“Boil not the kid in its mother’s milk”: A Mediæval Sermon on St Mary Magdalene

From Honorius Augustodunensis’ Speculum Ecclesiae, a sermon on the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. We have based the Latin text on a collation of the Patrologia Latina (172:979) and the following MSS:

Admont, Benediktinerstift, cod. 131, f. 107v
Graz, Univ. Bibl., Cod. 173, f. 106r
St. Gall, Stiftsbibl. 1075, p. 170
Göttweig, Benediktinerstift, Cod. 104 (rot) / 47 (schwarz), f. 96v
Lilienfeld, Stiftsarchiv und Stiftsbibliothek, HS 140, f. 83v (=images 172)

Read the English below or download a PDF with the English and Latin texts.

The relic of the head of St Mary Magdalene, and below in the crystal tube, the piece of skin our resurrected Lord touched with His finger while saying, “Noli me tangere.” To either side thereof are small relics of Sts Lazarus and Martha. Relics kept in the Royal Basilica of St Maximin, France.

On the Feast of St Mary Magdalene

I came not to call the just, but sinners to penance.[1] Forsooth, dearly beloved, our loving Lord proclaimed by deeds what he preached with words. For He called not the Pharisees and others who contumaciously averred themselves just, but the publicans who humbly pronounced themselves sinners. And so publicans and harlots entered the Kingdom of God before those who called him a friend of publicans. And so He reproached the Pharisee who arrogated good deeds to himself in the Temple, but justified the publican who accused himself of his misdeeds,[2] for He on whom the angels of heaven desire to look[3] came into this world to save sinners. He who is come to seek and to save that which was lost[4] brought many out of the pit of misery and the mire of the dregs[5] of sins. Out of all these, he set the Saint Mary Magdalene before us as the exemplar of his clemency, as today’s Gospel told us. 

We are told she was the sister of Lazarus, whom the Lord raised up from the grave after four days, and of Martha, who often welcomed the Lord into her home. It is said that this Mary was betrothed to a man in the town of Magdalum, but fled from him and settled in Jerusalem, where, heedless of her noble birth and forgetting God’s law, she became a tawdry prostitute. And after she willingly made herself a brothel of ignominy, she became by right a shrine of demons, for seven demons entered her together and constantly harassed her with unclean desires. Her sister took her to the Lord, who expelled the seven demons forthwith, and thus healed she joyfully returned home with her.

Martha reproves Mary for her vanity, Guido Cagnacci, 1660.

Later, the Lord was invited to meat in the house of a certain Pharisee, whose leprosy he had once expelled. When he sat down, Mary, at the instigation of her sister, went up to Him barefoot and bareheaded, carrying precious ointments she had once bought for sordid purposes. She laid herself at the Lord’s feet, grieving that she had lain with so many paramours. Her eyes sent forth springs of water, because they had not kept God’s law.[6] With tears she washed the filth from the feet of Him who washed her, and merited to be cleansed from the filth of her offenses. She wiped the Lord’s feet with tresses she had once braided with gold to allure young men. She devotedly imprinted upon His feet the kisses she had once bawdily offered up to rakes. She anointed the feet of Him who saved her with the ointment she once smeared on her flesh to attract the stench of those basely besotted with her. All she once voluptuously gave up to the service of the flesh she now dolefully turns into a gift for the Lord. And since she once did not blush to wallow in a slough of filth like swine, now she does not fear being embarrassed before the dinner guests. And since there she came upon the very Fount of Mercy, she departed cleansed from all stain. 

Supper at Simon’s house, after Tintoretto

But the poor host is offended that our Lord lets himself be touched by a sinful woman. Now he rebukes not only the sick woman but the doctor as well in his heart, and swiftly the wretch is stricken with the fever of false judgment. But our Lord points out the good he has neglected, and returns the good she has poured out, to teach us thereby that He will take vengeance on all the good we neglect to do, but will reward us for our good efforts. Confuting the malevolent host, he absolves the guilty woman who punishes herself, and True Peace lets her go in peace. She returns rejoicing to her sister, and with the greatest zeal she pours out the rest of her life in chastity. Finally, when our Lord stopped by the house of her sister Martha, who was all abustle in preparing the table, she humbly clove to His feet, and drank His sweet words with a thirsty heart. For amongst the Jews women were permitted to go around with religious men and use their means to serve them in their needs.

Later, as the Lord was hastening to His Passion for the salvation of the world, He reclined at table in the house of the aforesaid Pharisee, where Lazarus was one of the dinner-guests, and Mary poured precious ointment upon His head, signifying that the Church, whom He had anointed with the ointment of the Holy Ghost, came to him with the perfume of virtues. Verily, Judas reproved her action, but the Lord praised it, for the works of the Church are horrible to the reprobate, but acceptable to Our Lord.

