SERMON—Feast of St. Mary Magdalene—22 July 2018
Once again, St. Peter had to remind me that today (or rather, tomorrow) is my feast day. I’m not sure why, but I seem to forget every year. Perhaps it’s the melodic sounds of the never-ending angelic choirs up here, or simply that such things are not particularly important for me. I was always a bit of a self-effacing woman—or, at least, that’s the way you have so often portrayed me. You’ve made me an amalgamation of several women of dubious moral character. What was the name of that medieval pope who decided that there were too many of us nameless women in the New Testament, and that we had to be merged into one person, and a prostitute at that? Says far more about the wild imaginings of celibate male clergy than it does about me. I was never a prostitute. A sinner, no doubt, but then again who isn’t? I was an independent, self-affirming woman, and I was there with him from the very beginning. I supported his ministry out of my personal resources, which were indeed considerable. I’m mentioned twelve times in the gospels, more than most of the other apostles. There’s even a gospel in my name, but you don’t consider it important enough to be canonical. Goes to show.
Oh, I have certainly been a source of much inspiration for you: great art and fabulous music. I’ve also had popular appeal, even though it’s not true, contrary to what the bestseller list from some years back might have suggested, that he and I were married. Another projection of a novelist’s inner fantasy life. Sometimes, I feel like a person without an identity, a kind of stand-in for all the uncertainties your church has toward women. He was certainly not like that. He never had uncertainties or doubts about our place, or our role, or our importance, or our deep personal worth. We were never disposable for him. We were as significant as all the others who followed him while he walked amongst us. We were equal to them. That was one of the more attractive qualities about him: he always respected us. He never demeaned us. I’m not sure his church has always been equally blameless about that. Rather sad, I would say. Easier for a woman to be a repentant sexual sinner than a leader among the chosen. That’s been pretty much the story of my legend.
But I was not a legend. I was there with him, a flesh-and-blood woman, one of those who walked and talked and wept and laughed with him. I’m willing to bet that you’re probably asking yourself the one question most people want to know: What was he really like? I’m not sure I could really answer that to your complete satisfaction. You have built up so many stories and myths about him—and have used him for so many wildly contradictory agendas—that anything I might say would be filtered through your own long-standing prejudices. I can tell you one thing: he was the most human of all the humans I ever knew while I was on earth. And a man imbibed with an astonishing sense of justice. He was never one to quibble over rules and regulations. He always concerned himself with real human needs, whatever those might have been. In a way, what happened to him didn’t come as a surprise; it was to be expected. It was all so incredibly heart-breaking, of course. I only wish all those men who had followed him had also had the courage to stand by him. But as usual, it was the women—me and my sisters—who stood strong. Who weren’t afraid.
I like the readings you’ve chosen for today. I like it that you’ve compared me to Judith, the great heroine of my people. I certainly didn’t do anything as dramatic or as momentous as she did, but I fulfilled my part. I bore witness to his presence among us and to his nature as coming from the Holy One. While I may not have been a liberator like Judith, I stood by him. I bore witness to him. In her prayers, Judith is not shy about reminding God of the divine predilection for those who are most vulnerable: the lowly and the oppressed, which was the exact same message that he carried. It was something he taught us all to honour. You see, you don’t know very much about me after I disappear from the gospels. But contrary to legend, I did not withdraw into a cave in southern France to repent for my sinful sexual ways. Another fanciful and distorted view of who I was. I carried my part and fulfilled my role. Like the others, I was there at Pentecost. Like the others, I passed forward the message. Like the others, I testified to who he really was. Yes, I was not killed for it like most of the others, but it did carry a cost. It was difficult and demanding work, but it was his work. And of that, I am immensely proud.
I remember with great delight and wonder that Easter morning in the garden. I had gone there very early, before anyone else, because I wanted to wash his body and give him a proper burial. It was eerily quiet. I was sad. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the stone covering the tomb’s entrance had been displaced. I was sure someone, or some group, had taken his dead body away. I ran to tell the others; Peter and John came to check. Of course, we had absolutely no idea what had happened. But I stayed behind, weeping. His disappearance was more than I could bear. It was disrespectful and offensive: a desecration. I peeked into the empty tomb, only to be surprised by two creatures asking me why I was crying. What a silly question. Of course I was crying. A voice sounded behind me, that of a man, asking the same silly question. I really thought he was the gardener. He looked so different, as though he had been transformed. “Mary,” he called me. My heart sang. Then and there, I knew it was him. Then and there, I understood the magnitude of what had happened. He was alive, back from the dead. For some reason, however, he wouldn’t let me touch him. Rather, I was sent on a mission to the others, to announce that I had seen him, that he was back. Imagine my joy.
This is why you call me “the apostle to the apostles.” All because of that passing encounter near the empty tomb. It’s actually not wrong, though perhaps not as true as you might imagine. I was actually apostle to them long before this incident took place. There were several of us women among those called. The number shouldn’t be twelve, but more like fifteen, or eighteen, or even twenty. Not surprisingly, we’ve been erased. Not surprisingly, our leadership roles—our essential roles of support, and care, and even teaching—were more than an all-male church could cope with. I understand there are some churches that still have a hard time coping. I wonder if that will ever change.
Sometimes, I think being called “apostle to the apostles” is a bit of a sop, a way of making sure I stay in my place, of keeping me under some ecclesiastical thumb. Because if I were really and truly thought to be first among equals, a great deal of what has happened to women (and other persons, I might add) would not have taken place. And women would be out there front and centre—certainly much more than they already are. But at least you recognize that giving me that title is a way of making amends, and I humbly and sincerely accept that. I know that your hearts are in the right place.
I guess the one thing I would really like most of all—perhaps as a sort of feast day gift—is that you stop seeing me as a woman defined solely by a kind of wanton sexuality. It’s unjust to me, but also to so many others. I understand this has become a rather pressing issue for you, and all to the good. My place in his life, my role amongst those who chose to follow him, was a function of who I was as a person, and not because of my gender or my sexuality. In fact, you and I are much the same. We want to be loved and fed by him because of who we truly are.