“Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”
“In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen”
Before I was ordained, we all had to go down to the cathedral for a rehearsal, and while we were sitting around in the Chapter House, I had a very strange experience. I was looking up at the names of all the Bishops going back over eight centuries. I suddenly felt a fraud-how could I, a woman get ordained? Priesthood was not meant for me – it was only really for men and whatever I did would not be the real thing. It was very odd because I trained as a doctor when medicine was very male orientated and it was hard to make your mark, and yet I never experienced what I was feeling sitting in the cathedral the day before I was ordained.
Quick as a flash one of the others about to be ordained reminded me of the witness and story of Mary Magdalene – the first person to witness the risen Christ, and to recognise him for who he really was. So, this morning I’d like to talk about her life and what she represents, especially for everyone who might feel that they don’t belong or fit in.
But Mary is probably best known for false details and unproven facts in her life. She’s often thought of as a reformed prostitute but there’s nothing in the bible that backs this up. And then again, she is thought to be the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment in Luke’s gospel. But if you read the text carefully this woman is not named. She often gets muddled up with Mary of Bethany, Martha and Lazarus’ sister who sits at Jesus feet and listens to him. So —- she wasn’t a prostitute, she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet and she wasn’t married to him- unless you are a Dan Brown fan. What do we know about her?
The most personal information about her history comes from St Luke’s gospel where she is identified as the woman from whom Jesus delivered seven demons. What exactly these demons were is not clear but often they were associated with mental illness or sexual misconduct which might explain why she is often thought of as a reformed prostitute.
But Jesus healed her and gave her new life, and as a result, she left her home town of Magdala near Tiberias and joined the group of disciples who followed Jesus, a group which included men and women on equal footing which was pretty radical at the time.
And today’s gospel reading focuses on her experience at the tomb on that first Easter morning.
Three things strike me.
Firstly, there is Mary’s capacity to wait. We see in verse 1 that it was early in the morning and still dark when she came to the tomb. The other disciples came when she told them about what had happened and then they ran off. But she stayed, lost, bewildered and longing to be close to the place where the Lord she loved had been laid- whether he was alive or not. She didn’t expect to see Jesus but she couldn’t pull herself away either. She waited. She didn’t let outward appearances deter her from what she was seeking. She wanted to see Jesus even though it looked impossible, so she stayed. She just waited. And in that waiting there is such a depth of understanding of what grief and loss really is about. When something terrible hits us, we are bewildered, lost and do not know where to turn. We want to run away and pretend it’s not happening. And yet sometimes all we can do is wait- trusting that the storm will eventually pass, even though we have no hope or belief that it will.
And she waits on behalf of all the disciples who fled, disappeared or disowned Christ. She’s a real example of what we sometimes have to do- to wait, to hang in with unpromising situations, or relationships or even hang in with our belief and trust in God when He seems most definitely to be very absent. Perhaps we just need to have confidence that waiting is not a cop out – and there may be situations in our own lives that we can’t fix- we simply have to wait and trust.
Secondly what strikes me is her sincerity. She was entirely honest, and when the man whom she assumed to be the gardener asked what she was looking for, she said., “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” She sincerely believed that she could carry Jesus’ adult male body back to the tomb. She knew that if she found his body, she would find the strength to carry him back to his tomb, no matter how impossible it seemed.
That sincerity and trust is quite a challenge to us when we are faced with something that seems incomprehensible or without meaning.
Rowan Williams who was at a conference two blocks away from the twin towers on 9/11, wrote a book called “Writings in the Dust” describing his experiences. The day after the disaster, he came face to face with a furious pilot who demanded explanations of what God was up to. He admitted to feeling completely inadequate in his response. But he also realised the man longed for a god who was “good in a crisis” who would fix things and make them better. It’s so tempting to try and give answers and platitudes rather than admitting that we don’t understand and can’t always make sense of things. But Mary was straightforward and honest, and seemed incapable of hiding what she really felt – her grief, her loss and her confusion.
And finally, I think she offers us a sign of what being genuinely inclusive and welcoming really might mean. It’s easy to be familiar with the story we hear in this gospel – but it is STARTLING. It was a woman who had been one of his closest friends and confidantes who is given the task of telling the message of Christ’s resurrection. It is to a woman that Jesus imparts what Desmond Tutu describes as his most radical and most inclusive utterance when he says “Go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to MY Father and YOUR Father. To MY God, and YOUR God.” Jesus meant us to take this utterly seriously. That although he came into a world fractured, separated, divided into hostile groupings, much as today, he still said
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw ALL people to myself”.
Not some, but all into his embrace of love and compassion- all belong to his Kingdom and no one is excluded. And it is Mary Magdalene – not on paper best qualified by gender, background or temperament, who is called to be the first apostle, giving the startling and challenging message that we his followers now belong to one family, God’s family.
When Jesus calls her by name and she recognises him, she knows at the deepest level that she has been brought to new life, and she cries out “Rabbouni” “Master”. It’s a moment almost heart stopping in its simplicity. It’s a coming home to new hope and new possibility. It’s possibly the greatest recognition scene in history – for she recognises him on behalf of us all. That moment of recognition is the still point of the turning world that changes things for ever.