Mary stood weeping outside the tomb
I recently came across an interesting article that suggested the so-called Magdalene laundries, which up until a few years ago were a common feature upon the Irish landscape, where nothing to do with any cruel and totally misguided assumption that Mary was a fallen woman. Instead the fresh clean water used to offer new life to dirty clothes could be compared to the tears shed by Mary that also marked a transitional period from the old world order of death and despair to a bright future where our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has, as promised, been raised from the tomb.
So how does this transformational movement of our Gospel fit in with us here in the parish of Thorpe? How does it breathe fresh hope into our spiritual lives so that just like Mary, we also feel an overwhelming urge to rush out and tell the world, ‘we have seen the Lord’?
Well, in a world dominated by fake news, and given some accusations that the Church can have a negative bias towards women, perhaps one useful starting point is for us to be restoring Mary’s honour by gently but firmly correcting people that, although Magdala was situated near the Roman garrison of Jerusalem, there is no Biblical evidence which suggests Mary worked as a prostitute. Likewise, despite Dan Brown’s popular world of fantasy, scripture doesn’t contain any critical message that there was a sexual relationship between Mary and Jesus.
However, what we can say with bold confidence is that she was and continues to be a vital link as we piece together Christ’s earthly ministry. Now, while researching for this homily, I read that some theologians have wondered if Mary was the woman who poured expensive ointment upon Jesus’ feet, washed them with her tears and then dried them with her hair. Another theory is that Mary, who lived with her siblings Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene were one and the same.
In truth, trying to correctly identify the real Mary of Magdala, while maybe mildly interesting for some, is not nearly as important as remembering why, after all these years, the Church calendar goes to great lengths to ensure we celebrate her presence in the embryonic development of Christianity. Thankfully, like many a popular sermon, Mary’s timeless legacy neatly unfolds into three intertwining qualities which are as relevant today as they were on the first Easter morn.
Firstly, Mary’s love for Jesus knew no boundaries. Like the apostles, Mary had witnessed the arrest, trial and death of Our Lord. However, instead of hiding away in some locked room, earnestly praying for God to reveal his next move, Mary simply rolls up her sleeves and gets on with what needs to be done, namely – as we see from the opening lines of our Gospel – embalming the dead body of Jesus.
This isn’t to say our thoughts, words and actions shouldn’t be underpinned by prayer, but sometimes it’s important to remember, as Mary clearly knew, that God calls and trust us to take the initiative in bringing his Gospel message of love to fruition. Our commitment with the local foodbank instantly springs to mind, but perhaps during our daily prayers we can ask God what other practical tasks we, as the living presence of Christ here in Thorpe, could get involved with.
For Mary’s second inspirational legacy, I found myself recalling the talk of one of the guest speakers at this year’s Diocesan Clergy Conference, Bishop Philip North, who remarked that he often has mixed feelings about the word ‘resilience’. It can conjure up negative images of a person who is cold, focused and driven. However, Mary’s dogged love and the way she refuses to fall at the first hurdle are marvellous characteristics well worth reflecting upon, within all aspects of our lives.
Now, perhaps you would agree with me that we do seem to live in an age that likes labelling people and putting them into boxes. While I would never call myself a feminist, I must be honest and share with you that, having spent these last nine years living with my wife and three step-daughters, I can assure you that women are far from the weaker sex. And if we revisit our Gospel, we soon discover that rather than going to pieces at the scene of an empty tomb or keeping this information to herself, Mary goes and tells Jesus’ inner circle about what she has discovered. Obviously, given the prevailing attitude towards women, they had to go and see for themselves, rather than accepting Mary’s word…
Our Gospel remains silent about what happens next. Maybe, Mary was told to stay put and leave the men to sort the situation out, or maybe they just outran her, found it was actually how she had said and simply returned home without bothering to keep Mary in the loop?
Either way, as our Gospel account explains, when she returns to the tomb the two disciples are no longer there. Sharing our experience with Jesus, even with those who we consider friends or people of faith, as Mary discovered, is sometimes soul destroying.
But every cloud, they say, has a silver lining and, just after what to the outside world looks like spiritual uncertainty, Mary’s place in scripture is immortalised when, according to John’s Gospel, she becomes the first person ever to encounter the Risen Christ. Could we say that perhaps one of the reasons why this happened was down to Mary’s third and most counter-cultural quality: vulnerability? This morning’s Gospel narrative shows us that during Mary’s second visit to the empty tomb her steadfast love for Jesus publicly comes to a head, as through God’s gracious mercy, she strips back the protective earthly barriers of protocol and starts to cry. Thus allowing God the space and permission to penetrate her heart, he grants her the honour of meeting his Son even before he has returned to his Heavenly home. Initially, in her vulnerability, Mary fails to recognize Jesus. Could this be because her eyes are so full of tears her vision is impaired?
Granted we don’t normally walk around with tears in our eyes, but sometimes it’s so easy to let our emotions get the better of us. For instance, the physical beauty of this building can be a blessing and a curse, for on the one hand it provides spiritual inspiration, yet on the other hand there is a danger that it can take over our lives and make us blind, like Mary, to the incarnational Jesus standing right in front of us. Or could it be that Mary was so fixated on the empty tomb, she failed to turn around and look at the new exciting bright future that the Risen Christ was pointing towards? Likewise, throughout our ongoing quest to build the transformative mission of the Church here in Thorpe, are we all a little bit guilty of focusing too much of our time and energy upon the old order rather than grabbing Christ’s hand and inviting him to lead us into pastures new?
Whether this is embracing the combination of worship and fellowship offered by our predominately lay lead team each Saturday at Café Church, the forthcoming After School Club, the soon to be launched Emmaus Course, or something equally exciting, the most important thing is that we do it all together as a family. Amen.