Patronal Festival, St Mary Magdalene, Evensong, 17th July 2011

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Readings Zephaniah 3.14–end, Mark 15.40-16.7

There was a cartoon in the Daily Telegraph late last week which showed a News International employee arriving back at work from his holidays:

‘I’ve been away for a fortnight. Anything happened?’

When all that will happen has happened, it will turn out to be bigger than one paper or one publisher, and the reforms that follow will bear upon every paper, and on the army of journalists who do a good and decent job. One thing already being talked of is the need to get papers to correct untrue things they say by acknowledging their fault in a way that has the same prominence as that enjoyed by the original claim: if an untruth about you is splashed over the front page, so should the correction and the apology, whether for an honest mistake or for failing to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Someone who deserves a historic apology is the saint whom we celebrate on this our Patronal Festival. Look at St Mary Magdalene in our east window. Whereas St Mary the Virgin has her head modestly covered and is dressed in chaste blue, our Mary’s head is bare and her hair flows free. It is flaxen, but has a touch of red in it, as does her robe. These features reflect the traditional depiction of Mary Magdalene, and they are visual signals that point to the ancient identification of her as a prostitute, the model of loose, wanton womanhood that has now seen salvation. Such a figure gives a clear message: Jesus welcomed – welcomes – everyone; even you promiscuous women have a place in the Lord’s heart.

We see here the old religious obsession with sexual sin – which in its secular form so successfully fuels newspaper sales – but the message is still true, and we need to hear it when, according to the latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, over a quarter of British women under 25 have had more than five sexual partners in the last five years. Stated as a general truth, though, the message lacks force. What Mary Magdalene gives is the angle a good journalist seeks, a human interest story. Interestingly – and why, do you think? – there is no saint to do the job for men, for whom, by the way, the figures are even higher. We could imagine candidates – St Ashley Cole, perhaps – but would they do? There is no shortage of male celebrities who know about seduction, but what do they know of salvation?

Someone who knew about both was John Donne, the seventeenth-century author of ravishing erotic poetry (based on what would now be called hands-on research) who was to become Dean of St Paul’s. Before that, he was Rector of the parish of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, in Kent. Another Anglican poet who lived in Sevenoaks was CH Sisson, who died in 2003. Concerned that the faith of Jesus seemed to cut no ice with the successful commuters catching the London train every morning, he wrote a verse letter to his predecessor. He makes our very point as he says to Donne:

Come down and speak to the men of ability
On the Sevenoaks platform and tell them
That at your St Nicholas the faith
Is not exclusive in the fools it chooses;
That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.

Amen. But where do we see Mary Magdalene as ‘highly sexed’? There are two rather sensual moments in the gospels which are traditionally associated with her:

• in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, while Jesus is at dinner, a woman pours a jar of ointment over his head (Mark 14.3-9, Mathew 26.6-13);
• and in Luke, when Jesus is again at dinner, a woman comes in, wets his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and kisses and anoints them (Luke 7.36-50).

Now Luke’s woman is, we hear, ‘a sinner’ and, from the nudge-and-wink remarks of the other guests, we infer that she is involved in prostitution. But neither story gives us a name, certainly not the name of our Mary.

What we do hear of Mary is that she was known by the name ‘Magdalene’, and so was probably from the Galilean town of Magdala. There is evidence that this multi-ethnic settlement had a reputation as a place of vice, but we know how unfair these whole-town reputations can be. Luke’s gospel says that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8.2), and sexual incontinence was regarded at that time as a kind of possession, but then so were lots of other things. We also know, as we have just heard Mark say, that Mary was among the women who supported Jesus during his ministry (see also Luke 8.2), and all four gospels have her as a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and to his resurrection. And that’s it. No explicit sex. No illicit passion. Nothing to stand the traditional story up.

This makes me sound like the person who ruins the children’s party by telling them how the magician does the tricks, but that’s not my aim. The traditional picture of Mary, the siren who becomes a saint, points to a powerful truth: God accepts your passions and mine, sensual passions, the passions of ambition; they are all the raw materials of sanctity, if we offer them to God; and you don’t have to become a certain kind of person before God or the church of Christ will have you. As a candidate for priesthood in the Church of England once put it to me:

Whatever’s going on in your life – come; and through liturgy and community, through encounter with Jesus Christ, see how it all shapes your life and transforms you.

