So happy to be with you this Easter Sunday morning. It is a day of joy, yet somehow one cannot help feeling sad for Mary Magdalene while reading this Easter passage from the Gospel of John. It’s so dramatic, even cinematic how she discovers the empty tomb where Jesus was lain after the Crucifixion. It was an early dark morning and she was bereft after witnessing the awful things Jesus endured on Friday. I have read that it was the custom to anoint the body of the deceased three days after death but I am not sure if that was why Mary went to the tomb.
It is notable that a woman, who was in those days considered a “lesser” person was the only one courageous enough to go to the tomb and it became a seminal moment in Christianity. “In John’s version of the Resurrection story, Mary Magdalene (somewhat akin to) the Samaritan woman, is the person to whom Jesus first reveals himself. Mary becomes the apostle to the apostles, disciple to the disciples. She is the first person to announce that Jesus was not just gone from the tomb but risen!” But, before that amazing moment, all she knew was Jesus’ body was gone. She immediately ran back to Simon Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” just after seeing the stone had moved away. The Gospel doesn’t say she actually went inside at that point but rather ran back to report the body was gone. Anyone would be completely freaked-out by what she witnessed on Good Friday, so we can empathize with her heightened emotions.
It was no wonder Mary Magdalene was devoted to Jesus because he had saved her life by removing seven demons from her, which had kept her from living a normal life. He returned her to wholeness, but in mourning over the death of Jesus I can imagine she would have been broken again and weeping when she came back to discover the tomb completely empty of her beloved teacher and lifesaver. Nothing was left inside but the linens he was buried in. At first, while the others went in, Mary stood outside the tomb sobbing. Shortly after the other disciples agreed to her witness and left, she went in alone to find two angels sitting on the slab where he had been lain, one at the head and the other at the feet. Why two angels instead of one I don’t know but it sounds as if they too had been through an ordeal and were taking a rest. In life and death Jesus was a difficult person to watch over, always moving and doing the unexpected!
The angels were not sensitive to Mary about her feelings saying, “Woman, why are you crying?” as if they had no patience for her tears at all. Obviously, crying because the most important person in her life was missing would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Do you have someone in your life who is impossible to keep track of or keep up with, but whom you love with all your heart so you hang in there? That is how it was for Mary.
So, who was Mary Magdalene and who was she not? Clearing up a misconception, way back in 1969, the Church rejected the idea that she was a “woman of the streets” or a “woman of ill repute” though some fantastical thinkers and theatrical productions continue to portray her in that light. Mary is called “the Magdalene” because she was born and raised in the fishing town of Magdala in Galilee, a town near Capernaum where Jesus was based to pursue his ministry. The Bible names her at least 12 times and by all accounts none of them depicted her as “a sinner.” Mary was most of all a devoted follower of Jesus’ message of hope and love. She traveled with him from Galilee alongside the other disciples (including other women) and followed him closely for most of his intense three-year ministry. Not only did she follow him, she also helped fund his ministry, so you could say she was on the original Church Stewardship Committee! Along with “Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward Susanna” and others, the newly found ministry was supported by her financially.
After the resurrection of Jesus Mary seems to disappear from the Gospels but is reported to have been a disciple with a “deep understanding of Christ’s teaching” in the Apocrypha and other ancient texts. She is called by scholars, no less than St. Thomas Aquinas, “Apostle to the Apostles” noting that women have had a pivotal role to play in Christian formation from the beginning story of Creation to the words of life Mary announces about Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene has a special and revered history in the development of our faith. It is true that there was more than likely a stigma attached to a woman in Jesus’ day traveling with a band of men but Mary Magdalene did not allow this stigma to get in the way of following Jesus and sharing the Good News. Mary was a courageous and faithful person to whom women and others can look with pride and admiration.
Jesus appreciated and rewarded Mary’s devotion. You know, sometimes, we have the best of intentions and we want to do everything right to help a loved one. We may go out of our way to figure out what needs doing and how to do it. Some of us can even be a little bit neurotic about it, fussing over every detail and worrying that the house won’t be clean enough for guests on Easter or the outcome of a loved one’s life will not be what we think it should be. The thing is, the natural course of life is not up to us and that is in the end a huge gift! Yes, of course we make decisions about our lives but ultimately, everything is in the hands of The Creation.
Whether we call it evolutionary circumstance, acts of God, or we say it is a happenstance or accident - it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we humble ourselves enough to realize that we are not always in charge of every little detail in life. Some things have a life of their own and that’s not all together a bad thing. We may make mistakes when we are upset about how things are going, as Mary was. We do not have the power to see into the future and we may feel helpless in our lack of control. That too, may be how it was for Mary Magdalene that first Easter morning - she did not know what to do! Then, in her frantic state she mistook Jesus for a gardener (a gardener!) until she heard his voice call her name, “Mary.” When someone names you aloud in that way it really brings you back down to earth doesn’t it? It happens most particularly when your name is called by someone whom you recognize as a moral authority or a dear friend. That’s all Jesus had to say - “Mary” and she came back to reality from spinning around in a panic. The sound of his voice grounded her.
Jesus says the most fascinating thing to her after she finally recognized him. She began running to him and was perhaps going to embrace him, which is understandable. Imagine it’s you in Mary’s position. He was back from the dead and calls out your name - that deserves a hug, right? However, Jesus stopped her by saying, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Now that might have hurt Mary’s feelings as she was rushing to get a hug but he gently redirects her with an action, “But go to my brothers and say to them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She becomes God’s emissary.
At that moment, Jesus gave a woman authority, by asking her to bring the testimony of his resurrection to the men! Jesus could have revealed himself at the tomb to Peter and the others but he did not. He revealed himself to Mary a woman with a direction to instruct the men about his resurrection. It is just like God to pluck an unlikely human out of the herd to have them lead us to the next revelation as God had done with Moses, Jonah, Samuel, Joseph and of course Jesus’ Mother Mary.
When we proclaim that everyone is welcome here and that no one is denied hospitality and the love that God commands us to offer to all, we mean it. Look around you. There are people in your midst, next to you or right in front or back of you who, like Mary Magdalene, are directed by God to bring us into a more direct and loving relationship with all of Creation. For God, there are no “little people” or inferior people. To God, we are all capable of sharing the goodness of life we have been freely given. We do not know who among us may be the bearer of God’s Good News because we can all be God’s emissaries. Like Mary at the tomb, we cannot know the wonders or unlikely occurrences God has in the works, Praise God this Easter!
May you experience God’s light and the expression of God’s love through the revelation of the Resurrection. As it is written in today’s reading of Psalm 118
21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. 24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
He is risen.