Mary Magdalene and Song of Songs

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By Michael Twohig, Christendom College

“This was foretold in the Song of Songs.”[1] So says the late antique exegete Rufinus of Aquileia in his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed 30 on John 20:13, which describes Mary Magdalene’s sorrow at the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb. As Rufinus points out, Mary’s response to the angels’ question of why she weeps— “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:13, all Scriptural citations will be from the RSVCE) —parallels the Bride’s lament concerning the absence of her Beloved: “Upon my bed by night, I sought him who my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not” (Song 3:1).[2] Rufinus is not the only theologian to notice the parallels between the Lover of the Song of Songs and Mary Magdalene. In Homily 25 of his 40 Gospel Homilies series, St. Gregory the Great weaves together references to the Song with his exegesis of Mary’s steadfast love as she stood and wept alone outside of Jesus’ tomb on the third day:

Mary Magdalene, who had been a sinner in the city, loved the Truth and so washed away with her tears the stains of wickedness. Her sins had kept her cold, but afterward she burned with an irresistible love… We must consider this woman’s state of mind whose force of love inflamed her. When even the disciples departed from the sepulcher, she did not depart…But it is not enough for a lover to have looked once, because the force of love intensifies the effort of the search…She persevered in seeking, and that is why she found Him. As her unfulfilled desires increased, they took possession of what they found… This was Mary’s kind of love as she turned a second time to the sepulcher she had already looked into.[3]

Jn. 20:11

For St. Gregory the Great, Mary Magdalene typifies the fallen soul’s search for its Divine Spouse, which culminates in her dramatic recognition in John 20:14-16 that the man speaking with her in front of the tomb is her Beloved Teacher. St. Gregory’s beautiful description depends in large part upon the language and allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs. But how can one interpret the Song of Songs in such a mystical way, when “the literal meaning” of the book is universally recognized as “lushly erotic”?[4] Why do the Patristic commentators see the language of the Song of Solomon as particularly pertinent to Mary Magdalene? In fact, why do the New Testament authors themselves use the language of the Song with particular frequency and intentionality when describing Mary Magdalene? This article will endeavor to describe the nature of the Song of Songs and its function in both depicting and enabling one to develop a deeply affective spiritual life, specifically through the prism of the medieval approach to the Song of Songs. Moreover, this article will use Mary Magdalene as the ‘incarnate model’ of this process, which involves all bodily and spiritual aspects of human nature. Man is neither only body or spirit but is composed of both. His relationship with God therefore can and should involve the active engagement of the entirety of man as a body-soul composite. Mary Magdalene perfectly represents throughout all four Gospels the type of love between the individual soul and God that one should develop as figuratively described in the Song of Songs.

The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon or the Canticle of Canticles, constitutes one of the canonical Old Testament books in both the Jewish and Christian canons of sacred Scripture.[5] Scott Hahn describes the book as “appear[ing] to be little more than a celebration of natural love between a man and a woman,” and includes “imagery that is quite physical and sexual.”[6] However, Hahn notes that the Christian tradition has ascribed deeper allegorical meaning to interpretations of the Song that center upon “the love of God for his people,” which Hahn asserts “has been a stimulating source for Christian mystical theology.”[7] This allegorical meaning, as with many other doctrines and practices within the Church, developed slowly, and Ann Astell analyzes one of the earliest comprehensive attempts to interpret the Song of Songs, undertaken by Origen in the third century. Origen was faced with “two interrelated problems” raised by the Song: “The first problem arises from what the Song leaves unstated; the second from what it actually says. Included among the sacred books from the earliest times, the Song makes no direct mention of God; instead it celebrates the passionate joys and sorrows of unnamed lovers.”[8] Origen identified two key concepts necessary for a proper interpretation of the Song, “amor and allegoria, what the Song literally expresses (carnal love) and what it does not (spiritual love)”; he then extrapolates that the Song must express hidden spiritual truths that are expressed by language of fallen corporeality, “that the literal carnality of the Song veils a spiritual meaning (allegoria), even as the human body houses a soul.”[9] For Origen, “the Song actually refers to the mystical union between the Church and Christ or the soul and the Word,” which union is initiated and consummated by love.[10] However, Origen’s exegesis is colored by the theological and philosophical framework he operates within; influenced by Neoplatonic theories of the relationship between the soul and the body, Origen believed that the souls of human beings preexisted their bodies, which bodies were given to them “as an outward sign of their fall away from God,” and confirming him in the opinion that matter and the body were evil, or at the very least concupiscible distractions for our souls away from contemplating God.[11] Love for Origen, then, exists in two, mutually opposed forms: “the cupidinous love of the flesh which comes from Satan…and the love of the spirit which originates in God.”[12] Since “no adult escapes the power of amor,” the Christian must make sure to direct even his eros, “the corporeal drives that constitute, in part, the soul’s burdensome punishment,” “toward God,” which is accomplished through “the sublimation of every bodily desire.”[13] In spite of his negative views towards the body, Origen’s contributions to interpretations of the Song of Songs through his allegorical reading provided a stable interpretive framework through which the medieval mystics and exegetes could innovate.

