Listen here:

“All the world’s a stage and men and women are merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…..” 

William Shakespeare “As You Like It”

A little reflection and we can immediately recognise the truth of Shakespeare’s lines from his play, As You Like it. Indeed, every man does play many parts but what about the women? Do they not also play many parts – often the parts written for them by men?

There’s one woman who is given many different roles in the Christian tradition, and you will always recognise her by her hair! It is Mary Magdalene. At the time of Jesus, “Mary” was a relatively common name. So she is known by the name of the place from which she comes, Magdala, one of the many fishing towns on the western shore of Galilee.  

She appears in art all through the centuries – the penitent, the prostitute, one of the few faithful women at the foot of the cross. She is the patron saint of an enormous list of groups and causes from converts and repentant sinners to pharmacists, and, of course, hairdressers.

It all began in the 6th century when Pope Gregory Ist conflated  Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha), the unnamed repentant woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the pharisee (Lk.36-50),  with Mary Magdalene, first mention in Luke 8:2 – this Mary was one of the group of women who followed Jesus and his disciples and who “provided for them out of their means.”  

Even if we accept that the tradition is confused and Mary has too many parts, they are all beautiful parts in which she (or the women that she embodies) have something simple and liberating to teach us. Mary of Bethany, how to recognise when it is time to be still and listen. That courageous woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee who risks public humiliation and further rejection by anointing Jesus’ feet, a gesture of courtesy and respect and need. The people concerned with respectability may draw back in horror but Jesus, without embarrassment, let’s her do what she needs to do. This woman, who is silent, reminds us that words are not enough to carry or capture all that our heart contains. The inadequacy of language exposes our poverty and vulnerability; we only have gestures to expresses our need to love, to be forgiven,  to be accepted; and, finally, if we are to put down our burden, we need to take the risk that someone will understand us.

With Jesus her gesture is fully understood; he gives her a place that is forever with him in the memory of the Church. Although we do not know her name, her gesture never ceases;  she is the teacher and the hope of all who come to Jesus in silence, in need of understanding and forgiveness, in need of respect and love.

Then there is Mary of Magdala who had been freed from all those demons of oppression. The faithful woman, the Mary who provided for Christ and his followers ‘out of her means’.  This is the Mary who shows us the practical way of following Christ. Her gratitude will always seek to express itself, to make provision for Christ and his friends, especially his friends the poor.

Whichever Mary we choose, they all have something to offer us during Lent.


Yet for all these ‘parts’, there is the one thing for which Mary of Magdala will always been known. It is not so much a part that she plays, it is a mission she has been given, the mission she has become. She is the one who stands at the foot of the Cross, and she is the one who is the first witness to Christ’s resurrection. Hers is the first name the Risen Christ speaks, and she is the one who is entrusted with the witness that he is risen.  Mary Magdalene ‘the apostles to the apostles’.

Although the gospel narratives shift to the witness of the disciples, Mary is always present. Her mission does not cease or pass away; she continues to announce to us, and down all the ages, “I have seen the Lord!”  Her mission is the very mission of the Church itself.

Lent is a time in which to renew our faith. Whenever we feel the weight of our sin or our shame so that we can’t come close to Christ, Mary, in the house of Simon the pharisee, helps us find the right gesture. Whenever we’re oppressed by so much to do, Mary at Bethany can make space for us, so that we can be at peace and listen, and when we feel our faith is weak or lost, it is Mary Magdalene who understands. Just as she was not afraid to go to the tomb to anoint the crucified body of Christ, so she is not afraid to come to us when we feel that our faith has died. Now, she does not need come with the oils for burial, but with the simple consoling power of her words, “I have seen the Lord!” Christ is Risen.

All of these ‘parts’ are wonderfully woven into the oratorio, Maria Maddalena, ai piedi di Cristo – Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ.

It is the work of  the venetian composer Antonio Caldara written in 1697/98. In characteristic baroque style, Caldara gives us the drama of the Maddalena – torn between the desire for heavenly things and the pleasures of this world. In the oratorio, against the questions and doubts of the cynical Pharisee, it is Marta  (her sister), who with joyous vibrancy and characteristic energy urges Maria to ‘ Go, hasten, fly – Vattene, corri, vola – to Christ’,  .

Voglio piangere,
Sinche frangere …….
Possa il nodo che mi lega. Sempre il Cielo apparve amico A’ desire,
A’ sospiri
D’un alma che prega.

I want to weep,
until I can break the knot that holds me bound.
Heaven seems ever to be receptive,
to the wishes and the sighs
of soul in prayer.

As we continue our journey through Lent, perhaps we can try to understand all the parts we have played and continue to play; all the different narratives that people give us, or we impose upon ourselves.  

Perhaps we can ask Saint Mary Magdalene, to provide for us, we who really do want to be friends and followers of Christ. We can ask that, out of her own experience and wisdom, she may help us see what are the ‘parts’ that really matter and are truly worth playing. Above all, we can ask her to show us how not to cling to the past, but to hear him calling us by our name to be his apostle.

About the Author

James Hanvey SJ

Secretary for the Service of the Faith for the Society of Jesus

His particular research and teaching interests are in the areas of Trinitarian Theology, Pneumatology, Ecclesiology and Catholic Social Thought as well as Ignatian Spirituality.

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