16 April 2017

Mary's Turn

Resurrection of the Lord

We owe Mary Magdalene an enormous debt of gratitude.  No, she's not a woman with a questionable past, although the Church has slandered her for centuries.[1]  No, she didn’t anoint Jesus’ feet with her hair; that was a different Mary, Mary of Bethany, brother of Lazarus (Jn. 12:1-8).  No, she didn’t have a reputation. No, she wasn’t a seductress—despite how Mary Magdalene is portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, singing to herself, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”[2] And there’s Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), who suggests that Jesus had a marital relationship with Mary Magdalene, and a family.[3]  Dan Brown was just playing with tall tales that are centuries old—and making a lot of money from it.  These images of Mary make good characters in musicals and fantasy novels, but they don’t reflect the Mary we find here in John.

So, no, she doesn't have a past.  In fact, we’ve only just met her. She first appears at the crucifixion— along with Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Jesus’ mother (Jn. 19:25). Three Marys.  We meet Mary Magdalene at the cross and then next at the tomb. And it’s this link between cross and tomb, and John’s decision to make Mary the main character (apart from Jesus, of course), which is significant and should grab our attention. 
First, we need to remember that in John’s Gospel everything—every word, image, metaphor, every character—is there for a reason. Nothing’s by mistake. So, this morning, I’m going to stay very close to the text.  Everything matters.  Everything is intentional.  So, wake up, pay attention, to what John is saying here about Mary’s experience, about resurrection, about Jesus. 

In hearing or reading this text on countless Easter Sundays—"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (Jn. 20:1)natural for us to focus on the moved stone and empty tomb.  But we need to notice right away that it’s Mary Magdalene who first discovers the remnants of resurrection. Mary.  Not the Beloved Disciple, not Peter.  Mary.

She runs to fetch Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They return together to see for themselves.  They find the tomb just as Mary described it.  Empty.  The linen wrappings are left neatly on the side of the grave slab. They’re flummoxed, confused, and then leave the scene, shaken by everything—so shaken they ignore Mary.  But we can’t ignore her.

Mary remained.  Mary remained in her grief.  She stood there, outside the tomb.  That’s what grief often feels like, doesn’t it?  You can’t move.  You’re stuck.  She stood.  Weeping.  Instead of running from grief (as the men did), Mary courageously faces hers.  John tells us, “As she wept,”—still weeping!—“she bent over to look into the tomb” (Jn. 20:11b).  This is remarkable—in the midst of her heartache she is courageous and strong enough to face the source of her sorrow, that which has broken her heart.  She enters into the place where death lives.  She goes into the dark tomb looking for Jesus. Although knowing his absence, her eyes still strain to find him; her eyes guide her forward into the tomb.  Her grief is leading her. 

In the tomb, she witnesses two angels sitting where Jesus once was—one at the head and one at the feet, John wants us to know (Jn. 20:12).  The angels intentionally frame the place of absence.  They “hold” the space between them, this place where Jesus once was and is no more. And, what comes to mind when we hear of something being flanked by two angels?  Anything? The “mercy seat” of YHWH, or kapporet, was the golden lid placed on the top of the Ark of the Covenant; it was flanked by two cherubim, with empty space between them, “locating” the dwelling place of YHWH (Exodus 25:17-22). The cherubim on the Ark frame or “hold” holiness, creating a space for the dwelling of the invisible, non-representable, non-possessable Living God.[4] In the tomb, Jesus “fills” the holy space with his absence.

With great respect the angels ask, “Woman,”—a word used earlier in the Gospel to refer to Jesus’ mother (Jn. 2:4)—“why are you weeping?” (Jn. 20:14).  She answers.  She says she was searching for Jesus’ body.  At that moment, John tells us, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (Jn. 20:14), but she didn’t recognize him.  Then Jesus says to her, “Woman,”—again, so much respect—“why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (Jn. 20:15).  Assuming him to be the gardener, she doesn’t see him.  She’s too concerned with finding a dead body.

Jesus says to her, “Mary!”  And, then, what does John tell us? Remember, every detail matters.  “She turned and said to him, ‘Rabbouni, Teacher’” (Jn. 20:16).  Isn’t this odd?  “She turned.”[5]  Wasn’t she already facing him, the gardener/Jesus?   Something so simple can be so profound.  She had already turned once, turned around to see what she thought was the gardener; but that turn was insufficient. She had to turn again.  But this was not the turn of the head or the body, but the turn of the heart.  And it’s with this second turning, the turn of the heart, the turn of “Aha!”, the turn that comes with revelation, recognition, realization, which allows the blind to see, the lost to be found, and the dead to come to life.  What’s required in us is the second turn. Without this turn, we can see but still be blind.  Without the turn, we’re left with an empty tomb, and the gardener, but no Jesus.  With the turning, everything changes.

