Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Many years ago I managed to scrape through the 11 plus exam and went to our local grammar school. It was a single sex school.
As was often the case in those days, some of the masters – especially the older ones – carried slippers in their back pockets in case any pupil stepped out of line. We were called pupils in those days.
You had to bend over while the master gave you a good thwack on the backside. I like to think I wasn’t a particularly bad lad but I got slippered a few times and very painful it was too.
Sometimes they would hit you on the knuckles with the side of a ruler. That wasn’t much fun either.
And the headmaster kept a cane in his study for really serious miscreants, though I can’t remember it actually being used. Mind you, the implied threat was always there. We all knew where it was.
Perhaps the oddest thing to the contemporary mind is that no-one batted an eyelid at the time. Parents, pupils, teachers, we all just thought it was the way things were.
How times have changed. Nowadays, the mere thought of the powerful inflicting physical pain on the less powerful in the name of education is considered nothing short of grotesque.
As the generations roll by, what is seen as acceptable – even laudable – by one generation is sometimes seen as barbaric or foolish by subsequent generations.
That general scenario applies to any number of aspects of human life.
Sometimes later generations will no doubt be right and sometimes no doubt they’ll be wrong, though I like to think that as Christians – falteringly, no doubt – we are slowly gaining a deeper insight into the infinite riches of the gospel and the implications for how we speak and act.
That’s difficult to prove but one thing we can say with something approaching certainty is that in a hundred years from now some of the things that we in our day take to be pretty much self-evident will be considered in their turn barbaric or foolish or just plain odd.
Today we are celebrating Mary Magdalene and views about her have changed in various ways as generations have come and gone. Here are a couple of examples.
When it comes to the old masters, there are any number of depictions of Mary as a penitent prostitute – long flowing hair, a hint of bare flesh – voluptuous yet virtuous, an ideal combination for many a painter.
Now, as I’m sure you’re all aware, there is absolutely no biblical evidence that Mary was a prostitute.
That idea was an inventive conflation of various female characters in the gospels and it seems to have gained traction with Pope Gregory the Great as long ago as the sixth century and held sway for centuries.
Today it has been more or less knocked of its perch and rightly so.
And here’s my second instance of how views of Mary Magdalene can change, this time from our own generation.
Earlier this year a film came out about her, simply called Mary Magdalene. Some of you may have seen it, though it wasn’t around for long.
Now, I don’t suppose anyone involved would say that this film was meant to depict definitively how things actually happened but to my mind it rather too transparently reflected 21st century western preoccupations rather than 1st century Palestine.
In all sorts of ways it embellished with abandon the facts as we know them, portraying Mary as a kind of proto-feminist countering the patriarchy.
Now, maybe she was – who knows – but there’s nothing in the Bible that says or implies that, and the Bible is the only source of secure information we have about her.
By the way I’m not suggesting that women in 1st century Palestine didn’t have a rough time. They most certainly did.
But speculation piled on speculation piled on more speculation does not magically become true merely because we think it would be appropriate if it were.
We are perhaps always in danger of manufacturing a Mary Magdalene – and other biblical characters – in our own image.
Of course we cannot escape the society in which we live and its presuppositions. It moulds the way we even frame our thoughts. We will never know the absolute and full truth about anything. Our knowledge is inevitably limited and often skewed.
But better to know a little truth securely than a lot of truth insecurely, by which I mean a lot of alleged truth – speculation and fragile inference masquerading as truth.
So what do we know, securely, about Mary Magdalene? There are many, many characters in the Bible about whom we have only the barest details.
That applies pretty much to Mary. It can be very frustrating. The temptation to spin inventive yarns is immense.
But, when it comes to Mary, we may not know that much but in my estimation we know enough, enough that we should feel privileged to have her as our patron saint.
We know that she was freed by Jesus from, as the Bible puts it, possession by seven demons.
Well, we don’t know precisely what that means but we can safely assume that not only did she experience at first hand Jesus’ unique powers of healing, she also felt immense gratitude for it.
Her experience led her to becoming a devoted disciple and she began to support Jesus and his followers financially.
We don’t know how wealthy she was but she must have been better off than most because the vast majority of people back then didn’t have two denarii to rub together.
We know that she was present at the crucifixion, that she – along with several other women – had the fidelity and courage to witness their beloved teacher die an unimaginably cruel death.
We know that she – along with the other women – had the fidelity and commitment to go to the tomb early on that first Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus.
We know that Mary – alone this time – was granted the privilege of being the first person to encounter the risen Jesus, that she was charged by him to go and tell the other disciples the momentous news. She became the Apostle to the Apostles.
And that’s it. That’s all we know for sure.
We may only have a few facts about Mary but we don’t need to make things up about her. Those few facts are impressive enough. They won’t change. They speak for themselves and always will – to our generation and to generations to come.