A sermon for the Feast of St Mary Magdalene
2 Corinthians 5.14-17 & John 20.1,2,11-18
The reading from St John’s Gospel in which Mary Magdalene meets Jesus after the Resurrection (John 20.1-18) is one of my favourite, if not my favourite Bible reading. Mary Magdalene was known as someone with ‘problems’. According to the Gospels of Luke and Mark, Jesus cleansed Mary of seven demons. And in later tradition in the churches of the West, Mary Magdalene has also been identified as the Mary who anoints Jesus, the woman who used to be a prostitute. Although this tradition cannot be deduced directly from the Scriptures, it has been persistent in history.
Whether or not this was true, I think it is fair to say that Mary was someone on the fringes. Not least because she was a woman. I won’t by any means preach a feminist sermon, but I think it is significant that it is not Jesus’ disciples who are the first witnesses of the Resurrection, but Mary, a woman, a minority if you like, someone who was in some sense an outsider.
Also, I think, Mary is someone without much faith in herself. On that first Easter morning, when she sees that the stone has been rolled away, the first thing she does is run to Peter and another disciple, presumably John. We then omit a few verses this morning, where we read how Peter and John believe when they see the empty tomb. But they don’t meet the risen Jesus. No the first one who meets Him is Mary.
Mary returns to the empty tomb. Probably not knowing what to expect, not knowing what she is looking for. She is confused. ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him’. She stands there, weeping, confused, lonely and deserted.
And then that question. Woman, why are you weeping? First, it is the angels who ask it. Woman, why are you weeping? Mary replies ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him’. She knows, she has lost the one whom she loved. She grieves and she hurts. And she doesn’t know. She knows He is gone, but not where they have laid him.
I think it is a common experience for those who grief. There is the pain, the loss, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. We know it hurts, but we do not know precisely where or why. Something, someone has been taken away, we feel the emptiness, and we don’t know where to look any longer. We go back to a place, a time, where we thought we would find something, but nothing seems to be there.
Then, Mary turns around and sees a person standing right behind her. He repeats the question ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’, and this man, he adds ‘For whom are you looking?’. Because he knows, it is not something, but someone she is looking for. Mary, in her confusing and desperation, I imagine, almost shouts to him ‘If you have carried him away, tell me, tell me where you have laid him, tell me where he is!’. And then Jesus makes himself known. He speaks her name: ‘Mary’. Mary.
She is known and suddenly she knows. She has found the one for whom she is looking. In that moment, all fear, all desolation, all pain is gone. But she needs to be reminded: you cannot hold on to me. I need to go and you need to trust. Every time I read and hear this story again, I feel that Mary represents me, us, when we are most vulnerable, when we are at our worst, confused, desolated and hurting. And every time, also I need to be reminded that God is there. God who calls us by name, God who knows us, and God who is there even when we didn’t notice.
But something is asked of us as well. And that is that we need to keep looking, and at times that may mean that we need to go back to those places where we feel our loss the most; places where we don’t quite know what we are looking for or what we will find.
When Mary saw the empty tomb, her first reaction was to run away. And to tell others, to get others, to try to find out what had happened. It is not quite clear if Mary joins Simon Peter, and the other disciple, presumably John, when they run to the empty tomb. To me it seems she stays away until they return to their homes.
It was not until she returned, on her own, that she found Jesus, the one for whom she was looking. Please don’t get me wrong, I think that others are immensely important in our lives and spiritual journeys, but there are certain things we need to discover, experience, find for ourselves. Others can support us, encourage and inspire us, but they cannot substitute that which we are longing for.
St Augustine said so powerfully that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. And I think that is true. We as human beings are made to long, to desire, to search for something which ultimately we cannot find in this life. However, we can certainly see glimpses of it. But just like Mary, we won’t be able to hold them tight. We can only enjoy and cherish them, and know where from whom they are and remember what they felt like.
How and when do we see those glimpses? I think most of us know when we have done. But one way, certainly, is explained by St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, which we heard this morning. If we regard no one from a human point of view, but as a person in Christ, a person made in the image of God, if we see a person not with our eyes, but as God sees him or her, then we see a glimpse of what Christ himself is, a glimpse of the promise that lies before us.
Last Summer, the BBC presented the series ‘Broken’. The series features Sean Bean as a Roman Catholic priest in a deprived area in the North. The episodes span a few days of his life and ministry in his parish, and how he struggles and tries to be Christ to others. We see how by being who he is, a broken person, imperfect and fallible. But also, he is a person, made in God’s image, and trying to follow Christ and be alongside people as good as he can.
When measured to human standards, Fr Michael, as the priest is known, is rather feeble, a bit of a failure. But when seen through the eyes of God, he is loving and loved, cared for and caring, trusting and trusted. He is who he is, and by being so, he shows what is means to be Christ-like. And so is true for Mary Magdalene, and for us ourselves. We’re not perfect, but when we dare and trust to be who we are, we will be Christ to others. And we only have to look around us to see what this means. See the person God created in the other and by so doing, also learning to see the person God created in ourselves. Amen.