Preacher The Revd Anna Macham – Succentor, Southwark Cathedral & Chaplain, Guy’s Campus, King’s College London
Readings 2 Corinthians 5.14-17; John 20.1-2, 11-18
What a shocking reading that is. Who would have thought that the message of the resurrection from the dead, pictured so dramatically by Zechariah and Daniel towards the end of the Old Testament as the righteous rising out of their graves into the heavenly realm, that great cosmic victory over the powers of sin and death that Paul and John tell us has been won in Christ’s rising again, should be announced first of all to a woman? And not just any woman, but a sinful woman. And in a garden of all places.
Mary Magdalene, the woman who had had seven demons cast out of her and was brought to faith, the woman of independent means who supported Jesus in his ministry and remained loyal until the end, whom we consider today on your patronal festival, was the first to see the risen Christ. Jesus apparently interrupts his journey of ascent to the Father in order to make this appearance before her: not, then, in the heavens, but in a quiet, deserted garden in the early hours of the day when it is just starting to get light and no one else is about yet. In that most touching and personal of encounters, he calls her by name, as God called Moses of old, and gives her an extraordinary commission: “Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God””.
This year, as I’m sure you know, we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James translation of the Bible. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who is buried in Southwark Cathedral, where I work, and headed up one of the companies that translated the different sections of the Bible, later wrote a wonderful Easter sermon in praise of Mary Magdalene. Andrewes is more famous for his evocative Christmas sermon about the journey of the magi, whose opening lines, “A cold coming they had of it” are quoted almost word for word in the opening of T S Eliot’s poem of the same name. But in his Easter sermon, he is drawn to this very human character in the resurrection story. “That to a woman first, it agreeth well, to make even with Eve,” he writes; “that as by a woman came the first newes of death; So, by a woman also might come the first notice of the Resurrection from the dead. And the place fits well: for, in a garden, they came, both”.
When we consider Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, what usually comes to mind isn’t Jesus’ commission to her so much as the words that precede it: “Do not cling to me for I have not yet ascended to my Father”, words immortalized in the famous medieval painting entitled Noli me tangere (Do not touch me), in which Mary is shown in a kneeling position stretching out towards Jesus to touch him, while Jesus, standing withdrawn, prohibits her with a majestic gesture of the hand from coming near him. This unfortunately creates the impression that if Mary were to touch Jesus, she would contaminate him with her human, specifically female, hands, an impression only reinforced by the fact that Jesus later invites Thomas to touch and feel him. But for Andrewes, Mary’s significance and enduring reputation lie not in her reluctance to let Jesus go- but in her privileged status as one entrusted by him with a message to share. Of course, anyone is blessed if they see Christ, he says. But what really marks her out is “to be employed in so heavenly an errand”.
Why was Mary chosen to share with the other disciples the news of the resurrection, at a time when a woman’s testimony was considered invalid? What is impressive about Mary is her passion, the human love that compelled her to stay beside Jesus as he hung, dying, on the cross, when all the other disciples had fled. It was that same loyal courage in the face of suffering and death that led her, in the early hours of the Easter morning, to go back to the grave at great personal cost , when it was dangerous to do so and the disciples stayed behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. There is an impassioned, empathetic quality to her love that is attractive, that remains steadfast where the love of others who have seen Christ has grown cold and lacklustre; as Andrewes puts it, “our love, it is dry eyed, it cannot weepe, it is stiff-joynted, it cannot stoupe to seeke”.
Mary appeals to us precisely because she is so human. Coming from the town ofMagdala, a town under Roman occupation with a reputation for bloody uprising, she would have already seen violence in her life before she became a follower of Jesus. She would have experienced many things. And just as she received healing from Jesus herself, perhaps from mental illness, so she reminds us that we all stand in need of God’s healing, reconciling presence in our lives.
In Magdala, unusually, Jewish and Greek culture lived side by side; different nationalities came to trade there, and Mary would have been at home in this mixed society. In the message entrusted to her, Mary proclaims the welcome God gives to all people, regardless of status or nationality into his family. “Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God””. We are so accustomed to the formality whereby Christians address one another as “dear brothers and sisters in Christ,” especially in liturgical settings, that we miss the impact of this message and its newness at the time it was uttered. Because of the resurrection, we have a new status as children of God- Jesus’s father is Mary’s father and our father. That means we are now brothers and sisters. Therefore we have to relate in much the same way as children relate who share the same father and mother, one family where all are welcome, where all can receive healing and new status as God’s children, regardless of where they have been or what they have done.
In this Eucharist today, we have the opportunity to enact our desire to be part of this family. As we come together around God’s table in a few moments’ time and receive heavenly food that heals, sustains and renews us, we proclaim the love of God that unites us in one body as brothers and sisters, children of the same heavenly Father or Mother. We come as an ordinary congregation before God, with our faith and our doubts, our strengths and our weaknesses: and God, if we let him, welcomes us as his children, heals us and gives us a message to proclaim.
I am not sure what part of that message God wants to entrust you with, but whatever it is, I feel sure it will be part of the message he longs to entrust to every congregation. He wants to draw you together so that everyone is cared for as brothers and sisters to Christ and hence to one another. He wants you, in your human love and care for each other to be fitting bearers of this message of the resurrection, building a family in which all voices are heard and all people honoured. He wants you to be one with the other churches, so that all can see you are one person in Christ. He wants you to be a beacon in this community, to shine with the light of Christ that blazed on Mary on that first Easter morning, so that people know this is somewhere that life itself takes place, where people are paid the compliment of being listened to as they tell their story, where relationships are healed, where grace is astounding.
God is entrusting you with an extraordinary message, if only you will have the courage to proclaim it. He longs to involve all of you, from those who are here for the first time today and those who think you’ve been here the longest, to those who have never been singled out before and he wants to give you, too, an extraordinary message to speak out. He wants you to be so unabashed in your love for him that others are compelled to hear the good news you embody.
So what part of this message will you proclaim?
Will you dare to continue the work of Mary Magdalene: to risk being disbelieved, to risk pain as you stand alongside those who suffer, and not run away; to risk your reputation being maligned? Will you dare to follow her and proclaim God’s fatherly/ motherly message of welcome for all people? Will you dare to be reconciled with your brothers and sisters, treating all according to their status as children of God, with no place for superiority or inferiority complexes? Above all, will you dare to follow her by resolving not to be silent, but teaching others and speaking of your experience of the risen Christ, and the difference that makes in your life? Will you dare to act, like her, as agents of God’s revelation in the world?