Almighty God, whose Son restored Mary Magdalene to health of mind and body and called her to be a witness to his resurrection: forgive our sins and heal us by your grace, that we may serve you in the power of his risen life; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
‘I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
Song of Solomon 3:1–4
1 As the deer longs for the water brooks, •
so longs my soul for you, O God.
2 My soul is athirst for God, even for the living God; •
when shall I come before the presence of God?
3 My tears have been my bread day and night, •
while all day long they say to me, ‘Where is now your God?’
4 Now when I think on these things, I pour out my soul: •
how I went with the multitude
and led the procession to the house of God,
5 With the voice of praise and thanksgiving, •
among those who kept holy day.
6 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, •
and why are you so disquieted within me?
7 O put your trust in God; •
for I will yet give him thanks,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
8 My soul is heavy within me; •
therefore I will remember you from the land of Jordan,
and from Hermon and the hill of Mizar.
9 Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfalls; •
all your breakers and waves have gone over me.
10 The Lord will grant his loving-kindness in the daytime; •
through the night his song will be with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
2 Corinthians 5:14–17
Early 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. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:1-2, 11–18
Sermon on Sunday remembering Mary Magdalene
Mary Magdalene – or do we call her after the Oxford college “maudlin”? – is the subject of our reflection today. I rushed to my bookshelves to retrieve a book to help me understand this saint – but it was not the Golden Legend, my favourite miscellany of saints’ lives from the middle ages, but The Last Temptation of Christ from last century on which my hand fell.
The novel is Nikos Kazantzakis’ ruminations on the life of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene figures prominently in his telling of the story. It caused a great controversy when it first appeared. As I remember it, many parts of the Greek Orthodox church and other churches, east and west, condemned the author for his blasphemy. But why is a meditation on the life of Christ the cause of such vehemence? Don’t we do this every day? Don’t we wonder why? Don’t we consider the reality of the passion as it relates to our own lives? Well, I suppose we don’t all publish novels based on our meditations, do we? We are rather quiet in our considerations of the root of our happiness.
But let’s think about the work of this novelist in the light of the literary tradition in Greece from the earliest times. The early playwrites, like Sophocles and Euripides, took the stories of the tradition and told them anew, to their own generations. I think this is what Kazantzakis is doing for our time. In fact this is what I do whenever I step up here in front of you – I try to convey the wonder of the story of our Lord and Saviour as I speak to you. Are we so very different to one another?
Don’t the Greek playwrites, that novelist and all the preachers standing in pulpits throughout the world try to convey the marvellous story of salvation through the many characters who populate the saving history? Don’t we all talk in our own words in order to share the joy of what we have experienced at the hand of God? I think we all do, whether we acknowledge it or not, for whatever we say is grounded in that story, even if we don’t use the language of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church in our everyday speech.
Let us not be ashamed to speak of the many characters in the saving history which we know for ourselves. Today we are considering just one of the many saints who tantalise us with the reality of the better life with God in Christ. And I think that is what Kazantzakis did when he wrote his novel – he considered the teaching, the miracles and the passion of Jesus Christ and tried to explain it to himself. This novelist was very generous, for he shared his thoughts with the world so that we too could get closer to the “end of humanity” – the purpose of life.
In his prologue he writes:
The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God, or, more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him – has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me … . Every man partakes of the divine nature in both his spirit and his flesh. That is why the mystery of Christ is not simply a mystery for a particular creed: it is universal. The struggle between God and man breaks out in everyone, together with the longing for reconciliation.
So – Mary Magdalene, that character who was so important in the novel, becomes important for us today in our reflections – who was she? Well, we really don’t know. Mary is named in the gospels; she was so generous with that fragrant ointment; and we know she was in the garden at the end of the gospel story. However, that is all we know. Later tradition paints her a harlot, which our collect recalls, if not in so many words. Perhaps she was – perhaps not – after all, how could she afford all that perfume? We really don’t know anything at all about her life outside of these few references. Let us just remember that she was the first to “see the Lord” – we should let our reflections begin at that point in the story, when she went to the disciples to announce her news.
The Church has told this old, old story time and time again – every moment we recite the history of Mary up to this point – the now – this very moment we experience. The human being is caught up in temporality, trying to figure out the whence and the whither of life because of now.
We participate in the past, in all its decrepitude as well as all its glory, and here we stand at the threshold. Where are we about to go? Here must be where Mary Magdalene finds herself as she blurts out that shocker of news to the disciples who had not even bothered to get up that morning. After all Mary is on her way back when she meets them. Mary was the one there to see and now she wants to tell.
Our lives are very curious with regards time – we wonder about how the past and present mix to lead us to the great unknown, the future.
Is this what the gospel is all about? That our salvation is out there before us, not in the codifications of the past, the moments passed over. Our salvation is out there because we can say, “We see,” and we are glad to talk about our vision for the sake of moving forward with all those milling around us.
But what does all of this have to do with Mary Magdalene? She has seen! Hasn’t she seen the Lord, alive and walking in the garden – shades of that other garden, don’t you think? What would you do if you had been Mary in that paradise garden? Doesn’t your heart burst to tell the good news?
Just because no one wants to listen does not mean that you don’t want to share it. That is when the crowd determines us, and we all know that faith lets us stand apart from the crowd, that we can do what is right and good despite the fact that no one else would dare to because, as they say, “No one does any good,” or “Don’t make waves.” Mary’s declaration of the news, that very good news, sets her apart from the crowd which is despondent, the crowd without energy for the future.
Mary Magdalene should give us hope, shouldn’t she? Hers is a mention or two in the bible, but look at how she has been remembered. She acted before anyone else on that dark morning and she was rewarded. She stepped from the past into the freedom of the future.
We should all have her courage. We should all want to step over that threshold to make that leap of faith now and forever.