And that’s wonderfully true, even if our Mary was a person of great modesty, who spent every evening knitting Arran jumpers (or the Palestinian equivalent). In her case, though, the truth is not getting in the way of a good story: the truth is itself a great story, and it has nothing to do with illicit passion.

As our reading from Mark shows, Mary is there at the end and there at the new beginning. Despite the natural tendency to boost the credentials of the male disciples who are to lead the Christian movement, the gospel tradition is very stubborn: among those who stay to see Jesus die is Mary, and she is also among the very first to know the terror and joy of his resurrection. So perhaps she is a woman of passion, after all. When others turn away, she stays; and when others stay away, she turns back, even to the mouth of the tomb. We see there a passionate determination to look at things as they really are, even when the truth looks ghastly and the story is all wrong. That’s why she is the first to see the story come right.

Here is the whole risk of faith. There is so much in the world to set against the Christian hope of glory that many hedge their bets and don’t take Jesus too seriously. Others do take him seriously, but only part of him: they can’t really face the inconvenient truths that show that following Jesus does not always bring a string of happy endings. But there are others who, like our patron saint, are willing to trust with a passion. They try to stand close to where Jesus is, to be open to the glory of God and to the wounds of the world, all at once. And they are the ones who will know the truth of that gospel promise for hard times, that it is those who endure to the end who shall be saved (Mark 13.13).


National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, 2000 (Natsal 2000). Natsal 2000 is the latest study. Natsal 2011 will be published in 2013.

Letter to John Donne

A letter to John Donne
NOTE: On 27 July 1617, Donne preached at the parish chruch at Sevenoaks, of which he was rector, and was entertained at Knole, then the country residence of Richard Sackville, third earl of Dorset.

I understand you well enough, John Donne
First, that you were a man of ability
Eaten by lust and by the love of God.
Then, that you crossed the Sevenoaks High Street
As rector of Saint Nicholas:
I am of that parish.

To be a man of ability is not much
You may see them on the Sevenoaks platform any day
Eager men with despatch cases
Whom Ambition drives as they drive the machine
Whom the certainty of meticulous operation
Pleasures as a morbid sex a heart of stone.

That you could have spent your time in the corruption of courts
As these in that of cities, gives you no place among us:
Ability is not even the game of a fool
But the click of a computer operating in a waste
Your cleveness is dismissed from this suit
Bring out your genitals and your theology.

What makes you familiar is this dual obsession;
Lust is not what the rutting stag knows
It is to take Eve’s apple and to lose
The stag’s paradisal look:
The love of God comes readily
To those who have most need.

You brought body and soul to this church
Walking there through the park alive with deer
But now what animal has climbed into your pulpit?
One whose pretension is that the fear of God has heated him into a spirit
An evaporated man no physical ill can hurt.

Well might you hesitate at the Latin gate
Seeing such apes denying the church of God:
I am grateful particularly that you were not a saint
But extravagant whether in bed or in your shroud.
You would understand that in the presence of folly
I am not sanctified by angry.

Come down and speak to the men of ability
On the Sevenoaks platform and tell them
That at your Saint Nicholas the faith
Is not exclusive in the fools it chooses
That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.

from CH  Sisson Selected Poems; also the New Oxford Book of Christina Verse, ed DonaldDavie, 1981, 1989


The truth about Mary Magdalene John 12.1-8 has what looks like a combination of the Matthew/Mark story and the Luke story. He does give the name ‘Mary’, but this Mary is the sister of Martha (see Luke 10.38-42) and Lazarus, and John makes no link with Mary Magdalene, whom he does mention when he describes the crucifixion and the empty tomb of Jesus (19.25, 20.1,18).

Mary as a supporter of Jesus’ ministry Today’s reading from Mark, Matthew 27.56, John 19.25-27; Mary’s presence is implied in Luke 23.49.

Inconvenient truths Among the culprits here are purveyors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel. See the debate on the website of the American Evangelical journal Christianity Today.

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