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Sermon for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene & the Eighth Sunday after Trinity

Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?

A confusion or a profusion of Mary Magdalenes? Or just Mary Magdalene’s profuse confusion? She “supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou hast borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”It is surely one of the great moments of mistaken identity! It leads to one of the greatest moments of witness to the Resurrection in the encounter and exchange between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ recalled in this morning’s Gospel. Yet her confusion, like Thomas’ doubting in the same chapter, all contribute to our faith and understanding.

Today, in the Providence of God, The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene coincides with The Eighth Sunday after Trinity. She is the great witness of the Resurrection, apostola apostolorum, an “Apostle to the Apostles,” as some have styled her, the first witness to the Resurrection, as Mark in his Gospel explicitly states, and thus, by extension, more theologically speaking, to the Gospel of Christ itself. The Gospels, after all, can only have been written in the light of the Resurrection. That is a key point with respect to our understanding. All four Gospels name Mary Magdalene as a figure at the death and resurrection of Christ, a witness to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

And yet, there is, perhaps, no greater perplexity and confusion than with the figure of Mary Magdalene. It begins, I surmise, with a statement made by Mark and Luke about Mary Magdalene as the one “from whom [Christ] had cast seven demons,” as Mark puts it, or, as Luke simply says, “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.”This introduces a whole new dynamic and, I think, an intriguing one that has led to much confusion and perplexity and, I fear, no end of fancy and fiction.

The interpretive narrative currently in vogue is that Mary Magdalene became seen more as the figure of repentance and less as the primary witness of the Resurrection. That is really a false dichotomy, a false or at least unhelpful opposition, and one which obscures more than it clarifies. Mark clearly connects both repentance and resurrection in one economical phrase: “on the first day of the week, [Christ] appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.”She is both a figure of repentance and a witness to the Resurrection.

But it gets more confusing. Somehow Mary Magdalene, herself an intriguing and important figure in the devotional traditions of art and prayer, was left out of the traditions of liturgical celebration in western Christianity. Only in 2016 did Pope Francis restore her feast day of July 22nd to its proper place in the calendar. And in more Protestant circles, confusion reigned as well. Somehow, Mary Magdalene, an obviously evangelical and scriptural figure, was left out of the Prayer Book Calendar of red-letter feast days, meaning Apostolic commemorations, until the 19th century. My view is that these are largely matters of oversight rather than conspiracy.

But about Mary Magdalene, conspiracies do abound. Dan Brown is laughing all the way to the bank on the basis of the popularity of his novel, the Da Vinci Code, with its fanciful claims about Mary Magdalene not to mention a myriad of other errors and speculations largely drawn from later gnostic texts. You don’t want to get me going on about that novel. The simple point is that it is a conspiracy theory about a conspiracy theory with an appeal to American Women’s Book Clubs as a kind of action thriller with a feminist bent: Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus and as the figure closest to Jesus in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. What can one say? Simply not so. But I digress.

What happened? It cannot be denied that Gregory the Great, one of the Four Latin Doctors of the Church, in the late sixth century, made the fatal, though perhaps understandable, association of Mary Magdalene as the witness to the Resurrection with, first, the Mary Magdalene out of whom seven demons are said to have been “cast out”, or at least “gone out” and then, secondly, with the association of Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel, described simply as “a woman of the city, who was a sinner,” meaning a prostitute, who in the house of Simon the Pharisee washed Jesus’s feet with ointment and wiped them with her hair. This provided a compelling image for the west of Mary Magdalene as the repentant whore even though Luke does not name her which is really odd since he speaks of“Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out” in the very next chapter without any hint that it is the same woman.

More intriguing are the Byzantine traditions that associate Mary Magdalene with Mary and Martha of Bethany in John’s account about the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. It is the setting for Christ’s statement to Martha that “I am the Resurrection and the Life”. Mary and Martha, too, it seems, have sometimes been called “apostles to the apostles,” as in an early commentary on The Song of Songs by Hippolytus, alluding to traditions different from the canonical scriptures about the centrality of Martha. Yet Eastern Orthodoxy has tended for the most part to keep the various Marys distinct and separate, focussing on Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus.

“Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them,” the Gospel for Trinity 8 reminds us even as the Epistle from Romans recalls us to our witness to Christ and his life in us. We “have received a spirit of sonship in which we cry aloud, Abba, Father.”Both passages complement the idea of Mary Magdalene as witness to the Resurrection and as the figure of repentance. Repentance is a form of the resurrection in us.

Repentance is metanoia, a change in outlook and understanding, which is what we see in the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the Risen Christ. Noli me tangere. “Touch me not,” Jesus says to her, meaning ‘don’t cling to me’, “for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” He then commissions her: “go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”She is sent to be the bearer of the Gospel of the Resurrection to the other disciples. An apostle is one who is sent. She is sent to those who will also be sent to preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. “Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord.”

But only through the change that has taken place in her. “Touch me not, … but go … and say” implies a new understanding and a new relation to Jesus. It does not imply as Jesus Christ Superstar, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and a host of other things do that her relation to Jesus was sexual and erotic but it does suggest that she is to know Jesus now in a new way as the risen Lord for all peoples. Christ’s words here echo the words of Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi that speak to spiritual identity over and against merely tribal associations. Ruth the Moabitess, a non-Israelite, will go with Naomi to her people in Bethlehem where she will become the great grandmother of King David. That is another kind of metanoia that comes about through an insight into the nature of God that transcends our particular and more ordinary relationships.

It does not deny them but changes them. The radical meaning of the resurrection is that matter matters, in other words, the body matters; it is not nothing but neither is it everything. Thus “touch me not” is immediately juxtaposed with Christ’s words to Thomas to reach out and touch with his finger and hands the wounded hands and side of Christ. It affirms the Incarnation without which the Resurrection is without meaning. Christ’s encounter with Mary Magdalene at the garden tomb and with Thomas behind closed doors speak to the ways in which we come to a new understanding of reality that are appropriate to each of us individually as knowers. As such the resurrection is the radical affirmation of our human individuality.

She came in sorrow; she leaves in joy. She came looking for a corpse; she encounters the Risen Christ. It changes everything. That in a nutshell is the meaning of repentance as a resurrection of the understanding in each of us. “Why do you weep?” Jesus asks her. “Whom do you seek?”His questions draw out her soul’s desire and one which is complemented by Christ’s words to the unnamed woman in Luke’s Gospel who washed his feet with ointment and wiped them with her hair. “Her sins,”Jesus says, ”which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much”. Such is the quality of Mary Magdalene’s love. It is a deep desire for Christ but that desire, that seeking, must always be purified and redeemed in us. Repentance is always about our realization of the incompleteness and imperfection of our wills and desires and as such witnesses to the truth of our desires as found in Christ but only according to his word. Christ is not some projection of our desires.

The witness of Mary Magdalene shows the radiancy of redemption; our sorrows are changed into joy. We are raised up by Christ and set into motion towards one another. We are raised up into the community of the Trinity where in the spirit of sonship “we cry aloud Abba, Father.”Our lives of repentance witness to the resurrection, to our life in Christ’s body. Such is the witness of Mary Magdalene.

Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?

Fr. David Curry
The Feast of Mary Magdalene & Trinity 8, 2018
Christ Church & St. George’s, Falmouth