This Sunday was the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Here is my sermon. During it I refer to an icon I have in my study of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women. I purchased it from the excellent Orthodox Store Skete.com and you can see details of the actual icon here.
Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to find Jesus.
In case you haven’t noticed Andrew Lloyd Webber is currently occupying the schedules of ITV nearly every night looking for a singer to take the part of Jesus in a forthcoming tour of a revived Jesus Christ Superstar. I first came across Mary Magdalene – as I suspect many did – in the musicals of the early seventies – Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. In their time they were big – and for some shocking. Great music, thought some of us, but not everyone was happy. Some were shocked at the way Jesus and Mary Magdalene were portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, for example. But at least when Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote Jesus Christ Superstar they were only picking up what was already a long-standing tradition of a fallen woman in love with Jesus.
But the image of Mary Magdalene held in popular culture was to get worse. Firstly, in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and then in The Da Vinci Code it was claimed she was married to Jesus and had his children.
Not long after the latter book came out in paperback in 2004 and was hitting the headlines someone – a Christian – said to me “What about the Da Vinci code, then – it makes you think, doesn’t it?” “No,” I replied, “it’s a novel.” At which point she went “Oh…” and paused for a moment. Then she said, “But there must be something in it!”
“In what?” I replied. “You know,” she said, “that Jesus and Mary Magdalene got married and had children!”
“It’s a novel,” I said again, “It’s made up.” And I managed to resist the temptation to then say, “The clue is in the word – novel! It’s fiction – just like The Archers!”
Mary Magdalene has always fascinated people – and today she even has her own website magdalene.org
Many people have, in recent years, thanks to the two books I’ve already mentioned, speculated about Mary Magdalene and the nature of her relationship with Jesus. It is more important to piece together the message that is being sent by her through the writers of the Gospels rather than the writings of people like Dan Brown.
So – what do we really know about Mary Magdalene – or Mary of Magdala? Before seeing what’s actually in the New Testament we’ll deal with how she is viewed in church tradition. Her feast day, July 22nd, is kept across the Church by Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran Christians. In addition the Orthodox Church also commemorates her on the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers – the Third Sunday of Easter when the seven women who traditionally came to the tomb to anoint with myrrh the body of Jesus are remembered. They’re shown on the icon I’ve placed on the altar today – if you have a look later you’ll see Mary Magdalene in the place of honour in the centre of the front row. Some of you may remember that I posed the quesation in our magazine a couple of years ago “Can you name all seven women?” (Note: Those of you reading this who would like to know the answer it’s on the store here at Skete.com which is where I purchased the icon.) She is known in the Orthodox Church as ‘The Holy Myrrhbearer and Equal of the Apostles’ – an interesting title to reflect upon as in our own Church we move towards woman bishops, bishops of course being the successors to the Apostles.
The problem is that in the Western Catholic tradition of which we are a part, Mary has got mixed up with two other people. And it was Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who lived in the latter half of the sixth century, who gave us this mixed up picture of this woman who has continued to fascinate us today. It was he who identified her with the unnamed woman of dubious reputation – probably a prostitute – who brought a jar of ointment and, anointing the feet of Jesus, washed them with her hair and her tears. This is where we have got the image people have today of a woman of shame who falls in love with Jesus and becomes his follower. You need to get rid of that image – it’s simply not there in the New Testament. Gregory the Great then confused the matter further by concluding that Mary of Magdala and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus were the same people – again (and I hate saying this about a Pope, especially one who was as great as Gregory undoubtedly was), complete nonsense. The Orthodox Church has always kept these three people completely distinct and separate – and we need to do the same if we are to understand who Mary of Magdala was.
So, what do we really know about Mary of Magdala? What do we learn from the New Testament? What we learn is that Mary is a woman who is an important disciple as well as a witness for Jesus. She appears in all the Gospels. In the Gospel reading from John today we hear the account of her finding the tomb empty and her encounter with the risen Christ. She is the first to see him and it is she who takes the news to the others. Because of this, in early Christian writings she is referred to as “the apostle to the apostles”
She was a trusted friend of Jesus. She was – possibly – a sinner, who was made whole because Christ healed her. We are told that Jesus cleansed her of seven demons – which some interpret as meaning she was suffering from some complicated illnesses. She was the one to whom Jesus revealed himself after the resurrection – the one that passed the good news along to the disciples. She was a follower of Jesus, she was with him as he ministered to others, she was standing at the foot of the cross when he was crucified and she was at the tomb to discover the resurrection.
Mary was a great woman of faith and belief. After the Lord had been crucified, she returned to his tomb as soon as she could. She found it empty and was greatly grief stricken by this discovery. However, after encountering Christ in the garden and finding him to her great joy to be resurrected, Mary ran to the disciples and told them, “I have seen the Lord.” She told them the whole story of her encounter and thus began spreading the good news of Christ throughout the world. She was the apostles’ apostle. She was a woman who acted out of love for him as a teacher and as a friend.
Mary of Magdala was not one of the Twelve, she was not well known, so you would not expect her to be the one to begin to spread the news that Christ had been resurrected. You would expect it to be one of the Twelve – or Eleven as they now were, following the betrayal by Judas – but they were too afraid and were hiding in a locked room. Mary Magdalene is an unexpected person bearing unexpected news. Her message is one of hope, of love and of new life. For the followers of Christ, the message that she brought completely turned the world upside down. She did not intend to be the bearer of this news, she did not expect to be the one to change the world as we know it, but Christ sent her and she said yes to his calling.
Mary can give us a whole new world view. You see, she was a sinner – there’s no other way that society of the time would have seen this single woman following around this itinerant rabbi. She was someone on the outside of community, she was not a leader, but merely someone in the crowd. And God used her to change the world – it was her who was to receive the first news of the resurrection. You do not have to be extraordinary for God to use you to change the world. You do not have to be the best at what you do, you do not have to be world famous, you do not have to be anything but yourself. God calls us all to play the part of Mary Magdalene on some level. No matter who we are or where we come from or who we think we should be, God loves us and out of that love, we are to go forth and spread love, spread hope and spread new life throughout the world.
So, I wonder, what would it take for us to proclaim like Mary, “I have seen the Lord?” Where can we find Jesus in our lives and thus find new life, hope and love? Where can we find this? Where do we see the Lord.
We see him in each other, in our friends and in our enemies.
We see him In the face of the homeless person begging on the streets of London.
We see him in the face of our children.
We see him in the face of great tragedy, we see him in the face of great joy, we see him in the face of fear.
We see him in the face of the dying and the lonely.
We see him in the people around us each and every day.
We celebrate Mary Magdalene today because she can inform our lives in tremendous ways. She was an ordinary woman, she did not expect great things to happen to her, she operated out of the love that Christ taught her and her life was made whole – her life was made new. She teaches us that no matter who we are, or what cards life has dealt us we have hope because of the deep and unconditional love Jesus has for us. And in return he calls us as he called Mary to love him, and to bear witness to the resurrection as we tell others, “I have seen the Lord.”