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Sermon preached on the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene (22 July 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at the life of Mary Magdalene – the First Apostle
Zephaniah 3: 14-end; Mark 15: 40 - 16: 7
If the Lord has taken away the judgements against us, why are we nevertheless so judgemental?
Whether Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrate today, is the same woman as the prostitute of St Luke Chapter 7 is unclear. She is also occasionally associated with the Mary of Bethany – sister of Martha and Lazarus. We know little about her which is probably why these attempts to identify her with other characters occur – as we try to expand her character and locate her with greater clarification within the account of Our Lord’s life and ministry.
What is clear is that Mary Magdalene has been cured of some mental disorder which today might be called neurotic but, despite the cure, still shows some signs of neurosis – certainly in St John’s account of her witnessing to the resurrection, when she agitatedly runs to and fro seemingly blind to what she’s already got.
What is also clear – and, besides, what is much more significant – is that Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection both in St John’s Gospel and here in St Mark’s Gospel. In St Mark, she is a witness alongside Mary the mother of James and Salome. While St John distils the drama and sharpens it with Mary Magdalene alone at the empty tomb and alone in the presence of the risen Lord.
But, whether St Mark or St John, in both accounts Mary Magdalene is sent away – by a young man, an angel, in St Mark and by Jesus himself in St John – sent away to tell the disciples that scripture has been fulfilled. Sent away – the very meaning of the word ‘apostle’ and yet how often do we call the disciplesapostles and forget that Mary Magdalene was the first apostle when we talk animatedly and, dare one say, neurotically, about the apostolic ministry of the Church?
The woman, Mary Magdalene, stands at the threshold of the apostolic ministry while her successors in our own day are still waiting to be allowed to walk through the door because of prejudice and judgement. And yet the Lord has taken away the judgements against us according to the prophet Zephaniah and, might one suggest, because of the choice of Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection.
Where are the disciples? Little care was normally taken over the corpses of the crucified and yet it is a respected member of the Council, Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely requests the body and provides Jesus with what is effectively a rich man’s funeral. But this is the eve of the Sabbath and, as such, the nicer points of the funeral rites like the anointing of the body must wait until the day of rest is past. Where are the disciples? At the earliest possible opportunity after the Sabbath, three women come to honour the dead as best they may with spices, in the way that we might now bring flowers to lay at the tomb. Where are the disciples? One biblical commentator suggests that they were practical-minded men who just couldn't see the point.
How many bishops could that be said of today?
We should be thankful to God that the proclamation of the Gospel – at least on the first Easter Day – wasn’t left to practical-minded men...!
I don’t believe that the House of Bishops today is populated by judgemental people but I do wonder if it might be populated by men who are afraid of judgemental people and that is why they so often seem sapped of energy and devoid of imagination. And to be afraid of judgemental people is to exercise bad judgement.
The Lord has taken away the judgment against you, shouts Zephaniah. And this is a cause of rejoicing and exultation. A woman – and a woman with mental illness – a woman who might have been a prostitute – a woman who was but human and prone to further sin beyond the encounters we read of her – is chosen by God to be the first witness to the resurrection. And the Church spends lifetime after lifetime debating what to do with people who don’t conform to a western middle class ideal which probably never really existed and certainly doesn’t exist now.
The feast day of Mary Magdalene is a day when judgement is off the agenda for twenty-four hours: a day to celebrate the apostolic ministry of women, a day to question whether practical-minded men and imagination can ever be reconciled, a day when we can all stand at the mouth of the empty tomb despite however much baggage with which we are weighed down.
But don’t go there if you don’t like taking risks; don’t go there if you fear contamination; don’t go there if you prefer a horse designed by a committee. Stay with the practical-minded men and try and work out what the point is. It’ll take you a long time and you’re unlikely to reach any conclusions so, if I were you, I’d just run to the tomb and have done with it.
You’ll find there that life’s for living and that the judgement against you has been taken away. You’ll find Mary Magdalene there – and a whole host of tax collectors and sinners pouring through the gate of life eternal ahead of you. Don’t get left behind.
This is a great feast day for the Church. It’s a day when – for once – our heart beats in time with our imagination and we glimpse that all things are indeed possible with God.