Whereas Origen interprets the Song as exhorting the soul to break free from the bonds of carnal loves and the restraints of the body, the medieval exegetes, following in the footsteps of St. Augustine, placed a new emphasis upon the body and the lower faculties of human beings that radically transformed the way in which the Song was interpreted.[14] Isaac of Stella, for instance, “envisions a holistic redemption of body and soul made possible through a firm identification with, and engagement of, the lower, body-linked powers—that is, the affects. There are, as Isaac observes, concupiscible and irascible drives (“motus”) in the soul that express themselves in four primary affects: joy and hope, sorrow and fear.”[15] The medieval exegetes, while not abandoning the allegorical meanings attributed to the Song, placed a far greater emphasis on the tropological meaning of the text, “apply[ing] the interpreted text to the concrete life situation of their auditors and us[ing] the affective force of the Song’s literal imagery to move them to virtuous action.”[16] They exhort their listeners in sermons and summa to identify themselves with the Bridal figure of the text as a way of re-centering the importance of the affective powers (or the emotions) in bringing about a deeper and stronger union between the soul and the Divine Bridegroom, Christ; as Astell notes, “The commentators all connect the Bride and the bridal self with the humble admission of guilt, need, frailty, and thus with the openness to receive forgiveness, grace, and transforming love. Archetypally, it is the Bride who obeys the will of God, suffers, endures, and waits.”[17] The mystical writers, foremost among them St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Richard of St. Victor, took the concept of the necessity of integrating the bodily affections and desires of the human being into one’s search for union with God even further.[18] Approaching the text by taking “the allegory for granted, not as something hidden which must be discovered, but as something already known which must be applied,” the mystical writers “reliteralized the spiritual meaning of Canticles by clothing it in poetry and prose replete with the moving sensual power of the original text.”[19] As opposed to Origen’s two loves, Astell asserts that the mystical writers conceived of one love; as she states, “That love, poured out into our hearts, comes from God…As creatures of habit, our love (especially in its most primitive, developmental stage) is of necessity carnal; as fallen creatures, moreover, our love for God is tainted with self-interested cupidity, frequently misdirected and mistaken in its object.”[20] It is necessary for each human being to direct their entire being—will, intellect, emotions, and passions— so as to be wholly drawn up into the mystery of the love of God: “the twelfth century exegetes, impressed by the unitary nature of love, aimed at an organic transference of the affectus by joining the literal image of the Bridegroom to its Christological tenor, thus directing the bridal love of the soul to its divine object.”[21] Far from being an embarrassing or unnecessary addition to Sacred Scripture, the Song of Solomon describes the manner in which the soul should thirst for bridal union with God, and simultaneously exhorts the soul to bend all their powers to achieving that end through its evocative imagery and sensual language. In order to contemplate an example of this kind of spiritual development, then, let us trace the journey of Mary Magdalene.

