Saint Mary of Magdala, in debated multiplicity of biblical character, is honored in both East and West as first among the disciples of Jesus. Even the Saints share a variety of ideas on her life as “the woman who was a sinner”, sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, footwasher at Simon’s house, etc. Regardless of the debate, one which continues to add interest to this very day, she remains a supreme model of conversion, servitude and faithfulness for us all.
We do know for certain our Lord cast seven demons out of her, after which she became a faithful and inseparable disciple. Mary Magdalene stood at the very Cross of Christ, witnessed the burial of Jesus, was the first to discover the empty tomb on Easter, and the first to see the risen Lord. (Mk 15:40, Mt 27:56, Jn 19:25, Jn 20:1-18).
St. Augustine, mirroring several before him, gave Mary Magdalene the title “Apostle to the Apostles” for her blessed place as steady and devoted servant, during, throughout and following the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
It is no surprise therefore that in Sacred Art, Sacred Architecture, and Sacred Music, we have been gifted with numerous treasures in honor. Think of the many glorious churches dedicated to her, notably in Italy, Spain, France, and the Americas to name a few.
In Sacred Music, we find a wonderful musical depiction of her quintessential servitude on Earth, with “the other Mary” in Francisco Guerrero’s six-part Motet Maria Magdalene de altera Maria, 1570.
With homophonic mastery, Guerrero was ahead of his time in the use of a through composed, non-repetitive, and highly emotional narrative. The motet has two main sections, a true feast for all the human senses. In the first part, Guerrero transports us with the two Marys to the tomb of the buried Jesus Christ. The scene is vividly painted in sight, sound, touch, color, and most interesting, smell. The sweet embellishment of the words “emerunt aromata” (“they bought sweet spices”) depicts an importance of their loving and virtuous charism to adorn the Divine body. One also receives a colorful sense of time, foreshadowing the Resurrection with the rising of the first morning sun, ushering a new beginning in weekly and Eternal time. The entire first section one can easily hear and feel the simple rising sun, growing in musical and supernatural crescendo, granting light, peace, and newness of life to God’s faithful. The close of the first section completes our initial honor and praise of the Almighty with a well adorned Alleluia, ending in half cadence.
As the stranger speaks (“qui dicit illis, Iesum…”), metrical and harmonic rhythm slow to a suspenseful new sound, again showing the Spanish composer’s mastery of simple, yet emotionally complex use of homophonic musical structure. A series of surprising key changes as well as a gorgeous 20-note flourish in the tenor, ushers in the climax, breaking the news of Jesus’ Resurrection and thus absence from the tomb (“crucifixus, surrexit…”).
May we honor St. Mary Magdalene and follow her example as devoted servant of our Lord, willing to accept present sorrow, face the Cross, and eternally proclaim utmost joy!
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