Sermons from St Faith's   

Mary Magdalene

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday 22nd July, 2018

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an invitation to gloriously vulnerable living. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrate, the first to receive it, found it so unexpected that she struggled.

Three times she had used the same distressed lament, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him”, “Sir, lf you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.” Each was more personal – from “they have done it” to “if you have done it”, from “the Lord” to “my Lord”. Finally, she demanded to do the same thing, “I will take him away.”  Her repeated phrase echoes the similar lament for a lost beloved in the Song of Songs where the beloved has not been taken but has gone of his own accord: “I will seek him”, “I sought him”, “Have you seen him?”   

Mary had seen her Lord cruelly tortured and had bought and prepared expensive spices for the burial rites precluded by the rush to inter the body before the Sabbath. Now all she could hope for, and she hoped for it passionately, was to have the body and to remove it from danger. As a woman, she knew what to do for a dead body; that was women’s work because men wouldn’t make themselves ritually unclean by touching a dead body; they let the women put up with that. All her longing was expressed in that phrase "they have taken away.”

She had been violated, deprived of her responsibility to handle his broken body and wipe his blood, the right to express her love. Then Jesus spoke. We overhear one of the intimate moments in the Bible without knowing how it sounded – what one Biblical scholar has described as one of the most lovely recognition scenes in literature.

What tone of voice did Jesus use when he said that one word, “Mary”, and she replied, “Teacher”? When reading in a service it’s difficult to know how to inflect those two names; it’s worth reading it aloud in private, trying different modulations of voice to hear some of the possible depths of meaning in that world-changing exchange of two names.

In the first of today’s readings from the Song of Songs, in the Song we heard of how the woman found her beloved, held him and wouldn’t let him go until she brought him to her mother’s house. In the Bible, this was the place where marriages were arranged, where commitment was made. Like the lover in the song, Mary’s instinctive reaction was to cling to her beloved. Many artists portray Jesus pulling away to stop her touching him at all, but it sounds more like his attempt to break free from a long embrace. Taking him away to safety wasn’t an option; she had work to do for her teacher, a message to proclaim. So, unlike the lover in the Song, Mary didn’t take her beloved to the safety of her mother’s house; instead he sent her to his brothers’ house to risk their disbelief and with a message to expand their world. He was ascending to his Father and her Father. The world needed to hear her voice, her testimony. She obeyed and went, vulnerable to miracle.

She thought he was the gardener. Once before, God made and cared for a garden and met humans there, enjoying their company, until everything went wrong. Then Adam and Eve were banished from the garden. Cruelly, centuries of tradition had further punished women by maintaining that Eve’s naivety in falling for the serpent’s deceit was evidence enough that women were corruptible, incapable of understanding properly, of bearing witness reliably, so their testimony was considered inadmissible in court.

Now, in another garden and by entrusting Mary to tell the men what she had seen and heard, Jesus destroyed the tradition that silenced women. At Jesus’ birth, Mary was the new life-giving Eve; at his resurrection, Mary Magdalene was the new truth-telling witness-bearing Eve, freed from Eve’s remaining bonds and given bask her voice.

At last men listened, believed and followed her leadership in proclaiming the resurrection. Supposing him to be the gardener … rong could she be, and yet how right could she be.

The sermons index