Sermon for Saint Mary Magdalene, Sunday, July 23 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Song of Songs 3:1-4; Psalm 42:1-7; 2 Corinthians 5:14-18; John 20:1-3, 11-18
Normally, the feast of a saint only takes precedence of a Sunday if it’s the parish patron or one of the apostles, but I think we can make an argument for Mary Magdalene on at least one of these points, and perhaps even both. If you look at the window behind me, you’ll see that there are two figures on either side of Jesus; one is of course St Stephen, and the other is the Magdalene. So she may not be quite our patron, but she’s positioned there as counterpart to our patron, and that counts for something. But more important is her status as an apostle. For she clearly was—she is, after all, the very first person commissioned by Christ to bring the news of his resurrection to the world. In the eastern church she’s called the apostola apostolarum, the Apostle to the Apostles, the one disciple from whom every retelling of the good news originates. It is absolutely in character that Jesus chose a woman for this central role, and unfortunately also fairly typical of the church that she’s never been granted her full apostolic status. Just this year, some two thousand years in, Pope Francis finally said that her feast should be observed as the feast of an apostle; the Anglican church hasn’t yet gotten around to making that change, though that reflects mostly our lack of clear decision-making processes.
This is a fancy of mine—but when I look at that window, I look at Stephen, the first deacon, the first to model a life of service and sacrifice, which I’ll talk about more when we celebrate his feast in a couple of weeks. And on the other side is that Mary who first saw the risen Lord and made his rising known; and if we see the role of the priest as being that of bringing the risen Christ into the midst of the church, through word and sacrament, it is perhaps not entirely fanciful to see the woman who stands in the window with the first deacon as being, in some way, the first priest.
Now, you have probably all heard the lively theories, which seem to have been around for a long time, about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’s wife or girlfriend, or the mother of his children. I don’t find these theories terribly problematic, though I do find them irritating to the extent that a woman’s importance apparently and forever hangs on nothing other than her personal relationship with a man—especially when the Magdalene is the one woman among the disciples who is never described as the wife or mother of anyone. But mostly, this is all far less important than people seem to think. If any or all of these theories are true, that would not really change anything important in what we understand about Jesus, the fully human and fully divine Son of God who offered himself in perfect love to power and to death and overcame both, or about Mary Magdalene, the fierce and stubborn and loyal disciple who would not give up, who would stand by the cross when the others fled, stand by the grave when the others left in despair, who would bring the first news of resurrection to an unbelieving world.
And yet I understand why the tradition seems to move, repeatedly over the centuries, in this direction. That scene in the garden which we just heard is one of extraordinary intimacy, an emotionally charged and strangely private moment which recapitulates the story of Adam and Eve and reverses it, enables us all to start again. It is because of the power of this scene, in part, that this Mary has become the figure who enables the language of passionate love, the language of desire, to enter into Christian speech. The language of the Song of Songs, which we heard in our first reading—“Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves.”
The church has always both embraced and drawn away from this language that same time—as perhaps we must. But the mystics speak in this mode, tell us that the most uncontrollable and difficult kind of love we know in this life, that intensity of eros, is part of how we love God, even part of how God loves us. Biographical details about Mary Magdalene and Jesus are nothing to this, to the full realization that the human creature longs for God as one may long for a lover, achingly, compellingly. The even more astonishing truth that, if we will only make ourselves available to God, we will find that God loves us, not with detachment, but with individual desire. God allows need—need of us, each of us specifically and precisely, as the persons we are—into the very divine heart.
This is the intensity of love we see in the Magdalene at the empty tomb, the woman confronting the imagined gardener, the woman prepared to drag the body of her Lord back to the grave with her own bare hands. The woman who, deep in the darkness of her grief, is able to hear her name when it is called, and know the voice, and turn towards the one who calls her. To respond to that impossible calling and be in that moment made utterly new. The woman who rushes to embrace the risen one.
And here, of course, the tension, the balance. For she is not permitted to embrace her beloved, or at least not for more than a moment. She cannot hold onto Jesus as she has known him, cannot rest in a place of fulfilled longing. And so with us, in our lives—we want to say, yes, God is here and will stay here; and the “here” will be different for each of us, but we want God’s presence to be something we can hold onto. In prayer or liturgy, in relationships with others, in our action for justice in the world, wherever we have known ourselves named and loved—we want to hold onto that, we want that presence to be stable, always there, we want to feel that naming and that love in a permanent way. Of course we do. But we cannot.
In this life, we must live in the tension between divine love and divine absence, the light of God so bright it becomes darkness, the knowledge of God’s love so absolute and overwhelming that our souls and our bodies cannot understand or contain it. The certainty that we are, each one of us, individually and personally cherished, existing alongside all the brokenness and pain of our world and our lives. We embrace, and then we are compelled to let go; thrown back into this world, and into our task within it.
For to love and to be loved by God—to love and to be loved with the divine passion which human love can only hint at—this is something which cannot exist detached from the needs of the world. Our response to God’s love for us, to God’s embrace of us within the very heart of love, must be found in our own love for God’s people and God’s world. Like Mary Magdalene, we must go into that world. We must teach ourselves to desire the good of each creature in it, as if each one of them were our one exclusive beloved one. It is both an impossible task and an absolutely necessary one.
Because we fall down in worship, astonished by divine love, because we kneel at the altar and are fed with bread and wine and presence, we must also fall down before the human being who is God’s presence for us in the moment, must kneel at the feet of strangers as Jesus knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, cherishing them, holding those vulnerable moments, in humility and devotion. Love them, those strange hard people out there in the world. They will not often return your love, but love them anyway, with all the intelligence and all the strength you can summon. We will often be mocked and ignored—as it appears Mary Magdalene was herself, her story dismissed by the other disciples as they went on hiding in the upper room, refusing to hear her. But she knew. She had that amazing assurance of love which persists through all failure and rejection. “I have seen the Lord,” she says. The most simple, the most challenging, sentence for each of us.
We too have seen the Lord, each of us in our way, whether or not we have recognized the voice in the garden. We have seen the Lord in the sacrament of the altar and in private meditation. We have seen the Lord in our human loves, in those frail desires and connections and moments of beauty. We have seen the Lord in God’s broken lost children, out on these streets in the blazing heat of summer. We have seen the Lord in rain, in the growth of gardens, in those who struggle for peace and justice, in those who reach out for love when it all seems lost. And like Mary Magdalene, we are called to speak this, whether with our words or in our lives. To bring the resurrection into the world, even if we ourselves sometimes struggle to believe it, sometimes wonder why we cannot touch, cannot hold, the presence we long for. To turn from the grave and go into the world, healed, forgiven, restored, and made utterly new.