Fr. Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Everything Has Become New
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’
She turned to him and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’” (John 20)
After a week of high political drama, and with another one yet to come, we may feel that we need some emotional encouragement.
So today we are celebrating the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (technically July 22). Mary is intrinsically someone worth celebrating, because she is one of the most fascinating of all the New Testament figures. But more significant to us today, I think her story has at least two important things to say to us about the politics of our day.
In the first instance, Mary is described by the gospel writers as a very distinctive individual, being mentioned as one of Jesus’ followers more often than almost anyone else. Yet in the popular religious imagination, she gets blended into a composite of at least three separate women: first herself; then Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha, about whom we heard last week); and finally the repentant woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and then wiped them with her hair. And of course, in that context, it is often assumed that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute (even though scripture never even suggests that).
The real Mary was a woman from the town of Magdala, on the coast of the Sea of Galilee, who had suffered from some form of mental or physical ailment that was cured by Jesus when he “cast out seven demons” from her. (These seven demons seem to have morphed in the tradition into seven sins—and hence the suggestive assumptions about her sexual past). In any case, this experience of healing seems to have attached Mary to Jesus in a particularly intense and committed way, for at the time of his crucifixion, when most of the other disciples have abandoned Jesus, she is clearly named as one of the women who stay and watch with him.
Mary is also among those who go to the tomb early on Easter morning, carrying the burial spices to finalize the disposition of his body. But then, depending on which gospel you read, it is Mary who is first told by an angel that he is no longer in the tomb but risen as he said—or, as we heard today in the account from John, she is the one who first sees the risen Jesus himself, mistaking him for the gardener.
One thing is clear: the image that has been conveyed over and over again of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute in icons, legends, paintings, and poetry—is largely based on a mistaken reading of scripture. It just doesn’t say what people thought. And that leads to the first lesson we might draw from Mary regarding the current political scene: people are prone to believe what they want to, regardless of the facts. This extraordinary power of self-deception, and the indulgence we give ourselves to play with the truth, is a temptation against which we must be constantly vigilant as individuals and as a people, for it leads only to distortion, poor judgment, and prejudice.
Mary Magdalene is also the first witness of the resurrection, and this brings us to the second and perhaps more compelling lesson we might draw from Mary. What is most striking in her encounter with Jesus, is that he appoints her as what is in effect an “apostle to the apostles,” an apostolorum apostola: the one who is to bring the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples.
Now, to understand how truly radical that designation is, we have to keep in mind that at that time, Mary as a woman could not have her testimony accepted without verification by a man, simply because of her gender. Yet she is the one appointed by Jesus as the one to bear witness for him. Jesus essentially makes her the first among equals in the disciples—a point that has often been cited in arguing for women’s leadership in the church. And it doesn’t stop there.
There are also multiple accounts in the literature of the early church that Mary became fully associated with the apostolic mission, as for example a story the revolves around an egg (which you see represented in the icon there on the altar). There are several versions, but the story goes more or less like this: because of Mary’s apostolic stature, she is able to gain admission to a banquet given by no less a personage than the Roman Emperor Tiberius. She comes before him, holding an egg, and proclaiming “Christ is risen!” The emperor scoffs at such an outrageous claim, and says that it was no more likely than that the egg she was holding should turn red there in her hand.
Well, sure enough, the egg does turn to a brilliant red color right then and there, and emboldened by such a sign, she preaches the gospel to the whole imperial household. (This is, by the way, the origin of the tradition of dyeing eggs for Easter).
What strikes me about all this is that Mary was clearly a person who by temperament was open to the new. Perhaps it was the experience of having been healed of the seven demons, but she had come to internalize the conviction that life is not static, and that one must be curious and open enough in heart and mind to encounter the unexpected, to welcome it, and to make it one’s own. Think of her encounter with Jesus in the garden on Easter morning—at first, she follows the obvious instinct to think that someone has stolen Jesus’ body away, and so she confronts Jesus (thinking he is a gardener who might be able to explain the disappearance).
But when Jesus calls her by name, she is quickly able to reassess not just who he is, but in a sense to reassess her whole world view: here is Jesus, risen from the dead against every rational expectation, and she readily embraces him as “Rabbouni” (teacher), the one who will lead her into a new creation in which (as Paul puts it in today’s epistle), “everything old has passed away.”
And so, Mary not only accepts the mantle of being the messenger to the apostles, but finds the confidence and determination in herself to appear in the Lord’s name even before the Emperor himself. Mary you might say is a bit of a radical, an activist—or in biblical terms, an apostle!
On this weekend when we are poised between two political conventions, we might take a moment to ask if there is not something to be learned from Mary’s example of being open to, and accepting of, a new order. As we know, much of the current political rhetoric is motivated by the fear of a changing world, in which new races and classes of people assert a claim upon us; in which the world has become interrelated in ways that we have yet fully to understand; and in which the diversity of peoples and cultures is inescapably present not only globally, but in our own neighborhoods.
Like Mary encountering Jesus, we may at first mistake who and what it is that we see around us. But also like Mary, perhaps we need to approach the impinging reality of this emerging new world with a willingness to reassess and respond to it openly and creatively, rather than defensively and aggressively. Surely the winners in the twenty-first century will be those who can transcend the limitations of cultural, intellectual, and economic tribalism—while the losers will be those who hang on to now outmoded chauvinisms, of whatever variety.
You see, if we believe that in the long run, it is God’s ultimate intention to draw all people to God’s own self, we should expect as people of faith that we will be constantly challenged to encounter and engage the new. God is creating—and re-creating—the world even at this moment, and the question is whether we will like Mary at the tomb mistake that change for something it is not, or be willing to recognize it for the transformative revolution that it is. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2016