts and such accents have illuminated our poor human nature.No, chaste tears of the converted sinner, hair floating on the feet of the Saviour, sweet and bitter kisses of repentance, scent poured on the spotless flesh of the Man-God, no, you have not been in vain!Generations have come on the trace of this ineffable commerce between Sin and Justice, between eternal death and eternal life.Other Marys have risen from the bed of vice; they have, from century to century, approached the still-damp feet of the Saviour of Mankind; they have wept there in their turn, they have in their turn attached the braids of their hair; they have offered the kisses of a shame acquired through remorse, and poured out the perfume left at the bottom of the vase where the first Mary had deposited it.The world has seen it; enemy of the purity that resists it, it has not been able to refuse its admiration for the purity that is reborn from the ashes, and, quite blind though it be, it has understood why Jesus, wanting to choose friends on earth, had called the sinner after having chosen the chastity of St.John, and it has pardoned the one who pronounced over a lost woman these words:“Many sins are remitted to her because she has loved much.”Oh my God, you are God, because your words have created virtue, and your friendship for a sinner has created saints.
Such was the first anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany.It probably took place at Bethany itself, because the Evangelist St.Luke, the only one to record it, says expressly that the scene occurred in the house and at the table of a Pharisee called Simon.Moreover, according to St.Matthew and St.Mark, the second anointing, of which we shall speak shortly, occurred at Bethany, in the house and at the table of Simon the Leper, and St.John adds that Lazarus was among the guests and that Mary waited on them.This resemblance of name between Simon the Pharisee and Simon the Leper, in two events that are similar, and which however differ in time and in their circumstances, leads one to think that the two anointings occurred at the house of the same Simon, united by close neighbourhood with the families of Lazarus and Martha, and consequently at Bethany.At the time of the first, Mary was still a sinner, and it was her conversion that introduced Jesus into the intimacy of Lazarus and of all his relations.Bethany became thenceforth for the Saviour a refuge of tenderness and peace, the only place that seems to have inspired in him, by the return journeys he made to it and the memories that he left there, a very special fondness.
I have mentioned the sister of Lazarus and of Martha, the divine friend of Jesus Christ, called Mary of Bethany.Nowhere, however, do the Gospels call her by this name.It only distinguishes her in St.John, in the two famous chapters concerning the resurrection of Lazarus and the last anointing, by her relationship to Lazarus and Martha.There she is always Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus.Everywhere else she seems to vanish.One does not rediscover her, under this family designation, either at the foot of the Cross, or at the tomb of the Saviour, or at the resurrection, or anywhere else.This woman, so special one moment, whom you will soon see anointing for the second time the feet of Jesus, on the eve of his passion, and of whom Jesus will say, to avenge her for the jealousies of others of which she is the object:“Wherever this Gospel will be preached throughout the world, what she has just done will be recounted to her glory”; this woman vanishes.Two days before His Passion, Jesus was still saying about her and her precious perfume that she had just poured over him, “Let her do it, and let her be free to conserve it for the day of my burial.”However, on the day of his burial, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus does not appear.At Bethany she is everything; outside Bethany she is nothing.
Clearly, that is not possible.Mary of Bethany has a name that ought to be famous, a name occurring in every page of the Gospels; and if at the time of the happenings at Bethany it is not pronounced, it is because in this place, the place itself indicates her name and names her in an unmistakable fashion.
The Gospels know only two Marys, apart from the Mother of God, Mary Magdalene, from whom St.Luke says that the Saviour “had chased seven demons,” and Mary, sister of the very holy Virgin, on one occasion called Mary of Cleophas, from the name of her husband, and one other Mary of James and Joseph, from the names of her children.That is why St.Matthew, in speaking of the women who were present at the burial of the Saviour, says as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which could mislead nobody, “There were present there Mary Magdalene and the other Mary.”And later, on the morning of the Resurrection, “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to visit the tomb.”If, in addition to Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of the very holy Virgin, there had been another Mary there, sister of Martha and of Lazarus, it is clear that the language of the Evangelist would have been inexact and even false.For him, and consequently for all the Evangelical world, there were in the concerns of the Saviour, after Mary his mother, only two other Marys, and thus logically Mary of Bethany was one of the two, either Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Cleophas.But she was not Mary of Cleophas, sister of the very holy Virgin; she is, therefore, Mary Magdalene.
This is also what is affirmed by tradition, the liturgy of the Church, and the most ancient monuments elevated to the memory of Mary Magdalene.Their language shows us in the unity of the same glory the sinner weeping at the feet of Jesus and drying them with her hair, the sister of Lazarus assisting at the resurrection of her brother, the faithful friend standing at the Passion and, at the death of her Beloved following him to the tomb, and thus earning the right to see before anyone else the splendor of the Resurrection.Any division of this glory is chimerical, contrary to Scripture, to the memory of the ages, to the piety of the Saints to the universal cult that puts before us, everywhere under our eyes and in our soul, the image of a single woman in whom are realized the most moving mysteries of penitence and friendship.
Mary was called Magdalene from the town of Magdala, on the shores of Lake Galilee, either because she came from there, or because she had lived there a long time.What is certain, is that she had inhabited Galilee; because St.Matthew and St.Mark mention particularly that she was of the number of the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and who waited on him.That is why several commentators have thought that her conversion took place at Magdala, and that Simon the Pharisee, in whose house the first anointing took place, was another person from Simon the Leper, at whose house the second occurred.Whatever of these conjectures may be right, Mary Magdalene, having repented of her mistakes and in the intervals between following Jesus, lived at Bethany, near her brother and sister, and the tradition of the area is that her house there was separate from that of Lazarus and of Martha.