St. Mary Magdalene

Sermon Title: St Mary Magdalene

Date: 24 July 2016

Preacher: Rev’d Professor Mark Lindsay

Lectionary Reading: Song of Songs 3:1-4, Pslam 63, 2 Corinthians 5:14-21, John 20:1-18

Good morning, and thank you for welcoming me here today. It’s a delight to be able to come here and worship with you this morning, and it is my pleasure to bring you greetings from the faculty and students of the Trinity College Theological School.

Let us pray…

Well, as we gather here today, we come in part to celebrate the memory of that most devoted of Jesus’ close disciples, St. Mary of Magdala, Mary the Magdalene. As some of you will know, it was just earlier this year, in June, that Pope Francis elevated the status of this Mary’s remembrance from a memorial to a feast day; an elevation that puts Mary’s commemoration on the same plane of importance as that accorded to the rest of the apostles. And so, in churches around the world today, people will gather to remember and to honour her.

But many will do so in the traditional way, remembering this Mary as the so-called ‘model penitent; as the one who most perfectly illustrates for us the power of Jesus’ forgiving mercy, the transformative nature of God’s reconciling love, about which we read in 2 Corinthians, and the beauty of a converted life.

But if we were to remember Mary in that way, in the traditional way, then I think that would be a shame, and would do her a great disservice.

You might well ask, why? Because surely all those things are indeed true? Jesus’ merciful forgiveness is powerful. God’s reconciling love does transform and renew us. And a life converted from error to truth, from darkness to light, and from sinfulness to salvation, is indeed a beautiful thing to behold. And in this Mary we do see these themes at play.

But to think only of these themes on this day, and in relation to St. Mary Magdalene, presumes on the one hand too much, and obscures even more.

So, as we remember and honour Mary, let’s take some time to consider just what her extraordinary contribution to the Christian story was, and still is.

My problem with the traditional way of remembering Mary—Mary as the ‘model penitent’—is because it presumes that the usual story of this woman, the story about her on which many of us were raised, and which was popularised in the 1970s by productions such as ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, is correct. It presumes that this Mary had been rescued from the depths of depravity—usually understood to be prostitution—by Jesus, whom she then followed and adored. Yet the canonical Gospels are ambiguous, if not in fact silent, about this. The tradition, which goes back to the 6th Century, rests on the assumption that this Mary is the same woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Simon the Pharisee’s house; that the expensive perfume with which that woman anointed Jesus was fragrance that she had been accustomed to using on herself, to make herself more desirable to her male customers; and it presumes that the demons from which Luke, in chapter 8 of his Gospel, tells us Mary was delivered refer to particularly salacious moral depravity. Were I a lawyer, I might say that the evidence for Mary Magdalene’s life of lust and lewdness is at best circumstantial, and more accurately, simply uncertain.

Perhaps this is why the Eastern Church has never regarded Mary as the model of a repentant sinner.  Only in the West, conditioned as we have been over the course of 16 centuries by St. Augustine’s peculiar obsession with sexual sin, have we tended to regard Mary in this way. And the problems of doing so are threefold. In the first instance, the biblical evidence for Mary having been a reformed and converted prostitute is flimsy, almost to the point of non-existent. In the second place, to raise Mary up as a ‘model penitent’ lets us off the hook too easily. By making Mary out to be an especially sinful sinner, whose conversion and repentance is somehow out of the ordinary and for that reason exemplary, makes her unlike us and thus not a model for us at all. Rather, would it not be better simply to see Mary as someone entirely like us, and us entirely like her—sinners alike, each of whom has been saved by the gracious intervention of a most loving God?

And the third problem in viewing Mary in this traditional way is, as I have said before, because not only does it presume too much, on matters about which we actually know very little, but it also obscures too much. There is so much about this saintly woman from which we can learn, if only we stop thinking of her purely as the model penitent.

And it is in today’s Gospel passage that we find one such occasion for learning.

In John 20 we have, in its most basic form, a story about 3 separate visits to the tomb in which Jesus had been laid. Mary is the first visitor, having gone there unbidden and for no purpose other than to mourn. Unlike in the Synoptic Gospels, in which Mary goes to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, in John’s account that particular task has already been performed by her before Jesus’ death. And so her first visitation to the tomb is out of grief, not duty. She is followed, at her urging, by Peter and John. On hearing Mary’s account of the emptiness of the tomb, these two leaders of the early Christian community race to the garden crypt, look in, go in, but see nothing but the linen cloths in which Jesus had been wrapped.

The third visit is also by Mary. Our Mary returns, waits outside the tomb until the men had gone, and then looks in herself. We are not told whether or not she saw the linen cloths that Peter and John saw. But we are told that she sees something else entirely, something that the men, the leaders, did not see.

She saw the angels. Had they just appeared? Is it coincidence that they turn up just after the men have left, and just in time for Mary’s arrival back at the tomb? Or perhaps they were there all along, yet for some reason only Mary was able to see them. We don’t know. What we do know is, for whatever reason, Mary did see the angels and the men did not; and that the angels in turn did what angels in the Bible always do—they turned Mary’s attention away from themselves and towards the man outside the tomb whom Mary soon realises to be the risen Christ.