SERMON PREACHED AT St PAUL’S, ARROWTOWN,
and St PETER’S, QUEENSTOWN
FEAST of St. MARY MAGDALENE (July 22nd) 2018
Song of Solomon 3.1-4
2 Corinthians 5.14-17
John 20.1-2, 11-18
There has been much written and spoken about a predominantly Christian, perhaps Jewish too, reticence if not terror of the energies of sexuality. On a scale of reading interest Christian books on sexuality, certainly back in the days when I worked in a Christian bookshop, rated alongside books about flossing.
They were the better ones: others merely reinforced the subjection of women to the will of their male partners, reminding them that it was only in practising something called “submission” that they could find true worthiness as women. Police and social workers three, four decades later have a different way to describe the experience of many married women of that era. The scar tissue of many women is such that belief in a loving God became impossible because the brutality of oppressive partners shouted down all dreams of nurture and of enrichment.
That I should raise the issue at all on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene highlights a twisted history of Christian interpretation, or “hermeneutics” as it becomes named in academic circles. The fact that a woman from whom demons were driven comes to be, by the Mediaeval era at the latest, associated with prostitution says more about the interpreters and controllers of Christian thought than it does about the woman Mary of Magdala, or indeed women in general.
Mary of Magdala gets sucked into a vortex that declares women must be either virgins or whores, and historical role models for women tended to nestle uneasily at one or the other of those extremes. In fact we know nothing much about Mary of Magdala beyond two immeasurable facts: one that Jesus clearly loved her deeply, and two, that this faceless woman becomes the first in human history to proclaim the rumour that is at the heart of Christian faith: “I have seen the Lord.”
My suspicion – or perhaps I project too much of my own damaged psyche? – is that the Judaeo-Christian fear of womanhood, embodied in part in our treatment of Mary Magdalene, reveals far more about ourselves, or at least our hetero-sexual male-selves, than we care to admit. Lovers of film, literature, or French culture will know that the French use the phrase “la petite mort” to describe a serious aspect of human experience. You will know too that my cautious circumlocution (or beating round the bush) at this moment is living proof that I like many of us feel uneasy in talking about human sexuality in the context of liturgy and faith and worship.
I suggest in fact that “la petite mort” and liturgy are both wonderful foretastes of the eternities that dwell ahead of us. Literary philosopher Roland Barthes argues that la petite mort is what we should experience when we read fine literature. To me it is certainly no stretch to apply that notion to liturgy too. Billy Joel’s more mundane phrase “to forget about life for a while” possibly alludes to something similar (less eschatological, perhaps). But for me all these experiences hint at the inexpressible joy of an eternal existence in the presence of the Risen Christ, where the light of the eternal city is the Glory of God. That experience begins with Mary Magdalene’s famous pronouncement: “I have seen the Lord.”
What history has done to this remarkable woman, this first proclaimer of the unique event of The Resurrection, is to turn her into some sort of sanitised sinner. When Jesus Christ Superstar came out in the 1970s it was panned in some circles for suggesting there was some degree of hanky-panky between Jesus and this woman – or this conflation of women – but my response has long been “meh.”
That Jesus and Mary alike were sexual human beings is obvious. What they or anyone else did with that great divine gift of being human is strictly their business not ours. But the brutal application of a lens of saint or sinner, Madonna-virgin or street-wise whore to this woman probably does as much as anything to explain why two generations of human beings are absent from our pews, and why we are so woefully out of touch as an institution, with the mainstream of our society.
Whoever Mary was, and whatever her relationship with Jesus was, she GETS the Resurrection. I don’t think at this point, as some theologies suggest, that in her mourning she held a committee meeting and passed a motion saying that we’d better get on with doing whatever it was that Jesus was doing, bible-bashing or cleaning up waterways, to choose two extremes popular in different wings of Anglican Christianity.
No. Mary was seized, transfixed, and then empowered beyond social paradigms and beyond human sociology, empowered to be the first witness to the impossible.
That the Risen Jesus chose her may partly reflect his highly charged love for her, but more importantly it affirms what Paul was trying to express in his letter to the Corinthians as we read a couple of weeks ago: God chose the foolish in the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1.27).
Mary had no credibility as a witness in first century Palestine. Regardless of any details of her sexual history, she was a woman, alone, her word uncorroborated by any passing bearer of Y chromosomes. Yet Jesus chose her. “God chose the weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, that which is not, to reduce to nothing things that are so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1.27-28). God chose irrationality. God chose Mary.
Resurrection is not rational. Our response for two thousand years has generally been to impose rationality and logic and lifelessness and power paradigms on the texts of our faith, silencing Mary. Our response has been to rely on hierarchical power structures that exclude the vulnerable and the broken, that exclude mainly, but not only women, that exclude the confused and the misused and the abused and, as Dylan put it, “the mistitled prostitute.”
Weeping Mary Magdalene stands as a powerful symbol, a potent reminder that human integrity and authenticity, not hierarchical power (or dare I say it a purple shirt and silly pointy hat) stand at the heart of the Good News of Resurrection. For Mary Magdalene was the first, and she went and proclaimed “I have seen the Lord,” and while we are still sceptical and cling to our power structures, her rumour is still reverberating against all odds around the universe.