Easter Morning 1-4-2018 Durham Cathedral
That Jesus was risen took a while for the first disciples to grasp. This of course should not surprise us. Would we even have had the bravery of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome in going to the tomb in the dark to complete the interrupted anointing process? Or are we more likely to have been with the men locked away for fear of arrest? Locked up by their shattered dreams and the loss of their Teacher and their Lord, their Messiah.
It should not surprise us because it was not what anyone expected; no one had ever grasped what Jesus had been saying to them about being arrested, killed and rising again on the third day. It would need several very different appearances for the truth to be grasped. Jesus was truly risen.
But here we are in our gospel reading with the first of those appearances and Mary Magdalene. God chooses this particular woman to be the very first to encounter the risen Jesus in such a personal way.
It was still dark, John tells us. He had said ‘It was night’ when Judas left the upper room. Jesus had talked of bringing light; he had opened the eyes of the blind and light had flooded in. He declared himself to be the light of the world. But at this point for all the disciples following the crucifixion and burial, ‘it was still dark’. Yet as the story unfolds light dawns. The darkness for Mary is dispelled. She can say to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’
So who is this woman whom Jesus chooses to make himself known before any of the twelve disciples?
In John’s gospel she only first appears standing at the foot of the Cross with Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary the wife of Clopas and John, the beloved disciple. She is there close; standing by Jesus to the very end. Clearly she is a disciple, a follower with deep loyalty. Mark and Matthew tell us that she saw where Jesus was laid in burial, along with Mary the mother of Joses. They also tell us about the early visit to the tomb and finding the stone rolled away, and the vision of angels telling them that Jesus is risen.
It is Luke who gives us the only other piece of important information about her in his eighth chapter,
‘Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities; Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chusa, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their means.’
Now Mary Magdalene has had a bad press down through the centuries; ever since Pope Gregory the Great, in the 6th century, declared officially that Mary Magdalene was to be identified as the sinful woman about whom Luke wrote in chapter 7. Thus Mary became known as a prostitute and in art and stories has repeatedly been so depicted ever since. In our own day Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code has played on the idea that she was actually Jesus’ wife; in Jesus Christ Superstar we have a former prostitute in love with Jesus. But in just these past weeks a new film with Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene and Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus has been on release that seeks to portray Mary very differently, and arguably much more closely aligned to what the gospels themselves tell us.
Archaeologists have made remarkable discoveries in ancient Magdala. It was a fishing centre. A place of commerce and wealth. So the picture in Luke 8 of Mary being one of those who was able to provide for Jesus and the twelve is backed up by such discoveries. She was a woman of means. She generously gives.
But Luke is also clear that she was a woman who had a disturbed and troubled life. 7 demons are cast out of her. 7 the number of completion implies that she was very seriously impacted by whatever trouble such demonic forces inflicted on her. We have no description of how this was manifest so we should not over speculate. All we need to know is here; a woman held bound by forces beyond her control is freed and released by Jesus. He transforms her life. In response she decides to leave Magdala, just as Peter and Andrew left Capernaum, to travel with Jesus, and to offer her wealth to support him and his disciples. Clearly therefore she heard his teaching; she witnessed miracles, and each time was reminded of what Jesus had done for her.
It is this disciple to whom Jesus first reveals himself.
CALLED BY NAME
Just as we have already seen John uses this story to show that light is dawning and overcomes the darkness so too he continues another theme; that of Jesus as Good Shepherd.
The good shepherd calls his sheep by name, and they follow. The whole tender incident of Jesus saying to the bemused and confused woman, ‘Mary’ is the good shepherd doing just that. For her it must have recalled so much from the past months. The release from evil, the joy of his teaching, the wonder of his miracles, the personal nature of his relationship with each disciple is all captured in the simplicity of calling her name. She is known. She is loved. The Lord is here. He commissions her to be the first witness of the resurrection. She is to go and tell others; she has an apostolic calling to witness.
Here Mary stands for us all, and for each of us. We too are known and called by name. We too are loved beyond measure. We too are met by the risen Lord and commissioned to go and tell others the good news of the risen one.
The resurrection of Jesus really does change everything for us. It changes our attitude to death because it has now been ultimately defeated and we are offered resurrection life.
It changes our attitude to our bodies because bodily resurrection means that the importance of our bodies, already given in creation, is further enhanced.
It means that our whole moral order and thinking is to be rooted not simply in creation but also in resurrection. It tells us that life in all its fullness is truly here in Jesus – and that it therefore impacts every part of life, personal and social.
But this particular story of the first appearance of the risen Jesus tells us that it is also deeply personal and for each of us as an individual. Just like Mary Magdalene Jesus frees us from the evil forces that seek to destroy us; whether they be the inner or outer forces. Jesus does truly turn darkness to light. Jesus calls us each by name for we are each his beloved and he is the one true Good Shepherd of all.