So, how does this happen? What prepared Mary to hear the divine voice and see the Risen Lord before her?  Perhaps it was her tears.  The only other person who weeps in John’s Gospel is Jesus, when he sees the mourners weeping over the death of his friend Lazarus.  We’re told that Jesus was deeply disturbed by their grief, to the point that he was shaking and shuddering (Jn. 11:33). His tears pave the way for resurrection.  “Take away the stone,” Jesus said (Jn.11:39).  Tears, moved stones, and empty graves link these stories together.  Here, Mary Magdalene weeps for Jesus. Her tears pave the way for her to encounter resurrection.

What if it’s grief that prepares Mary to make the turn?  What if it’s her sorrow?  Her grief became the portal, which guided her into a dark tomb and beyond it.  Her grief, her sorrow, her tears, was the door, a holy threshold leading her to experience resurrection.  It’s her confrontation with loss and absence, her unwillingness to turn from her pain, her persistence, her determination, which allows her to move through absence to see the Lord of Life, not in a cemetery, we’re told, but in a garden (Jn. 19:41). We see that her grief, all along, was being held by resurrection, held by the Resurrected One, who makes space for her tears but never allows them to have the final word.

Thank you, Mary Magdalene, for showing us how to face our sorrow and embrace resurrection.  The first preacher of the resurrection.  The first to encounter the Risen Lord—without the Church or an institution, without tradition, without the aid of church school teachers.  She had no one, nothing.  She had nothing but her love and her grief, which was deep because of her love.  Astonishing.  I can’t help but wonder, what if Mary Magdalene had been the first Pope, instead of Peter?  A blasphemous thought, perhaps.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  Patriarchy has been disastrous for us.  The Church and the history of the West, along with the rest of the world, would have been very different had we listened to John’s Gospel and gave more space to the feminine and the witness of women.[6]  Mary models a different way for us to be disciples, a different way for us to see.

Sometimes it’s grief, sorrow, sadness, even suffering which prepares us to make the turn, to encounter resurrection, which opens our eyes to see God’s presence standing before us in surprising, startling ways.  Sometimes it’s beauty that opens our eyes to see resurrection. Sometimes it’s hearing your name called by someone who loves you through and through.  Resurrection can be encountered through doubt, as Thomas knew (Jn. 20:19-29). Or, resurrection can show up at daybreak to grill you some fish for breakfast, as John tells us (Jn. 21:4-14).  

Mary Magdalene teaches us to look for the Risen Lord precisely in those places of loss and sadness, in our tears, weeping for what might have been, for lost opportunities, regrets, wrongs, weeping for ourselves, those we love, weeping for the world.  Christ promises to meet us in those places.  

Isn’t this what we’re saying when we declare, “Christ is risen!”? For the one who said, “I am Resurrection.  I am Life.” (Jn. 11:25), holds life and death, all of it, the abandonment and abyss of the cross, all the pain and grief of the world, even the depths of hell itself—holds all of it—and holds all of us with the fierce, yet tender love of God, a love that will never, ever let us go. 

Christ is risen! 


Thanks be to God!

1. Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833-1898), The Morning of Resurrection (1882).

2. Saint Mary Magdalene icon, (11th century), Monastery Dionysiou, Mount Athos, Greece.

[1] For example, Pope Gregory (d. 604) preached in a sermon, in 591, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected.” Cited in Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 133.
[2] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar (1970).
[3] Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (Anchor Books, 2009).
[4] Rowan Williams, “Between the Cherubim: The Empty Tomb and the Empty Throne,” On Christian Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), 187.
[5] I am indebted to Jaime Clark-Soles (137), for drawing my attention to the significance of the second “turn” in John 20.  The sermon circumambulates around this insight.
[6] The integration of the feminine into the psyche of the Christian experience is slowly occurring, but there’s still more healing or “therapy” required.  The psychologist C. G. Jung (1875-1961) was among the first to point the Church, and its theologies, in this direction toward deeper wholeness.  See Murray Stein, Jung’s Treatment of Christianity: The Psychotherapy of a Religious Tradition (Chiron Publications, 1986), 183ff.

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