As the Lord hung on the cross and the flock of disciples, bereft of their shepherd, fled hither and thither, Mary stood fearlessly by Him and visited him with spices after He was laid in the sepulchre. Hence she merited to see the angel, and the resurrected Lord publicly appeared to her first of all. He sent her as an apostle to the apostles, and just as the first woman gave death to man, so now a woman heralds everlasting life to men. 

Noli me tangere, Veronese

There is another story about her, that after she and the others saw our Lord ascend into heaven, and received the Holy Spirit with them, for the sake of his love she never wished to see a man again, but went into the desert and lived in a cave for several years. Once, a certain priest who had lost his way came unto her, and asked who she was. She responded that she was the sinful Mary, and that he had been sent to bury her body. No sooner had she finished speaking, when dying full of glory she departed the world she had long abhorred. While angels sang a hymn, she went to the Lord she loved much, and who absolved her of much and allowed her to gather lilies in the garden of spices with gleaming white maidens.  

The Passing of Mary Magdalene, José Claudio Antolinez, 1672.

Now as for us, dearly beloved, let us go back and see what is to be done about our trespasses. For the offences of the saints and their penance are written for this reason, that we who have imitated their fall of weakness by rushing into evil, might by their example do penance and, giving up evil, return to the good. But alas! we wretches would fain imitate them in sins, yet shrink from following their example in good deeds. And if, my best beloved, we have hitherto perspired from our evildoing, at least today by the example of this woman let us strive to hide what we have done with the good we will do. For blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.[7] Through baptism original sin is forgiven, whereas by penance actual sins are covered. For what makes us blush in our nakedness, we cover up with an overspread blanket.  

Mary Magdalene by a Lamp, Georges de la Tour, 1644

And so, my best beloved, let us blush to think that the ugliness of our unclean lives is seen by God and His angels, and cover it up with the lamentations of penance and good works. For our sins and trespasses let us offer a sacrifice to God, a broken spirit and a contrite and humbled heart,[8] and beget worthy fruits of repentance. Let us wash away lesser sins with many prayers, and castigate graver sins with weeping, fasts, vigils, and alms. For the Law commands that no kid shall be boiled in its mother’s milk. To boil a kid in its mother’s milk is to assign a light penance to one who, on account of grave sins, has been placed on the left with the goats. We do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk if when condemned by our sins we afflict ourselves with harsh and severe punishments. For we are commanded to deliverourselves to Satan for the destruction of the fleshthat we may be saved in spirit in the day of the Lord[9]Furthermore the people of Israel, when they had gone out of Egypt, conquered their enemies in the very place where they were previously conquered, because when we return to our fatherland out of this world, we can defeat the devil in the same vice by which we were formerly defeated. For a man becomes the slave of the one who defeats him. We must beware lest the devil find us slaves of sin and claim us as if by perpetual right. Yea verily, the Law commanded that if any should sell himself into slavery to another out of necessity, he should go free in the seventh year. But if he refuses to leave his servitude, his master is to puncture his ear with an awl, and thus possess him by perpetual right.

When we, having been vanquished, succumb to concupiscence, we sell ourselves to another as if driven by necessity, since we make ourselves slaves of sin. For whosoever committeth sin, is the servant of sin.[10] But we will be able to go free in the seventh year, because by the gift of the septiform Spirit we will be freed from the devil’s dominion. If any refuses to go free his master shall pierce his ear with an awl because whoever once sold under sin will not freely go out of this servitude to God through penance the devil shall pierce with the sting of death, and owning him as a slave by perpetual right, shall wrack him with everlasting torments.

Therefore, my best beloved, let us imitate Saint Mary Magdalene, cast off the harsh yoke of the devil’s servitude, and take up our Lord’s sweet yoke of true liberty.[11] Let us serve Him to serve whom is to reign[12] in holiness and justice[13] that we may one day be born into that liberty of glory that belongs to God’s sons, which eye hath not seen &c.[14]

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, Caravaggio, 1606.

[1] Luke 5:32.

[2] See Luke 18.

[3] 1 Peter 1:12.

[4] Luke 19:10.

[5] Psalm 39:3.

[6] Psalm 118:136.

[7] Psalm 31:1.

[8] Psalm 50:19.

[9] 1 Corinthians 5:5

[10] John 8:34.

[11] Matthew 11:30.

[12] Postcommunion, Mass for Peace, Deus, auctor pacis, cf. Apocalypse 5:10, 22:3-5.

[13] Cf. Luke 1:75.

[14] 1 Corinthians 2:9. Honorius ends all the sermons in this collection with an evocation of eternal glory, culminating invariably in this verse from St Paul.

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