May I speak in the name of the (+) Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It’s good to be reminded of why we are here: the death and resurrection of Christ, the wellspring of our Christian faith. As St Paul says, if Christ is not raised all our preaching is in vain.
But our particular reason for hearing this resurrection gospel today is that it is the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the risen Christ in John’s gospel; the first link in the great chain of witnesses which make up the Church.
It’s an interesting thought-experiment to imagine ourselves in Mary’s position. What would we have done? How would we have reacted? Would we have known it was him?
Interesting, but not all that helpful. We are not Mary. It is not AD30. We are not in that garden in Jerusalem. We cannot know how we would have reacted.
We do not really know what Mary was thinking going to the garden that Sunday morning. We really do not know why she was going.
What was Mary expecting to see? Perhaps just where his body had been laid. To sit a while and look. To make some small act of personal devotion for the one who had been taken away. To mourn.
What she sees and finds is the last thing she was expecting. Her world had been shattered by the cross. Now it is shattered again by the empty tomb.
Face-to-face with the empty tomb, Mary sheds tears of desperation that she cannot find even the dead body of the one she seeks.
Unlike our first reading from the Song of Solomon, Mary is not searching for a lover, but for a dead body. We need to take care not to enter “Da Vinci Code” territory by suggesting any sort of romantic love between Jesus and Mary. But we can still draw from that image in the Song of Solomon. Mary loved Jesus enough to go searching for him under quite dangerous circumstances – Temple guards or Roman soldiers could have been lying in wait for any more troublemakers.
But we must not confuse all love with romantic love, however strong Mary’s love was for the Lord. In the beautiful old hymn we sing “Jesu, lover of my soul; Let me to thy bosom fly,” recognising the love between Jesus and those who follow him.
We can also recognise the same desperate search as in the Song of Solomon. We get a sense that Mary really would have gone about the whole city of Jerusalem to find where Jesus lay.
But unlike the Song of Solomon, Mary does not find Jesus. Mary is at the tomb, and Jesus seeks her out. And at first she doesn’t recognise him.
Perhaps it was the tears clouding her eyes. Perhaps she was so expecting to find Jesus in the tomb she could not see him in the flesh. Expecting to see one thing, she doesn’t trust what her eyes are telling her.
Not recognising Jesus is a constant theme in John’s gospel, or at least not recognising Jesus for who he truly is. Thinking he is only a man from Nazareth, thinking he is possessed by demons; now this same lack of recognition happens at a physical level – “This must be the gardener,” says Mary.
His voice breaks the spell. And only then does she see. In John 10, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. He says that the sheep of his flock hear his voice, he calls them by name, and they follow him. Could John be deliberately referring back to that? Are Jesus’ earlier words now fulfilled in the encounter with Mary? It would be very like John: his Gospel is full of these backwards and forwards references, and today’s passage is no exception.
For a start, it may be no coincidence that Jesus first greets Mary as “woman,”the same way he addresses his mother at the Wedding at Cana. At Cana, the miracle of turning water into wine is called the first of his signs – those things Jesus did which point beyond themselves to tell us who Jesus really is. As Mary the mother of Jesus witnessed that first sign, Mary Magdalene is the witness of Jesus’ last and greatest sign: overcoming death and rising to new life.
So, no coincidence that women are the witnesses of the first and last signs Jesus gives.
It is also surely no coincidence that it is a woman who first tells others that Jesus has risen from the dead. In John 4 the Samaritan woman at the well was the first person to go and spread the Good News about Jesus, bringing her whole town to him.
Mary Magdalene tells only the disciples, but she and they set in motion a chain of similar tellings that would lead in time to the founding of churches, the writing of the Christian scriptures, and in due time the faithfulness of a village in building this church, and you coming here this morning.
These common themes and parallels – women as witnesses of the first and last signs, women as first messengers of the Good News – are just one way John crafts his Gospel into a work of literature. We are so used to thinking of the Gospels as works of history that we forget that they are works of art too.
It is like John has crafted a giant piece of tapestry where each bright thread of colour is interwoven into multiple areas. Every part is connected with every other part, and the jumble of threads and ideas come together in a beautiful image.
And the meeting of Mary and Jesus in the garden really is one of those lasting images from the New Testament – it has inspired countless works of visual art. Yet perhaps surprisingly, John is the only one of the Gospel writers to describe this specific encounter. It may not occur to us to ask, but why did he include this particular resurrection appearance?
Well, you might say, because it happened. Mary saw the Lord, then told the disciples.
OK, but why this particular story in preference to others? The end of John 20 tells us that Jesus did many other things after his resurrection, but they are not written in this Gospel. Why include this particular story?
One suggestion is that by the time John’s Gospel was written in around AD90 women were being sidelined in the church. Jesus had radically included women in his mission, but they were now being pushed out from positions and roles they once held. And John’s Gospel provides a corrective with frequent reminders of just how important the female followers of Jesus were.
His mother, witnessing the first of his signs at the Wedding of Cana.
The Samaritan Woman sharing the Good News with her town.
Jesus’ mother and the other women, including Mary Magdalene, faithful at the cross.
And then Mary in the garden, the first to see him risen, and taking this news to others: Mary the apostle to all the apostles.
A well-deserved title.
But what Mary does is no more than what we are all called to do. All of us who have been called by name and baptised into the Holy Name of God are called to share in Mary’s work, to imitate her. As we grow in faith we are challenged to seek out Jesus, our Lord, and be found by him in our encounters with other people, when we read the Bible, in prayer, and in bread and wine in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Living as a baptised Christian is to join in with Mary’s mission – to pass on what we have seen and heard. To pass it on, not just with our words but in how we live our lives. What Mary Magdalene did is the reason we are here. And now we are here we are called to do the same.
When we do this, we become the next link in a vast chain going all the way back to Mary. The group of people joined together in this chain is what we might call the Church. At its best, it has gone on and on when people like you and me are inspired by the vision and knowledge of our Lord to bind themselves into that great pattern begun by Mary.
It’s not been perfect, it’s a pretty tangled mess if we’re honest. But if we could only step back from our human point of view and look at that tangled mess from God’s perspective, look at it as part of what St Paul calls the new creation of the resurrection then we might see something more than a tangled mess. We might see all those tangles, all that mess, come together like a great tapestry which looks a little bit like the body of Christ.