Sunday, 27 March 2016

Easter Sunday: Called by name

Names are important  to us. I spend half my life trying to remember people’s names, scratching round in my brain to recall who people are and where I met them. I often fail, so do remind me if I look blank! But I keep trying, because I know, as we all do, that when someone calls us by name we feel that they know us and care about us.

I’m sure that’s why it is only at the point when the risen Christ calls Mary Magdalene by her name in the reading we’ve just heard that she realises who he is. She has been weeping, distraught with grief. We may be in for a stormy few days this Easter, according to the weather forecasters, but it’s nothing to the hurricane that blew through the lives of Jesus’ disciples at that first Easter. They’d seen him brutally tortured, beaten and killed. They were terrified it would be their turn next. A tempest was already raging in their hearts and minds when Mary set out for the tomb to grieve for Jesus early on that Easter morning, while it was still dark. And when she got there it got even worse. The tomb was open. The body was gone.

She ran back to the other disciples, who ran back with her. They were as confused as she was. They could tell something momentous has happened, but was it good news or bad? John’s account doesn’t make it clear what they understood and believed, and I think that’s because they don’t know either.  

The other disciples returned to their hiding place, but Mary stayed behind, and that’s why she’s the one who encounters the man she thinks is the gardener. But it’s only when he calls her by her name – “Mary” - that she realises it is Christ, and that he has been raised from death. It is him, and he still knows her, and loves her, just as she is.

But who is she? Who is this woman to whom John’s Gospel gives this very great honour, of being the first witness to the resurrection.

Mary Magdalene has fascinated people through the ages. We’ve projected all sorts of desires, hopes and fears on to her, but that’s sometimes meant that the Mary of the Gospels has been lost under the weight of our fantasies. What we know about her is drowned by what we don’t know, but have invented to fill the gaps, and that’s a pity because it makes it hard to hear the genuine Easter message she has for us.

Artists paint her as young and beautiful, but actually we have no idea of her age. She could have been old enough to be Jesus mother or grandmother. She could have been as plain as a pikestaff.
She’s also almost always described  and painted as a repentant prostitute, but there’s no evidence for that in the Gospels either. Christian theologians in the sixth Century made an arbitrary decision to identify her with an unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, in an act of repentance for an unnamed sin. She probably was a prostitute, but there’s really no reason at all to assume she was Mary Magdalene, no evidence to support it. It seems like the theologians just felt that there were too many women in the Gospels, so it would be tidier if some of them were rolled up into one.
The Penitent Magdalen. Titian. 1490- 1576

And despite the slew of recent conspiracy theories in books like the Da Vinci Code, there is also no evidence to suggest that she was married to or in love with Jesus, or that he was in love with her, or that there were rumours to that effect which were covered up.  There’s no theological reason why Jesus couldn’t have been married, so it’s hard to see why it would have been suppressed if were true. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? And a good story has to have a love interest.

So what do we know about Mary Magdalene, if so much of the popular image of her is unfounded speculation?
If you’ve had a look at the display about her I’ve put in the Lady Chapel you will know the answer to that question. Not a lot.
We know that she came from Magdala, a town on the shore of the sea of Galilee – her name tells us that.
We know that she was one of a group of female disciples of Jesus, who followed him, just like his male disciples, as he travelled around teaching and healing.  
We know that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Demon possession was usually seen as the cause of mental or physical illness, so that tells us that she had been ill but was now healed. It isn’t usually the way Biblical writers describe sinners, though – they are just called sinners – so there’s no reason to suppose this is a coded way of suggesting Mary had a colourful past.
Finally, we know that, like those other female disciples, she had watched as Jesus was crucified and buried.  
And that’s about it, apart from the story we’ve heard today. As I said – it’s not much.

The truth is that the fantasies we project onto Mary say far more about us than they do about the woman herself. If our mental image of her is of a beautiful, young, repentant prostitute, then we need to think again. She could have been all those things, but she could just as well have been middle aged, with a spare tyre, greying hair and a boringly respectable background.

If we stick to the evidence, though, we discover a woman who was remembered fondly by the Christian community because of her faith, courage and loyalty, a woman whose life  had been profoundly changed by Jesus.

It had all started with that miraculous healing, but then, as she travelled with him and the other disciples, she had found far more than that, a new sense of purpose for her life. Jesus consistently treated women with respect, listening to them and taking them seriously. The Gospels are full of examples of this. He taught them, just as he taught his male disciples, something which caused scandal at the time; no respectable Rabbi would do this. But Jesus stuck to his guns. If it has never happened before, it is wonderfully liberating meeting someone who treats you as if you matter, as if you have a voice worth hearing.  

To Jesus, Mary was not just someone’s  wife or mother or sister or daughter. She was not just the anonymous woman who appeared out of the kitchen with food at mealtimes, then withdrew into seclusion again, as so many women at the time would have done. She was herself, a child of God, unique and special, worth teaching, someone with the potential to learn and grow. We’ve already seen how important it was that Jesus called Mary by her name in this resurrection story, but have you noticed what she called him? “Rabbouni”, which means “Teacher”. That tells us what it was that she had found in him, what it was that had excited her so much. It may not seem as romantic as the conspiracy theories, but Jesus had changed her life.

But when he died everything Jesus had taught her was thrown into question.If Jesus had been God’s Messiah, speaking the truth, then God would surely not have let him be crucified. And if that was a lie, what else was a lie?

Mary hadn’t just lost a friend. She’d lost the hope that Jesus had nurtured in her that she had something to offer to the world – her, Mary, an obscure, ordinary woman from Magdala.

That’s why hearing her name on his lips again is so important. This is her Easter moment, the moment when the resurrection takes hold of her. She doesn’t just discover that Christ has risen, but that she has risen too.

And it’s not just about recapturing the past either. There is more. “Don’t hold onto me” says Jesus. “Don’t cling to this moment, to my physical presence, because there’s a job to do. And you are the one who is going to do it.” He doesn’t just recognise her. He sends her back to the rest of the disciples with the news of his resurrection. That’s why she is traditionally called “the apostle to the apostles” – apostle literally means someone who is sent. She is sent with the message that will send all the rest of them out around the world with the good news of God’s love.
Mary Magdalene announcing the Resurrection
St Albans Psalter
Mary of Magdala , whoever she is, young, old, prostitute or respectable married woman, beautiful or plain as a pikestaff discovers  that she matters, that she is crucial to the work of God, that she has been sought out by Jesus to bear the news that will change the world.

And her good news is good news for the rest of us too, because who are we? A random bunch of people, probably feeling a lot of the time that we don’t have much to offer either, and that our lives can’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. “Not so”, says Mary, “because if Jesus called my name when he rose, then surely he also called yours.” “Anne”, “Kevin” “Hilary” “Georgina”…and everyone else who is here today. Christ calls out “I’m here for you, risen for you because you matter too, however unimportant and obscure you  may feel you are.”  Like Mary, each one of us is called to do a job that only we can do, to bring the new life of Easter into the places where we and only we can go, into our families, our neighbourhoods and our workplaces. Each one of us is given the seeds of God’s kingdom of love and justice to sow in our own patch of ground.  

So let’s allow Mary Magdalene to be herself - whoever she was - a person as unique , and as ordinary, as we all are, a person who discovered good news that set her free and wanted nothing more than to share it. The apostle to the apostles. The one who was sent to us to tell us that Christ had risen; for her, for us, for everyone, with life, dignity and hope that nothing could destroy.

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