Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life… and put on the new nature created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness [Eph 4: 22-24].
Dearly beloved brothers and sisters, who are called to Holy Communion with our Master, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The all-powerful and gracious God has bestowed on us life to journey through this month of July. Considering that this is the seventh month of the year, it strikes my mind once again that seven  is a Biblical figure, significant for completeness, renewal, perfection, wholeness, beginning as evident from the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. We are already re-challenged by this month to be perfect, to be made whole as the Lord deems it fit for us. The awesomeness of this enterprise comes to the fore when we consider that one of the best model of conversion in Biblical History till date is the woman celebrated on the 22nd of this month [Mary Magdalene], aptly called Apostle to the Apostles. I find this woman an interesting figure to talk about in this month, with all the connections that seem coincidental yet comes along with new meaning.
The God who made us, did so that we bask in fellowship with him and enjoy unending happiness. More often than not, we have a pre-conceived ideology about what ‘true’ happiness is, defined by and built around an epicurean mind set and hedonist structure. Life means more than just food and drink, far outweighs the craving for sensual pleasure and/or instant gratification. Unless these false precepts are purged away from the mind with sincerity of purpose and intention, the Christian cannot ascend maturity.
The appearance of Magdalene in Biblical history is found in the account of Luke’s Gospel chapter 7, when she is connected with ‘the sinful woman’ even though she is not named in this chapter. The details of the description in the Gospel cannot be taken with a pinch of salt for it is a crucial lead to the beauty of the happenings. She is identified in a debased way as a ‘public sinner’ so much that Simon felt disgraced that she had found access into his house but even more that it seemed to him Jesus had no prophetic power because she remained at his feet. As it is said, “she [Magdalene] possessed all the qualities of mind and body and all the gifts of fortune that can lead one to the worst excesses.” She was deep-seated in sin. To corroborate this point, Luke immediately after this episode recounts that some women accompanied Jesus among who was “Mary called Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone out” [Luke 8:2]. The biblical number  appears again to show the depth of depravity in a subtle sense, but more importantly, it explains the degree of healing and forgiveness; it was whole and total.
Her Turning Point
One of the fascinating things about this account is the movement of this ailing woman to the exact place where Jesus was. She must have known Jesus in some way but this would be her first encounter with him personally, because she searched for him in this time of dire need. Her conversion can be contrasted with that of St. Paul and some of the other Saints whose turning were miraculous and/or extraordinary. Magdalene’s turning point was the moment of encounter with Jesus; she had had actual contrition, that is, sorrow for sin, purpose of amendment and the desire to make satisfaction for sin through penance. The special emphasis here is on the aspect of contrition which bursts out in the tears, the dropping of her face to the ground on bent knees and trading her pride and glamour [her hair] for healing by wiping the Lord’s feet with it.
To deflate the wrong conception of Simon about him, Jesus sees deeper than what natural eyes can detect, to the heart of this truly sorrowful woman who does ‘penance’ for her sins and says “Therefore I tell you her sins which are many are forgiven” [Cf. Lk 7:47]. The quality of her contrition was the turning point that instigated a corresponding perfection of her conversion.
At this point I enjoin you to pay attention to the words of two great Doctors of the Church concerning Magdalene. Firstly, Pope St. Gregory the Great says: “she converts the number of her faults into the same number of virtues that as much of her might wholly serve God in her penitence, as had despised God in her sin.” Pope Gregory takes a cue from the Gospel of Luke that details us on the level of depravity this woman was before she met Jesus. The complete self-giving to corruption and vice has been reserved to the right course of total self-giving to God.
Secondly, St. John Chrysostom says of Magdalene: “Thus the harlot became then more honourable than the virgins.” Having met the one whom her soul desired, she gave her body no longer to the pleasure of corruption but through mortification of herself, she wills fellowship with her Lord, so that she by her action she may give the true understanding of virginity. She surpassed this state however when the Lord pleased by her contrition and commitment made her an Apostle to his Apostles.
How About Us?
The Magdalene story in itself can [and should] be the first level of our own turning point. Examining the story carefully clearly shows that multitude of sins is not a problem to the power and mercy of God and also that there is a classic example of one who may have been like us or worse off but was absolutely redeemed. The depth and quality of our contrition is the precise prominence here that would be a decider for conversion. Consider this woman as one who may have had all the experiences of an Epicurean yet she undergoes within herself the age of enlightenment and revolution to the truth of existence. She stands as a veritable resource for proper examination of purpose and motives.
The example of Magdalene has been put before us at this very moment. One of the profits of having exhortations by actions is a sense of connectedness that assures us of a possibility of attempting or surpassing such examples. It is not an impossible endeavour, yet two things must be kept in mind.
Firstly, there is sometimes a propensity to sin even after conversion and forgiveness and we are lured once more by the same old sin again and again because they have become a ‘habit.’ Yet these ‘bad habits’ can be overcome by virtuous acts. However, as St. Thomas teaches, sometimes because of the great quality of contrition of the penitent and by the grace of Christ, even the tendency toward certain sin will be removed. This is the case of Magdalene and it could be the same for anyone who follows the path.
Secondly, we are not often restored to the same spiritual height we were almost immediately but only after some work and patient waiting do we ascend the height of holiness. However, as this renowned Doctor of the Church says, there could be certain exceptions to this rule and Magdalene’s is one of such. Due to her deep level of contrition all her sins were wiped away and she was raised to an even higher virtue than she had ever attained. Again, the anchor for such privilege rests on the quality of the contrition.
With the words of St. Paul, I urge you brethren, like Magdalene to put off your old nature, which involves an active response that will quell the powers of the passions that threaten to rule us, so as not to blaze like the ‘public sinners’ rather, put on Christ. This will mean that not only does this revered intention stop at the level of remorse, but we become alive in the spirit expressed in our blazing love for Jesus. After her contrition, she [Magdalene] loved Jesus to the very end of his life here on earth and to the grave. One moment is all we need and the Lord will help us to break the bond of sin.
† Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos.
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