Today, in the 1962 Dominican Rite Calendar, we celebrate the feast of St. Mary Magdalen, Protectress of the Order. Though her feast is III Class in the calendar, her office has a complete set of propers as though the feast was actually a II Class feast. The Benedictus antiphon is particularly beautiful:
O lamp of the world and gleaming pearl, who by announcing Christ’s resurrection merited to become the Apostle of the Apostles, Mary Magdalen, be ever our loving advocate with God who has chosen you.
The Gospel reading is Luke 7:36-50 (which is also used on the Thursday in Passion Week), which recounts her washing of the feet of Our Lord when he dined at the house of Simon the Pharisee. The homily is St. Gregory the Great's Homily 25 (from his Homilies on the Gospel), which is a beautiful meditation on Divine Mercy. From “Short Lives of the Dominican Saints” (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1901):
The holy penitent, Saint Mary Magdalen, whose praise is in the Gospel, has ever been regarded as the particular protectress of the children of Saint Dominic, and especially of his Third Order. Our Lord Himself assigned her as mistress and patroness to Saint Catharine of Siena. It is said to have been she who, together with Saint Catharine of Alexandria, accompanied Our Blessed Lady when she brought the miraculous picture of our Holy Father to Suriano. Innumerable passages in the lives of our Saints testify to the love and devotion they bore her.
Tradition tells us that, in the persecution which arose in Jerusalem after the death of Saint Stephen, Saint Mary Magdalen, together with her brother, Saint Lazarus, her sister, Saint Martha, Saint Maximin, who is said to have been one of the seventy-two disciples, and others, were placed by the Jews on a vessel without oars or sails and entirely destitute of provisions, and thus seemed doomed to certain destruction. But God's angels were watching over the little craft and guided it safely to the shores of Provence. The holy company landed at Marseilles, of which city Saint Lazarus became the first Bishop. Saint Martha founded a community of holy women at Tarrascon; and Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint Maximin proceeded to Aix, where the latter fixed his episcopal See. Together they evangelized Provence, preparing themselves for each instruction by prayer and fasting, and confirming their testimony by miracles. But the holy penitent sighed after a life of solitude, that she might sit continually in spirit at those Divine feet which she had washed with her tears and anointed with the spikenard of great price. Our Lord was well content to grant her that "better part," which He had promised should "not be taken from her." He is said to have sent His angels to conduct her to a wild and solitary cave on a mountain-side not far from the shores of the Mediterranean, and now known by the name of "La Sainte-Baume." Here the Saint spent well-nigh three-and-thirty-years in the exercises of penance and contemplation, her life being miraculously sustained without the aid of ordinary food. Saint Vincent Ferrer records the tradition that every day, at each of the seven hours of prayer, the angels raised her in the air to listen to heavenly music and to participate in the Divine Banquet.
At length our Lord appeared to her and sweetly invited her, in return for the hospitality she had shown Him in His mortal life, to enter into the heavenly mansions. She was miraculously conveyed to the oratory of Saint Maximin, where the holy Bishop once more refreshed her spirit with the Bread of Angels; and immediately after receiving it, she gave up her soul to the Master whom she had loved so devotedly. Her holy remains were laid to rest in an alabaster tomb, in memory of that alabaster vase which twice served to guard the perfume with which she anointed the Lord. This tomb was in the crypt in which Saint Maximin himself was afterwards buried, and the place bears his name to this day.
When, at the beginning of the eighth century, the Saracens began their ravages in Provence, which continued some three hundred years, the Cassianite monks, who had charge of the sacred relics, carefully concealed the crypt beneath a mound of earth, and it was not discovered until A.D. 1279. According to a Dominican tradition, in that year the Prince of Salerno, who was a nephew of Saint Louis of France, and afterwards became Charles II., King of Sicily and Count of Provence, was taken prisoner by the king of Aragon and closely confined in the fortress of Barcelona. By the advice of his confessor, who was a Friar Preacher, he commended himself earnestly to Saint Mary Magdalen, the patron Saint of Provence. That night, which was the eve of her feast, the Prince was suddenly awakened from sleep and found the Saint standing beside him. She bade him rise and follow her, together with his suite. She led them safely out of the fortress, and, after they had walked for some little time in silence, she turned and asked them if they knew where they were. They replied that they believed themselves to be close to the walls of Barcelona. "Not so," answered the Saint; "you are already six miles beyond the Spanish frontier, and only one league from Narbonne." Charles threw himself at her feet, saying, "What can I do in gratitude for this night's deliverance?" Then she bade him search for her relics, telling him that he would find them in the Church of Saint Maximin. "You will know my body," she said, "by this token; the forehead is still preserved with the flesh and skin entire on that part which touched our Lord's risen body. You will also find two vessels, one full of the hair with which I wiped His sacred feet, and another with the bloodstained earth I gathered at the foot of the Cross. I desire that these precious relics be now given to the care of my Brethren, the Friars Preachers, who are indeed my brethren, because, like them, I was a preacher and an apostle." With these words she disappeared; and when day dawned, the prince found that he was indeed close to Narbonne.
He lost no time in repairing to Saint Maximin, where he discovered the sacred relics in a box, bearing an inscription to the effect that they had been removed thither in the year 710, for fear of the sacrileges of the Saracens. Charles then founded a Convent of the Order on the spot and entrusted the precious treasures to the keeping of the Friars. Not content with this testimony of his gratitude to his heavenly deliverer, the prince, when he succeeded to his hereditary dominions, founded no less than twelve Convents of the Order, and in all of them it was ordained that a daily commemoration should be made of Saint Mary Magdalen in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.
The Friars Preachers continued to be the faithful guardians of the relics at Saint Maximin and of the sanctuary erected at La Sainte-Baume down to the time of the French Revolution. After the restoration of the French Province of the Order by the celebrated Father Lacordaire, the care of these holy places was once more entrusted to the sons of Saint Dominic, A.D. 1859. Even in our own day they are much-frequented places of pilgrimage.
Grant to us, most merciful Father, that as the blessed Mary Magdalen, by loving our Lord Jesus Christ above all things, won the forgiveness of her sins, so may she obtain for us, through your mercy, everlasting happiness. Through Our Lord…