St Mary Magdalen EF Vs OF by Stan Metheny

I asked my learned friend Stan, if he would kindly write something on the differences between the propers of the extraordinary form and the ordinary form for our patronal feast of St Mary Magdalen (this year we need to sing both sets.) Within minutes (almost) this pinged into my inbox. Stan reveals why we have left behind the medieval portrayal of Mary Magdalen as prostitute and sinner to rejoice in her historic place as the first witness to see Jesus after his resurrection from the dead.

Mary Magdalen(e) [MM] has a long and complex history in Christian writings and devotion. She has been variously identified with almost every woman in the Gospels, except the mother of Jesus. The literature is so vast that the history of the debates about who she was or wasn’t is itself the subject of many books and articles. Like any debate with a long history, some of these are good and many are pure rubbish. I’m obviously not attempting to outline all the facets of this now, but here is a quick & very sketchy overview as relates to the choice of texts in the EF vs. the OF. (And with apologies to those who are well acquainted with the literature.)

The early Greek Fathers spoke of three distinct persons:

  • the “sinner” of Lk 7:36ff
  • the sister of Martha and Lazarus (Lk 10:38ff; Jn 11)
  • Mary Magdalen(e)

On the other hand most of the late patristic and medieval Western writers held that these three were one and the same, most famously expressed in a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in 591. It is impossible to demonstrate without doubt the identity of the three, and in fact, the confusion has been even compounded by the fact that there are several people named Mary in the Gospels, as well as several unnamed women who seem to share characteristics with MM. Most modern commentators have rejected the medieval conflation of the three, and have worked to unravel the strands of legend and hagiography that have become wrapped around her through the centuries to attempt to identify who she really was. Although it’s impossible to draw many. conclusions with any absolute certainty, some of the wilder flights of vivid imagination since the appearance of Holy Blood Holy Grail in 1982 and its woefully pathetic descendant, The DaVinci Code, can safely be dismissed out of hand.

The texts in the EF formulary for her feast reflect the medieval conflation of Mary Magdalen(e) with the sinner of Lk 7:36ff and her image a repentant prostitute. (You will notice even the title of her feast in the Missal and Breviary is that of MM, penitent.) The Introit Me expectaverunt speaks of one who was first a sinner, then repented and understood the new law (=love in the NT) and saw it as her real purpose in life. The Communion Feci judicium extends this idea by speaking of her as one who kept that law faithfully, despite what others who knew her past might say of her. Then, after her conversion, she loved righteousness and hated wrong doing (the Gradual Dilexisti) and was filled with the grace of God’s redeeming love (Alleluia: Diffusa est gratia and the Offertory Filiae regum). Note that many of these propers come from the Common of a Virgin Martyr. This reflects the belief of some early fathers that her virginity was restored after the Resurrection.

OTOH, the OF formulary refers (almost) completely to her role as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection from the dead, following the majority of modern commentators in rejecting the medieval view of her as the repentant sinner/prostitute. This scene, popularly known as the Noli me tangere, is a very popular one in Christian art, especially in the Renaissance, and is the inspiritation for the choices. The Introit Tibi dixit is that for the two feasts of the Transfiguration (6 August; 2nd Sunday of Lent) as she was the first person to see the Risen Lord in his glorified body. The Gradual Audi filia is a reference to details of that encounter with its vide et inclina aurem tuam. Mary saw Jesus only after she listened to his voice. The Alleluia speaks of the risen Lord’s appearance to Peter, as MM carried the news to him before he saw Jesus for himself. The Offertory’s text of levabo manus meas refers to her reaching out her hands to touch Jesus, the light for which she had kept vigil, which action precipitated his cautionary response, Noli me tangere. The Communion Notas mihi again refers to her joy in seeing Jesus face to face.

The ethical demands of the OF texts, then, are somewhat different from those of the EF. We are challenged to seek the face of the risen Lord. Although we cannot now do that directly as MM did, we can see him in one another. And what we see, we are called in the Collect to proclaim to the world as His witnesses. (…Christum viventem praedicemus, et in gloria tua regnantem videamus.) 


6 thoughts on “St Mary Magdalen EF Vs OF by Stan Metheny

  1. Stan Metheny says:

    BTW, a study of the contrast in her Office texts in the two forms of the Roman rite would make a fascinating study for a doctoral dissertation. Perhaps some energetic doctoral candidate who has the time and resources will take up that challenge.

    • Thomas Windsor says:


      I have found a large number of Office Hymns in honour of St. Mary Magdalen, I hope to proofread and correct the OCR errors and put them up on the website sometime before the feast. These would be a far more fascinating comparative study.


      • Stan Metheny says:

        Yes, the hymns of the Office are fascinating indeed. I would only caution against studying one element of the liturgical text in isolation from others in the formulary. Although some argue that liturgical formularies should be grouped with ‘laws and sausages’ (things one should never examine too closely being made ;), more often the case is that various elements in the formulary are chosen to balance and/or explain others and are best understood in the context of the whole.

        To be fair though, as I wrote that comment, I was actually thinking that the subject is too large for one dissertation. Most likely the advisor would suggest the candidate take a subset of the Offices as the topic.

  2. Thomas Windsor says:

    I find it interesting that the modern commentators find it so easy to say that St. Gregory the Great was mistaken at best or even wrong. Some have even accused the Mediaeval scholars of being so narrow minded, as to deliberately accuse Mary of being a prostitute, to diminish her (and women in general) role in the Church. This accusation is completely false as only a small amount of research would show.

    These modern commentators admit that they can produce no evidence either way, but are narrow minded enough to believe that their view is better. Perhaps due to the false idea of the “enlightenment”; that we are better than previous generations.

    Over the history of the Church many records and manuscripts have been lost, we do not know what manuscripts St. Gregory the Great and other Mediaeval scholars, had to base their opinion on. They may well have had a greater range than we have today.

    Until we prove otherwise perhaps we should give St. Gregory the Great the benefit of the doubt.

  3. Stan Metheny says:

    You make good points. At great personal cost, I have long been a proponent of the approach of Pope Benedict in his new works on Jesus of Nazareth that it makes more sense to look for the rational basis for the text of Scripture as we have it than to concoct wild theories to explain this or that anomaly or problem for the modern mind. So generally, mutatis mutandis, I would apply that principle to the saints. I think it is reasonable to give some benefit of the doubt to ‘tradition’ (lower case) and even to a basis in fact for many legends of the saints until proven otherwise. The old Catholic Encyclopedia lays out the case for the West believing the three to be the same person. However, in this matter, there is also ample evidence to support the position of the Greek Fathers. After some years of study of the question and the related literature, I don’t see that one can ‘prove’ either the Eastern or Western position. The objective in my quick and dirty reply to Clare’s question was simply to explain the reasoning behind the clear difference in the two chant formularies for the Mass of the feast, and not get into much detail on the arguments for the positions.

    • Thomas Windsor says:

      Having now found over 30 Hymns to St. Mary Magdalen, it does seem rather a large topic.
      I am a scientist so know little about dissertations in Hymnology… but I have read a very good one that took on the Office Hymns of the Dominican Rite, lots of material was left out but it gives a good overview. I would like to see more of these general articles, for the other Offices (the Roman Rite is well served by two excellent books; Britt and Connelly)

      Your original mail to Clare gave a good over view of the texts, I just like pointing out the flaw in the modern commentators argument.

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