This is a sermon for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.
Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?
We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?
I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?
For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.
And that matters because she’s not the only one to weep. Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.
We bring all of this personal history with us to the drama of the Christian story. The cycle we go through, each year, from the annunciation to Mary, right around to Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost, gives us opportunities to remember all of the different emotions of our own stories, and to explore the connections between our story, and the big picture story of what God is doing with and in and through creation.
And it seems to me that perhaps Mary weeping at the door of the empty tomb holds up a mirror to the times when we’ve felt frail, vulnerable, afraid of failure or of being found worthless.
But this is all a bit morbid for a feast day, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if we stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.
And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of dehumanisation, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name. Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.
Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Christian story on board as part of our story, our identity, is an indispensable part of our relationship with God. It means that we refuse to accept that diminishment and chaos are unchanging features of our existence to which we must bow. Instead, it means that Christ’s resurrection impels us against the darkness, to search for light and truth; to search for the relationships where our very being is affirmed and we can live with deep assurance.
Mary doesn’t just find Jesus at the tomb, she finds her self as well, her name and being, re-affirmed. And her life from this point will have to do with ongoing life and promise, and “calling” in the fuller sense. She’s given a task to do, and a gift to share with others. Christ bids her not to cling to him, but to go to her brothers and tell them what she has encountered.
There is a story in the Orthodox tradition, that some time after this, Mary – as a wealthy and influential woman (and we do know she was wealthy; Luke’s gospel tells us that she helped fund Jesus’ ministry) – journeyed to Rome and was granted an audience with the Emperor Tiberius Caesar, during which she shared her experience of the resurrection. The emperor protested that this is impossible, and gesturing at an egg on his table, said that a man can no more rise from the dead, than his egg was red; whereupon the egg immediately turned red. (Which is why, as an aside, Orthodox icons of Mary Magdalene often show her holding up a red egg). And, as a nice end to that story, apparently it’s during this meeting that Mary complained about the harsh government of Pilate, which led to his removal.
Whether or not the story is true, I like it because it shows something of the boldness that came to Mary as a result of having lived through this time of darkness, and the discovery of the light of the resurrection.
But it doesn’t stop with Mary. The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the other apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. It’s not just for those people of long ago; here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.
Now, to be blunt, this is a calling at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But like Mary Magdalene, we stand in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, shot through with possibility and hope, and with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be; and to share that gift with others. Let’s not miss the moment.