Today we are celebrating the feast day of Mary Magdalene, one of the women who followed Jesus and took him seriously. She remained with him at the cross and in John’s Gospel she is the first to discover the empty tomb and encounter the risen Jesus there. This was a revelation that earned her an ancient title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. She is the first to announce, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). That title ‘Apostle to the Apostles’ first appears in the writings of a 9th century German Abbot, Rabanus Maurus, and was repeated by the great 13th century scholar Thomas Aquinas. She is not given the title ‘Apostle’, but ‘Apostle to the Apostles’. The implication is that she didn’t do any ‘apostling’ herself but she was entrusted a message and sent to the Apostles to tell them. If Paul can claim to be an apostle, even though he came on the scene later, the failure of the church over the centuries to give Mary Magdalene the same title and therefore full recognition is part of the checkered history we have. And it is only in recent years that there has been a fresh evaluation of the role of women in the early church, and indeed in all sorts of areas of history. If the only people you notice as being in the room when you write history are the men, then eyes get blinded to who else might have been present. The same goes for other differences – ethnicity, social background to name a couple. So Mary Magdalene is the First Apostle, who was also ‘Apostle to the [other] Apostles’.
Taking notice of who is in the room and who might just be shaping what happens is an interesting aspect of historical study and also noticing what makes things happen. Some people are very good at taking the credit for developments, projects and moving things forward, not least because they hold a particular office that gets attention. But behind them, even alongside them, and probably of more significance, are all those who make up the team; the others who contribute far more than they ever get the credit for.
So today, as we celebrate Mary Magdalene, we celebrate those who announce and bring into the room the crucial piece of a picture or information that means things can get moving. After all it is her news that made the male disciples get off their backsides and go to see. It is her news that changed an empty tomb into a visual aid of resurrection. Mary brings hope and new life into the room where they were in the grip of despondency, fear and death.
Mary’s story is rather sketchy. She has been conflated with other women characters in the Gospels and the story of her being a ‘fallen’ woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with tears and fragrant oil, and drying them with her hair is wrong. This is not her, but her symbol has become the jar of oil for anointing. You can see it in the east window in the Lady Chapel [in St John’s] on the ground beside her as she kneels before the resurrected Christ. She is described as being someone from whom seven demons had been driven out (Luke 8:1-3) and that would make her a person who had known what it is be fragile and vulnerable. In the film Mary Magdalene, which was in the cinema earlier in the year, she is regarded as having a demon because she was feisty and refused to do as she was told. Disobedience was taken to mean she must be possessed. She is, accordingly, subjected to a healing ritual, in which she nearly drowns, and this looks very much like spiritual abuse. To try to heal what is not actually broken, but a sign of spirit and independent thinking, and to try to drive out demons which do not exist is an abuse of power and an oppressive act.
And there are churches which will do this. To carry out an exorcism is a very serious thing to do and requires the bishop’s approval. It should not be carried out by people who are not authorized to do this precisely to protect those who are vulnerable. They are so rare that they almost never take place, and not on people. Last year the Church of England outlawed therapies to heal gay people of their sexuality, and the government have announced that they will introduce legislation to make it illegal. The reason is simple, these people are not sick, so they don’t need healing, no more than the rest of us do, and not of their orientation. Jayne Ozanne, when she came here a few weeks ago, spoke about being subjected to such therapies and the singer Vicky Beeching has spoken about how such abuse drove her to edge of suicide. It has driven others to do so. Viewed from here the healing of Mary would be the liberation that comes with acceptance, love and welcome. We just don’t see the world in terms of demon possession, but the story can still speak to us through this kind of symbolic interpretation.
So Mary Magdalene does not stand for the ‘fallen women’ in the Gospels, but for those who endured much, those who were fragile and found an embrace and welcome into the community of his followers. She stands for all who have struggled with things which torment them or who don’t fit the boxes we want people to fit; those who may been subjected to much abuse and harmful behaviour by others who got their needs so wrong. She stands for those who despite weaknesses were entrusted to be storytellers of the astounding, world-changing, good news of Christ’s resurrection. She stands for those who are easily overlooked when deciding who has made the difference as the praise and the adulation are taken by others; those whose contribution is invaluable, whom we need to have in the room and see as being in the room.
There are many Mary Magdalene’s in churches, in fact many of us may find her story resonates with ours: damaged, in need of healing of the effects of pain and suffering, not least at the hands of others, and yet who are sent as apostles to bring vital news to change a room filled with death and despair into one of hope and resurrection life. Mary Magdalene is a real saint, overlooked, yet at the heart of the story. She is the ‘First Apostle’, the one who is sent to apostle the other apostles. True apostolic succession works this way as the ones who hear in each generation also receive healing and are enabled to tell the story to others, who in turn tell the story as they are set free to do. Her message is simple, “I have seen the Lord”. We can only tell what is real to us, of a faith that inspires, ignites passion and compels us to go out as we are set free to go. May Mary Magdalene be for us an inspiration as we look to be set free to tell the story of our faith, to be apostles of the love of God in Jesus Christ and so enable others to tell in turn.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Mary Magdalene, Sunday 22 July 2018