Who is Mary Magdalene? According to the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia: New Testament, Mary Magdalene was “one of the women from Galilee who followed Christ, ministering to Him and His disciples…She was rewarded by a vision of two angels and the first recorded apparition of the Risen Lord, who gave her a message for the disciples.”[22] She is mentioned by that name in all four Gospels, although not much is said about her. In Matthew 27 she is recorded as being at the Crucifixion, while Matt. 28 notes her presence at the sepulcher. Mark also mentions her presence at the Crucifixion and tomb (Mk. 15-16, RSVCE), but adds a decisive addendum in Mk. 16:9 that “when He [Jesus] rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons.” Luke reiterates this fact in 8:2, saying, “And the Twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary, called Mag’dalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” Although John only mentions Mary Magdalene at the Crucifixion and Resurrection (Jn. 19-20), he also mentions a Mary of Bethany, the sister to Martha and Lazarus who weeps for her recently deceased brother and who washes Jesus’ feet with costly ointments (Lk. 10, Jn. 11-12). Traditionally, Mary Magdalene has been interpreted as being the same person as Mary of Bethany and the unnamed sinful woman in Luke 7 who bathes Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears, such as by St. Gregory the Great in his Homily 33 on the Gospels.[23] However, the Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia states that “critics with strong harmonizing tendencies have sought to identify her with the public sinner (Luke 7, 36-50), and the sister of Lazarus and Martha (Luke 10, 38-42; John 11, 1-45). Patristic evidence is divided. In general, the Greek Fathers oppose the identity of the three women, while many Latin Fathers seem to favor their identity.”[24] Although modern scholars now tend to disagree vociferously with this identification, for the purposes of this article I will assume that all three figures refer to the same person, Mary Magdalene.[25]

In synthesizing these various accounts of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed sinful woman of Luke 7, one can discern a distinct journey of Mary’s soul. She is introduced as a sinner, a woman possessed by seven demons (Mk. 16:9); while her sins are not detailed, they can be assumed to be grievous indeed, for possession by seven evil spirits implies grave and habitual sin. When Jesus was invited to eat with a member of the Pharisees, Mary enters into the house, “brought am alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with ointment” (Lk. 7:37-38). Although her intentions are not noted explicitly at first, she is clearly expressing sorrow for her sins and seeking forgiveness, Jesus later notes that her “faith has saved you,” (Lk. 7:50) which confirms that this was not a random epiphany on her part but an action that also involved her intellect and will. Two important details must be noted. Firstly, Mary does all of these things regardless of the judgment of the Pharisee whose house she enters; she would have known that her mere presence would have provoked a hostile and potentially violent reaction from the legal purists, but her sorrow, desire for repentance, and love for Jesus gives her courage and confidence. Secondly, Mary’s actions are very physical. She weeps; she bathes Jesus’ feet; she wipes them with ointment. One can imagine that, in order to do this, she has prostrated herself at His feet, physically humbling herself before the One Who can save her from herself. Hers is not a faith devoid of feeling, or an intellectual acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah. Instead, Mary directs the focus of her entire being towards Jesus, Who is the object of her full affection. As Astell notes, “He [St. Bernard] consistently affirms the value and the necessity of the full range of human emotions in each person’s total relationship with God. All those affections that belong to us as bodily creatures are to be directed to God Who is Spirit, but such a transmittance is possible only through the mediation of sacraments and sacramentals, the outward signs of God which touch our senses and involve our feelings.”[26] This last observation does not apply to Mary Magdalene, who was given the great grace to have the ultimate object of all men’s desires incarnate on earth. Fragrant oils and kisses are also a common motif throughout the Song of Solomon, oftentimes signifying the rapturous attraction of the Bridegroom for the Bride, “For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out” (Song, 1:2-3), and the enjoyment of their mutual love, “If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and none would despise me. I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother” (Song 8: 1-2). Jesus notes and celebrates the love that has so impelled Mary to carry out the actions she has just done, explaining to the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she has loved much” (Lk. 7:44-47).

