Today is the Memorial of St Mary Magdalene, a centuries-old feast of the Church. Though it was eliminated in later revisions, the Book of Common Prayer of 1549 (the first version of the BCP) still had a specialized collect in memory of her:
Merciful Father, give us grace,that we never presume to sin through the example of any creature,but if it shall chance us at any time to offend thy divine majesty:that then we may truly repent, and lament the same,after the example of Mary Magdalene,and by lively faith obtain remission of all our sins:through the only merits of thy Son our Savior Christ. Amen.
We're all vaguely familiar with the traditional story of the Magdalene: the down-and-out prostitute who met Jesus, repented of her way of life, anointed His feet with perfume and her own tears and wiped His feet with her hair, became an eminent disciple, and was finally the very first person on record to actually see Jesus after He came back from the dead. Many of us, too, are familiar with the ongoing to debate over which Mary is which in the Bible -- the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the mother of James and John, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary of Magdala, Mary of Bethany ... The traditional picture* of Mary Magdalene identifies her as the (in the text, anonymous) "sinful woman" of Luke 7, probably a euphemistic reference to a career as a hooker,** as well as with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This conflation of figures has been challenged, and even labelled by some people as a smear campaign -- an attempt to discredit the importance of St Mary Magdalene on the part of the Church. Some Christians, too, have seemed to take it in that spirit, insisting that she was, on the contrary, a great saint, and not a former prostitute.
It's that little on the contrary that makes this so problematic. I remember the first time I came across the tradition of identifying the Magdalene being called a smear campaign; I believe I laughed out loud. Didn't the people who took it this way understand, um, Christianity? -- the religion that teaches that forgiveness wipes away all guilt; that forgiven evils can be occasions of joy, because they reveal the divine glory in displaying forgiveness and love, in the midst of evil and in defiance of it? The religion in which Peter and Paul, an apostate and a religious terrorist, are viewed as the height of sanctity and authority in the primitive Church and as authors of holy Scripture? Nor, having read the actual texts in which authors like St Gregory the Great assert the identity of the Magdalene with the "sinful woman," is there any great discrediting in evidence. Quite the reverse: she is hailed as an example of authentic repentance, holiness, and love for Jesus, and even as a model of mystical contemplation.
Now, you could certainly argue that considering the woman of Luke 7 and the Magdalene to be the same person goes far beyond the available evidence of the New Testament, and is therefore bad literary criticism, whether slanderous or not.*** But why the reaction -- not just from those outside the faith, who could perhaps be expected not to get how Christians feel (or ought to feel) about forgiven sins, but even from those within the fold -- that seems to accept that, had they been the same person, it would be a blot on the memory of St Mary Magdalene?
Irrespective of the Magdalene herself, I think this attitude is symptomatic of a larger, subtler problem in contemporary, American Christianity; the doubtfulness over the saint's cause of Dorothy Day, on the ground that she had an abortion before she converted to Catholicism, is another instance of the same thing. It's a kind of Pelagianism, or of Pharisaism, that is willing to know evil only as evil, and never as an occasion of supernatural good; that sees only horror and anguish in the Crucifixion, and not victorious, self-giving love. And so in sins it can see only the sin, or worse, only the embarrassment of being associated with it.
Of course, no professing Christian would actually say that they're embarrassed to be associated with sinners. Instead they say things like You have to be careful of scandal, or If they won't at least keep quiet about it in front of the children, or The people you make friends with say something about your character. Somehow, the fact that these are precisely the accusations flung at Jesus, and that He brazenly disregarded, rarely occurs to them.
How'd this get here?
This too may be why the warm-hearted or disreputable sins, like promiscuity and drunkenness, are so famously unacceptable among Christians in this country, while the cold-hearted, respectable sins, like pride and greed, are not. It has, also, a great deal to do with class: the fact that Christianity and social respectability were ever conflated, as they certainly were in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries in this country, was spiritually disastrous, as it gave a veneer not only of good taste but of good character to the vices preferred by the wealthy.
What's to be done? Well, beyond reading The Power and the Glory, Brideshead Revisited, and The Violent Bear It Away, I don't have a lot of practical suggestions. So, if at all possible, read those books. But remember, the desired outcome is to recognize God in the sinner; to realize that sinfulness, mysteriously, does not prevent the development of holiness -- or rather, perhaps it is not so mysterious, when we consider the simple fact that good is stronger than evil, as God is stronger than nothing; to remember and really believe that God, in His earthly life, deliberately sought ought the company of drunks, homeless guys, corrupt government flunkies, and hookers. If we can't worship that kind of God, we can't worship the God of the New Testament.
"Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply."
-- Flannery O'Connor
*Traditional, at least, in the West. The Christian East has a slightly different outlook on the Magdalene.
**I think hooker or whore are better words than prostitute for this purpose. Because Christianity has been (alas!) socially respectable in this country for many hundreds of years, while at the same time unable to entirely divorce itself from the Scriptures, it's become easy for people to say that Jesus went and spent time with prostitutes and showed them love and forgiveness; easy, too, to say that God loves prostitutes, or even that we love prostitutes, and believe it. It's harder to say "God loves hookers" and believe it, unless you do. It might not be a bad thing, if only as a devotional experiment, to mentally substitute the word hooker for prostitute when reading the Gospels; translators can be rather squeamish.
***My own opinion, though it's purely speculative, is that they were in fact the same person. However, nothing really hinges on it.