For Catholics (and other Christians!), the season of Lent, the 40 days of preparation ahead of Easter, begins with Ash Wednesday and a scripture passage from the Old Testament book of Joel, where the prophet sets us on our Lenten course with the words, “Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God” (Joel 2:12). Tears and weeping—the course recommended to us by the prophet, as we begin this season of penance and spiritual preparation for Easter! The figure from our spiritual tradition that comes to mind is St. Mary Magdalene, who in our church at St. Edward in Waterloo IA is depicted in one of our stained-glass windows with a tear coming from her eye.
While some feminist critics have a legitimate complaint about the depiction of Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman, I would like to think about her from a different, and also legitimate perspective: as the role model for all of us who are flawed and weighed down by our failures who, nonetheless are caught in the embrace of divine mercy.
To assist this reflection, we can do no better than reflect upon the painting of Caravaggio, The Penitent Magdalene from 1594-5. In summary, Caravaggio captures well our Lenten (and everyday) journey from ourselves and our futile attachments to things towards the light that is the freedom of God and the Gospel. Looking at the painting, we immediately notice the things that were of former value, strings of pearls and a flask of oil, which are spent and cast away. Instead, she now kneels a posture of humility, her back turned on the things that formerly commanded the attention of her soul. Now, she bows her head in the traditional posture of Christ on the cross, even while the slant of light and white to the top right of the painting, begins to descend into the darkness of this time of penance. The artist seems to be saying: Inasmuch as we follow the penitential path of the cross and turn from things that cannot possibly satisfy the God-sized hole in our souls, the relentless pursuit of God’s Light will find us!
As we wondered during Ash Wednesday Masses, are the tears recommended by the prophet Joel and exemplified in the figure of the Penitent Magdalene tears of sorrow (in her failures and the attachments that dominated her life) or tears of joy (that, now freed from empty pleasures, she now can see that and the One who satisfies the human soul, God, the Light of the World)? What are those attachments whose allure has grabbed us and held us from life, and where is that Light being offered to us that gives clarity and the fullness of Life? #Godsatisfies