After this dramatic moment of contrition and reconciliation, Mary’s growth in love for Jesus is continually pointed out in the Gospels. Luke 10 records Jesus’ visit to the house of Mary and her sister Martha, and Mary is described as sitting “at the Lord’s feet and listen[ing] to his teaching” instead of helping Martha with the preparation for the meal (Luke 10:39); in response to Martha’s complaint that he sister should be helping her, Jesus replies that “Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her,” (Lk. 10:42) which can be interpreted to mean contemplation of her divine Bridegroom (in the language of the Song). John also records in John 12 a visit of Jesus to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (who appears to have been their brother, in which Mary again takes “a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (Lk. 12:3). This language evokes the language of the Song, which associates the beautiful aromas of various perfumes and ointments, including nard, with the attraction the Bride and Bridegroom experience for one another. The Bridegroom states, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices,” (Song 4:12-14) to which the Bride responds with a request that the north and south winds “Blow upon my garden, let its fragrance be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden and eat its choicest fruits” (Song 4:16). By the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, Mary’s love for Christ has developed to the point where she has no fear because her love has been transfigured by Christ. Her intellect, her will, and her emotions and desires are so focused upon Christ, so intimately configured with one another by a common object of desire, that everything she does is directed in some way or another towards Jesus. John records that she is one of the four people who remain with Christ as He hung from the Cross, alongside Mary His mother, Mary Clopas, and St. John himself (John 19:25); we can only imagine what Scripture passes over in silence, the agony and tears Mary Magdalene must have shed on that bitter day.

The resonances between Mary Magdalene’s story and the Song of Songs reaches their poetic and typological heights in the moving account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ outside of the tomb on Easter Sunday. As John recounts, Mary was the first disciple of Jesus to rush to His tomb, notwithstanding the dangers posed by the Roman guards nor the disapproval of the Jewish authorities: “Now on the first day of the week, Mary Mag’dalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (Jn. 20:1). She runs back to the upper room and alerts the disciples, and the narrative quickly shifts to focus upon St. Peter and St. John. Once they leave, however, the narrative returns to Mary Magdalene, who “stood weeping outside the tomb” (Jn. 20:11). This is the passage quoted at the beginning of this article which St. Gregory comments upon with a particularly moving description of Mary’s internal disposition, which bears repeating in part: “Mary Magdalene, who had been a sinner in the city, loved the Truth and so washed away with her tears the stains of wickedness. Her sins had kept her cold, but afterward she burned with an irresistible love… We must consider this woman’s state of mind whose force of love inflamed her. When even the disciples departed from the sepulcher, she did not depart…This was Mary’s kind of love as she turned a second time to the sepulcher she had already looked into.”[27] Just as powerfully, two episodes in the Song of Songs that St. Gregory the Great references in the prior quote, which describe the Bride’s separation from and inability to find the Bridegroom and the intense sorrow that causes, perfectly capture this episode:

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought for him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. ‘I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek           him whom my soul loves.’ I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about the city. ‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’ Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her who conceived me.

Song 3:1-4

and

My beloved put his hand to the latch, and my heart was thrilled within me. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.

Song 5:4-5

One can even see Mary’s interaction with the angels mirrored in the interaction between the Bride and the watchmen. Mary’s love for Jesus involves her entire being, in a sense even consuming herself in selfless love for her Divine Bridegroom. No dangers can separate her from Christ; no doubts cloud her mind except those pertaining to the mysteries concerning His Resurrection from the dead that only He Himself can dispel by His presence (and which He does). Her tears are for Christ, her ointments are for Christ, her loving contemplation is for Christ, her questioning of the angels is for Christ; there is nothing that she has, nothing that she is that is not for Christ. In a sense, then, her faith and her love are rewarded; she is one of the first people to be granted an encounter with the risen Christ. Jesus appears to her in the guise of a gardener and she is unable to recognize him. In what is perhaps the culminating crescendo of Mary’s spiritual journey, “Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to Him in Hebrew, ‘Rab-bo’ni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn. 16-17). In this moment, Mary Magdalene’s love is, in a sense, transfigured; this moment of divine recognition, granted to her as a great grace by Christ, brings to a fulfillment her long journey on earth. The Bride, who has desperately sought out the Divine Bridegroom as the object of her love, finally recognizes Him definitively in the Person of Jesus, specifically in His use of her name. This is echoed both in the Song, when the Bride pleads with her Beloved to hear his voice, “O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it” (Song 8:13), and John 10:3, where Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd: “To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Shocked by His death, His Resurrection dispels all doubts from her mind as to His identity and her love is only strengthened. Jesus’ admonishment to her implies that she was physically clinging to Him, again showing forth the comprehensive manner in which Mary loved her Divine Spouse.

What reading Mary Magdalene’s spiritual journey throughout the Gospels through the lens of the Song of Solomon emphasizes is the necessity of configuring our entire beings towards Christ. Many modern Christians generally approach the life of faith in one of two ways. Either they foster an intellectual faith devoid of sentimentality and pietistic emotions, or they foster a spirituality anchored in subjective emotional experiences and sentimental devotional practices. While much has been written concerning the dangers of developing an overly-sentimental faith to the detriment of anchoring oneself in the objective intellectual truths of the faith, I believe that not enough emphasis is placed on the importance of fostering and directing one’s emotions and passions towards the love of God. This importance is poetically and figuratively typified in the Song of Solomon of the New Testament and given its New Testament concretization in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Clearly, Mary Magdalene intellectually believed in Christ’s power to forgive and redeem her. But Mary also loved Christ in the most human ways possible, like a lover for her Beloved. She waited upon His every word, contemplating each one. She lavished gifts upon Him, especially her ointments. She wept when separated from Him, especially at His death. Only Christ had the keys to her heart’s deepest desires, which He unlocked when He spoke her name outside of the Tomb. Mary Magdalene’s faith was a fundamentally human faith, one that did not reject but embraced the full range of human emotions and passions so as to stoke ever greater fires of love within her. What does this mean for us and our spiritual life then? We should work to integrate all aspects of our humanity into our faith life; doing so will make it easier for us to love Christ and live according to His will. For instance, Mary’s love transformed her into a courageous woman, more courageous than all but one of the Apostles as she stood vigil at Jesus’ crucifixion. That same love disposed her to weep with special pain at His death and burial. In the same way, it is right and just for us to experience emotions when they are directed at the right objects. Since Christ is not present physically on earth as He was with Mary Magdalene, St. Bernard, as Astell notes, advises that we should direct these “affections” towards the “sacraments and sacramentals, the outward signs of God which touch our senses and involve our feelings,” especially Christ as present in the Eucharist.[28] Let us pray that we should have the same desire for union with Christ, in this life and the next, as the Bride in the Song of Solomon and Mary Magdalene both desired their Divine Spouses.


                        [1]Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 4b (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 344.

                [2]Elowsky, 344.

                [3]Elowsky, 343.

                [4]Ann W. Astell, The Song of Songs in the Middle Ages, 1. printing, Cornell paperbacks, Cornell Paperbacks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), 1.

                [5]Scott Hahn, ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary, 1st ed (New York: Doubleday, 2009), 867-868.

                [6]Hahn, 868.

                [7]Hahn, 868-869.

                [8]Astell, 1.

                [9]Astell, 2.

                [10]Astell, 2.

                [11]Astell, 3-5.

                [12]Astell, 2-3.

                [13]Astell, 3.

                [14]Astell, 5-7.

                [15]Astell, 6.

                [16]Astell, 8, 18.

                [17]Astell, 10-11, 7-8, 11.

                [18]Astell, 16-21.

                [19]Astell, 18.

                [20]Astell, 18-19.

                [21]Astell, 19.

                [22]John E. Steinmueller and Kathryn Sullivan, Catholic Biblical Encyclopedia: New Testament, 3rd printing (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1959), 420.

                [23]Pope St. Gregory the Great, Homily 33 on the Gospels, Patristic Bible Commentary, anonymous translator introduction and section 1. Aquinas Study Bible Google Sites, n.d., https://sites.google.com/site/aquinasstudybible/home/luke-commentary/gregory-the-great-homily-33-on-the-gospels.

                [24]Steinmueller, 420.

                [25]Mary Ann Beavis, “‘Reconsidering Mary of Bethany,’” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 74, no. No. 2 (April 2012).

                [26]Astell, 97.

                [27]Elowsky, John 11-21, 344.

                [28]Astell, 97.

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