Reading Mark 15:40-16:7
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
This evening’s Gospel reminds us of the centrality of females in the Christian narrative. They were instrumental in the story of the first Easter, for it was the women who stayed with Jesus to the end of his life on Good Friday, when most of the men had scarpered. And it was the women who went to the tomb early on that Sunday morning, intending to care for Jesus’ body. Key among this group of women was Mary Magdalene, whose festival day falls this Tuesday, but which this church keeps today. She stands in a long line of women who play such a central role in the Jewish/Christian story. Looking back to its beginnings, there was Sarah, the mother of the Jewish nation, who became pregnant when she was a pensioner. Also in the Jewish scriptures, it was a group of women – Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter among them – who all conspired together to prevent the infant Moses from being slaughtered. Then there was Esther, whose bravery saved the Jewish people from extermination, and the moving story of Ruth, whose love and loyalty brought back fullness of life to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi.
And on into the NT, we encounter Mary the mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist; the poor widow, who gave Jesus a model for generosity; the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and gave him a model of love and devotion; the Syro-Phoenician woman who challenged Jesus to confront racism; Joanna and Susanna who put their homes at Jesus’ disposal and, as we honour today, Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. These women find their lives turned upside down as their hearts are gripped by God’s mysterious presence, and they discover a sense of direction to which they have no choice but to be obedient.
It seems that from earliest times, God demonstrates that all women are called to an active role in the unveiling of God’s kingdom of true justice. All the more ironic, then, that theological and ecclesiastical history demonstrate that women’s stories have often been airbrushed out of the picture. We owe a huge debt to feminist theologians who have helped to unearth them and reinstate them to their rightful place. Also ironic is that it has taken so long to get to the decision on women bishops in the C of E., though it finally got there last Monday. As a male, it pains me to say that it is male-dominated cultures which have frequently ensured that women’s stories didn’t get told, or were sanitized, or were moulded to fit a particular feminine stereotype. I don’t know about you, but when I look back on those who have shaped my faith, it is often women who played the really essential roles. Sadly, not many of them are still alive, but what they did, said and lived will always stay with me and be part of me. Women are indispensable in the divine narrative. In fact, although we don’t often mention it, the feminine is part of the divine, even in traditional Christianity
In Western tradition, for most of church history, the notion of God having a feminine side has been quite alien. God is more often perceived in terms of king, lord, or tough warrior than nursing mother, which is why I welcome some modern liturgies which seek to broaden our understanding of the divine through using different imagery. One of the newer Eucharistic prayers speaks of God as a mother who tenderly gathers her children. Actually, in Scripture, there are both masculine and feminine connotations around the figure of God. But perhaps most important of all is this fact. We 21st century Westerners can easily miss a point which would certainly not have been lost on 1st century Jews. And that is that the Holy Spirit – the spirit who, in Jewish thinking, was present at creation, and the one who brought life alive in the womb, the one we routinely refer to as ‘he’- was always, in both Hebrew and Aramaic (the languages Jesus knew) distinctly feminine. In short, from the beginning, ‘he’ was always ‘she’! And, for that, thanks be to God, our creator, redeemer, nourisher and sustainer. And thanks, too, for the often maligned and misrepresented Mary Magdalene, because if ever there was a true apostle, it was Mary.