Readings: Song of Solomon 3: 1-4; Psalm 42: 1-10; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-17; John 20: 1-2, 11-18.
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be forever pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
“On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”
Mary’s story is one of high emotion and reliance on and commitment to the life of a disciple. Her reaction to Christ’s death is not the reaction of someone who has lost an acquaintance or someone they respect. It is the despair of someone who has lost someone who is incredibly important to them; someone whose loss changes their life. This is a story of bereavement, charged with the despair and confusion we all feel when confronted with the death of a loved one.
However, the Gospel is rightly named Good News because it doesn’t end there. Unlike the story of John the Baptist which we heard last week, after Christ died, he came back.
And when Mary encounters the risen Christ her emotion, though not so explicitly expressed in the text, is easily imagined. Her shock in recognition of her Lord expressed in that single word “Teacher.” Her joy in finding her life has meaning again in her dedication to her task to tell others of what was happening and her addition of “I have seen the Lord.”
There’s something slightly uncomfortable about all this. Intensity of emotion is not something we really tend to associate with the practice of Christianity, at least as we know it in Britain. On one hand this is because we’re not living through the events of Easter itself. Probably the closest we come is in our Holy Week and Easter celebrations, especially through the Maundy Thursday vigil and the Good Friday liturgy. Even then, the Easter story is one we know: we know the outcome, and so we’re not so emotionally invested in the tragedy or the joy.
On the other hand, there are times when you wonder whether we have too much pressure to moderate and even suppress our emotions in church. I’ve known people apologise for crying in church, and I think we all know the temptation to put on our ‘Sunday face’ for when we meet our brothers and sisters in church. When you’re asked how you are, is ‘fine’ or ‘well’ a sincere answer? Is the question a sincere question? How do we engage or cope with emotion in church? Where are the boundaries of appropriate emotion?
Mary Magdalene is an emotional character in the Gospels, and it would be easy to say that it’s because she’s a woman, or because she’s emotionally unstable, or for some other contextual reason we might think of. But if we say that then we miss a really important point. She is an emotional character in the Gospels because her faith and her relationship with God excite these emotions in her.
And I’d even go so far as to say she is emotional because she is in tune with and is returning the intensity of emotion that God shows for her, and for us.
The words of the Song of Solomon are intense and intimate, and even if we choose to read them as allegory rather than love poem, we are left with some passionate and intimate imagery.
The most fascinating reading I’ve heard of this bit of poetry, however, is that it is intended to describe God’s desire for Jerusalem, for his chosen people.
Psalm 42 seems to echo much of the sentiment, but in this case quite certainly from the point of view of a human towards God and saviour, and in this case a less joyful and exultant version. Here we have more desperate and despair-filled emotion.
So what do these two poetical texts tell us? For me there are two important lessons: firstly that the full range of human emotion is appropriate for our encounter with God. We do not have to be on a nice even keel in our approach to God. Secondly: that God views us with an intensity of emotion as great or greater than anything we know. We sometimes say ‘God is love’ but this reading from the Song of Solomon tells us that the love of God is passionate and powerful.
We can see it is appropriate to feel strong emotion in our faith, as Solomon and the Psalmist did; and we can it is appropriate to display those strong emotions, as Mary Magdalene did. Now we might still find ourselves uncomfortable with that kind of idea, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong. It might mean we’re suppressing something that could be healthy for us, but it might also mean we’re just not made that way. Which answer is right for you depends on you: only you can make that judgement. You don’t have to be emotional to be a follower of Christ: what matters more is what your life is lived for.
You see, the reading from the epistle tells us that Christ died for all: not just a particular type of person. Whether you are strongly emotional or not and whether you display these emotions or not, Paul tells us that “Christ died for all, so those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” Instead of living our lives for ourselves, we are to live them for God: which means living, like Christ, for everyone.
I saw this the other day watching ‘The Secret Millionaire’: there was a woman who had been running a soup kitchen for twenty years. She said the important thing that enabled her work, the thing at the heart of her faith, was to love people. That is what Christ does, that is what we are called to do.
And that is what Mary Magdalene does in our Gospel. She starts off in a state of grief which, as grief so often does for all of us, blinded her to what was around her. Her grief was so blinding she didn’t even recognise Jesus at first. But when she did recognise him and when she experienced the joy of his return, her emotion then did not stop her from following his lead, or from telling others about him. The joy of Mary at the resurrection led her to exult to all she met: “I have seen the Lord.”