Sermon for St Mary Magdalene Sunday 22 July 2018
Sermon preached by Revd Dr Daniel Dries
The year 1980 was a momentous year in the development of Western civilisation. 1980 saw the debut of the Rubik’s Cube, as well the first appearance of little sticky squares of coloured paper known simply as Post-It Notes. In addition to these life-changing inventions, something just as revolutionary occurred within the life of the Anglican Communion. In case you haven’t guessed it already, 1980 was the year in which the Church of England officially launched or implemented the Alternative Service Book. Among other controversial innovations, the Alternative Service Book firmly established within the Church of England a suspicious and unsettling liturgical practice known as The Greeting of Peace.
Almost 40 years later, The Greeting of Peace has gained fairly general acceptance throughout the Anglican Communion. It is practiced so enthusiastically in some Parishes that clergy almost have to blow a whistle to indicate full-time. The Greeting of Peace was not formally introduced into the life of the church 40 years ago. Rather, it was re-introduced. The Greeting of Peace reflects one of the ancient customs of the Christian Church—The Kiss of Peace. As though shaking hands with all and sundry were not shocking enough, the early Christians used to greet one another with a kiss. In his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, St Paul instructs the members of the early church to greet one another with a “Holy Kiss” or with “The Kiss of Peace”.
Although some Anglicans may still find the Greeting of Peace rather awkward or uncomfortable, it is a very important reminder that we experience the risen Christ in community; we experience Christ present in one another.
Fifteen years ago the world went quite mad over a novel mysteriously entitled, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Very few literary critics were prepared to praise Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, and yet it obviously had something going for it. 15 years on, more than 80 million copies of the book have been sold world-wide. Just in case you are one of the 10 people that did not read the novel, I should tell you that it dealt with some rather sensational theories concerning the figure of Mary Magdalene and her unique relationship with the person of Jesus Christ. The book asserts that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married—a theory certainly not founded in Scripture. However, several Biblical scholars made this remarkable claim long before Dan Brown penned his highly successful work of fiction.
There are many legends associated with Mary Magdalene, whose feast we celebrate today. There was the theory that, after the Ascension, Mary went to live in Ephesus with Christ’s Mother and John the Apostle. There was also a claim that Mary was actually the fiancée of John, until she laid eyes on the much more charismatic Jesus of Nazareth. It’s possible, perhaps even a little romantic, but again there’s not a shred of evidence. In terms of hard evidence, all we really know about Mary Magdalene comes from the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record that Mary Magdalene was one of a number of women who kept watch at Calvary, long after most of the men had fled the horror of the crucifixion. The synoptic Gospels also assert that Mary was present at the tomb on Easter morning. However, John goes one very important step further, claiming that Mary was so bold or impulsive that she was at the tomb on her own.
Over the centuries, Mary has sometimes been identified as Mary the sister of Lazarus, as well as the sinful woman who anointed Christ’s feet with costly ointment. The latter is almost certainly how Mary Magdalene’s reputation became so colourful. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a ‘repentant woman of ill-repute.’ This suggestion came from Pope Gregory in the year 590AD. It’s obviously something of an understatement to say that ‘mud sticks.’ Mary was generally acknowledged to be a reformed prostitute until the mid 1960s, when the Roman Church officially stated that Pope Gregory may have defamed Mary without cause, bringing into question the concept of Papal Infallibility (but we’ll leave that for another sermon).
Putting all of the scandal and conspiracy theories aside, John Chapter 20 implies that Mary Magdalene may have been a slightly emotional and even impulsive person. Calm and rational first century Jews didn’t go wandering around tombs alone in pitch darkness. Mary’s impulsive behaviour highlights the reality that every human being is made up of spiritual and physical elements. Mary’s journey to the tomb, in the dead of night, shows that she was yearning to be physically close to Jesus, even though she had witnessed the humiliation of the crucifixion just a few days earlier. Devastated and grief-stricken, Mary yearned for some physical reminder of her faith and her love of Christ. Like the rest of us, Mary was caught between a spiritual and physical existence.
Today’s Old Testament reading from the Song of Songs, and even this morning’s psalm, highlight the fact that every human being is an extremely complex mix of the spiritual and the physical. Mary’s erratic behaviour on Easter Morning would suggest that she was having real trouble letting go of the physical person of Jesus. She is so overcome with her grief on Easter Morning that she fails to recognise Jesus even when he appears before her. It is only when Jesus says her name that Mary realises with whom she is speaking. Her response to Jesus is “Rabbouni”, which really means, “My teacher”. She then embraces him to the point where he is forced to say, ‘Do not hold on to me.’
Although faith is primarily concerned with what we cannot see or touch, we can relate to Mary’s yearning for some physical reminder of Christ’s presence. This parish, and the Parish in which I serve reflect a liturgical tradition that makes significant use of gestures and symbols; worship that involves all of the senses; worship that is both spiritual and intensely physical.
The Eucharist itself is our most powerful and dramatic reminder that we are physical human beings. We come to our places of worship Sunday after Sunday, asking to be fed spiritually, but also physically. Our journey to the Communion Rail every Sunday morning is virtually a re-enactment of Mary’s journey to the tomb on Easter Day. In our tradition, the Sacrament is not generally delivered to the entire congregation in the pews. Rather, if we are able, we are required to go on a journey. We hold up our hands asking to be fed in a very physical sense; we hold up our hands, asking for some physical evidence of the presence of Christ. We go to the Communion Rail asking for the darkness of our physical lives to be transformed into the light and the joy of the resurrection.
However, it’s not possible to remain at the Communion Rail for very long; we know that we can’t live there. We are given our physical reminder of Christ’s risen presence, but Christ would also say to us, ‘Don’t hold on to me.’ When Mary is given her physical proof of the risen Christ, she is then sent out to tell the others what has happened. Mary is sent out to share the Gospel; she is the first disciple to be commissioned for ministry by the resurrected Christ.
Unable to remain with Christ at the tomb, Mary is sent back to her community. The message is clear that the risen Christ is present in the Eucharist and in the Christian community; something of which we are reminded when we share the Greeting of Peace, but more importantly, when Christians strengthen one another in the faith; when we support one another through the challenges of this life; when we struggle to remain as a united Christian community, despite differences and disagreements. Our faith is built on the sure and certain hope that, like Mary, we will one day meet the risen Christ face to face. In the meantime, look around you; this is where he is.