Sermon for St. Mary Magdalene Sunday 22 July 2012
John 20. 18. Mary Magdalene announced to the disciples, I have seen the Lord.
The Da Vinci Code was right about one thing. in the case of Mary Magdalene, whose feast we celebrate today, there has been a cover-up. So it’s time to meet the real Mary Magdalene, the apostle they didn’t want us to meet. But we need to put the record straight: there have been three casese of identity theft.
First, there’s the Dan Brown phenomenon, the Mary Magdalene thriller, the holy man and the girl friend, churches at risk from burning down because they’ve lit all the candles to get a good shot; all nonsense, but it’s fascinating that Mary Magdalen should enter public consciousness at this stage of history, after centuries of ignorance. Maybe she has something to say to us.
The second cover-up is by the institutional Churches, by letting it get around that Mary Magdalene was a reformed prostitute. There is no evidence whatever for this. She had her demons, but don’t we all? Why did the Western Church encourage the lie of the fallen woman, with nods and winks down the centuries, that’s the question. I think it’s because the early Church was rather disappointed in Jesus. For all his teaching, Jesus hadn’t turned out like John the Baptist –Jesus’s background was the same, holy men were supposed to be strict, pure, ascetic – that was supposed to be Jesus’s career path, but it didn’t turn out that way. Jesus defied all those ritual taboos, and went his own way because he knew that purity of heart came from within a person, not from without, and that means you could have friends, women friends, anyone, tax collectors and sinners, even you and me – you can let go, you can let be, give yourself to others, this is My Body given for you. So he had a friend called Mary Magdalene. But we can see how such a friendship, whatever form it took, threatens a line of early Popes, and later a celibate priesthood, because it suggests that the founder of the religion (something Jesus would never have claimed for himself) was human and had a girl friend. So what do you do? You change the relationship, from companions or friends, to therapist and client. That creates a distance. So Mary Magdalene becomes the repentant sinner, the fallen woman raised up by the holy man, and ever so grateful and in his debt, but she tends to hang around, so we’ll put a stop to that, and by the time Luke writes the Acts of the Apostles, Mary Magdalene has become just one of the women disciples in the background. Do you see how it’s done? It’s easy when you know how. It happens all the time. They were jealous. But God is not jealous of human friendships, he’s not jealous of your friendships, because God is love.
The irony is that after two thousand years of identity theft by the institutional Church, Mary Magdalene has now fallen victim a third time. She has fallen into the hands of the women’s movement, a fate I would prefer not to share. The problem with taking the highly stylised portrait of Mary in the Gospels, which is as intricate as an icon, and seeing there a prototype woman priest or pioneer feminist, is that as soon as a modern human agenda comes to the fore, the purposes of God become obscure – because the result is division and argument, not unity. The issue and the personalities take over. And that is particularly unfair to Mary Magdalene, because through the grace of God, her sainthood is achieved by going way beyond gender difference, moving beyond opposites and arguments, to a new understanding of how God is with us, through the inner transformation arising from her relationship with Jesus. And what she does, as a result of her experience of transfigured love, as the Apostle to the Apostles, is bring to us and to the disciples news of Resurrection.
What was she like? How can we meet her, without establishing another argument? There are alternative views of Mary Magdalene from the very early days. You have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the same series of Wisdom Gospels, there turned up in Egypt an early document called the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It’s a work of imagination, in a traditional dialogue form, and it’s incomplete, but from this and other similar writings of which the Church has been too suspicious, our knowledge of Jesus and Mary Magdalene can expand. She was more significant than we thought. Those who came after her thought highly of her as one of the inner circle. For these new insights I am indebted to the recent book by Cynthia Bourgeault called The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala Publications, 2010), where these Wisdom Gospels are explored. Instead of exploiting Mary Magdalene to make a point, we should let her speak for herself, before the cover-ups are up and running, and what we find is that her actions and her words to us are about Jesus.
Here’s what she says in her Gospel to the disciples at the Resurrection: Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying: Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us to that we might become fully human. As Mary said these things their hearts opened toward the Good and they began to discuss the meaning of the Saviour’s words.
I think she got the message first. She knew the closeness of God. She was known through and through by Jesus, and the relationship brought her to a direct experience of God, so different from our dull working it all out. They lived an experience of God. A relationship can be a spiritual path, because a relationship, a friendship, a love affair, shifts the centre of our lives from ourselves to the other. The path to completeness of being lies through human relationships and intimacy not away from them, laying down our lives for another. Mystical love poetry has always had a place in Christian tradition – that’s why we had that reading from the Song of Solomon on this day – I will seek him whom my soul loves – but the end of the pathway is singleness, a complete human being; the word they used was anthropos, beyond male and female, grounded in being itself.
Mary Magdalene sees it all through from crucifixion to resurrection. She is at the Cross and she is at the tomb. There she stands with Him, there is love at the foot of the Cross. This is my body, given for you. And over those three days, the love does not stop. On the third day, at the empty tomb, she begins to understand that love has won, and that love will always overcome death. In the death is to be found the meaning of His life, self-giving love. In the garden, the pivotal heart-wrenching scene of today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ, she falls at Jesus’s feet, and we hear Jesus say to her: “Do not hold on to me … tell them I’m ascending to my God and your God.” It’s what He’d told them all along. There is another kingdom beyond the limits of space and time, where we are welcomed. There we give back what we have received, we do not cling to what is past, there is no need for sorrow. Why not? Because not only do we live with the divine life, made in the image of God as the Scriptures say, we are also God’s beloved, we are raised up with Christ, we have participated in His joy and suffering, as Mary did, and are worthy of that kingdom. We are not abandoned in that garden. So in the story faith replaces physical contact. Mary Magdalene knew she was God’s beloved, and maybe the story of her great love can help us to see something which we were probably told as children but have never quite believed, that Jesus Christ died on the Cross, not because an angry God needed a sacrifice for our misdeeds, but because Jesus loves us.
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning