Sermon for Year A, Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
Saint Thomas Episcopal Church
July 22, 2012
This morning we celebrate what little we know of the life of Mary Magdalene.
We give thanks for her.
We also, as always, will ask ourselves what she has to do with us.
To begin with, she has a common name,
And is easily confused with other women called Mary,
Most notably Jesus’ mother Mary –
But is not her, of course;
And although the name Mary is given at other points in Scripture,
Referring to other Marys, as we shall see,
The name of Mary Magdalene is reserved for something quite specific.
She was from the town of Magdala, right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee,
Thus her name is a designation of where she was from –
Joe Siouxcity, Bobby Newyork, Tammy Reno.
(By the way, never play cards with people with those names.)
So, all that really means we know, is that her name was Mary.
The name of the town Magdala is a conflation of ideas: it literally means “fish tower,”
Referring to its two most salient features:
One, it must have had some sort of prominent tower,
And two, it was where fish from the sea were processed and packed in salt.
Magdala also had a natural springs and plenty of quack doctors,
Which meant people liked to come and soak their troubles,
And that meant all sorts of other recreation, including, I’m sure, prostitution,
So Magdala was known in its region as a place of ill repute.
All that, of course, before it was tragically sacked by the Romans.
Luke and Mark say that Mary was healed by Jesus of “seven demons.”
Another Mary of Scripture, Mary of Bethany, broke a large bottle of expensive perfume
Over Jesus’ head as a kind of preparation for his burial.
But a tragically mistaken homily dated September of the year 591,
Pope Gregory the Great put those biblical episodes next to the reputation of Magdala
And he preached that, quote, “She whom Luke calls the sinful woman,
Whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom
Seven devils were ejected according to Mark.
And what did these devils signify, if not all the vices?
… It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent
To perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.”
From that point forward, Mary Magdalene, for Christian history, is a prostitute.
She’s rendered by artists therefore as a woman with long, red hair –
Long, as opposed to hidden away. Red, as opposed to something plainer I guess.
Not virtuous, in other words.
A reputation she didn’t earn, mistakenly foisted upon her.
Everyone has to be from somewhere.
Still, how would you like to be remembered and painted for the next two millennia
As the scapegoat
For all the least desirable things your hometown had to offer at one time,
Whether you had anything to do with it or not?
Based on the whim of a pope who took the pulpit almost 500 years after you died?
My point is that even though it can be hard to separate
What we think we know from what we really do know,
We need to be able to do just that.
We think we know a redeemed prostitute; really, we have almost no idea.
All we have is this:
Mary Magdalene is the first apostle of Jesus, thanks be to God.
She’s one of the very first witnesses to the resurrection,
And in Luke and John, respectively, she is asked in no uncertain terms,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” and “Why are you weeping?”
She’s reminded that Jesus has promised this is precisely what would come to pass,
And Lo, it has,
And Go, run and tell it,
And she’s faithful to the task.
Even though Mark tells us she and her companions
In a rather sizeable group of women are all seized with terror and amazement,
Still, they go and they run and they tell.
They go to the other disciples, the men,
Bearing for them the most amazing news from the central moment in all history –
The first anywhere who will tell a piece of news that will be told and retold
Until it becomes synonymous with the term “Good News”! –
Listen to the most incredible thing that God has accomplished through Jesus!
He is not where we laid him, but he is raised to new life!
And Luke reports the response of the men in this way:
“These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”
“… an idle tale …”
With the dawning of morning still hanging fresh upon her,
Mary Magdalene has moved from disciple to apostle.
She is doing the one thing she has been asked to do –
To tell this amazing news!
And she’s entrusting it to the ones who should know precisely what to do with it.
Only to be dismissed as a daydreamer and a storyteller –
Someone with a big imagination, maybe –
Someone a little hysterical, strung out from the stresses of the past few days.
Don’t forget that the men to whom she goes
Are pretty strung out themselves:
A gaggle of guys locked in a little room in a very large city
That is brimming with people who would like to get their hands on them.
If I’d been preaching this 20 years ago,
I’d’ve said the room was choked with cigarette smoke.
Since it’s 2012, I’ll just say they’ve all had way too many espressos
For it being this early in the day.
They’re pacing the floor, indulging all their nervous tics.
Peter is a notorious knuckle-cracker when he gets anxious;
James bites his nails; Nathaniel blinks more than usual; Jude rocks back and forth;
Philip just keeps saying, “We gotta make a plan, guys. We gotta make a plan.”
Thomas … well, Thomas is the type to go take a walk,
So he isn’t in the room just now.
He tends not to be in the room when interesting things happen,
And then he has to play catch-up.
But then Mary Magdalene breaks into that nervous energy with her good word:
She positively infiltrates the room with the news she’s been entrusted.
We don’t look for the living among the dead, boys! We no longer weep!
She hasn’t been asked to make them believe – only to tell them the news.
Tell she does.
It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her own doubts or fears;
It just means she follows through with her assigned task.
Now, dear friends, think about the world we live in:
A world of anxiety, deadlines, constant decision-making;
Everything, it seems, is suffused with a nervous dread and fear:
A fear of making the wrong decision, offending the wrong person,
A fear of getting caught and living with the consequences.
There’s no better metaphor for this feeling this morning than the unfortunate apartment
In Aurora, Colorado, that was carefully booby-trapped on Thursday night
And left hanging with livewires and explosives by James Eagen Holmes
Before he entered a movie theater and started shooting,
Killing twelve and injuring seventy before quietly submitting to arrest by police.
No better metaphor than this horrific circumstance
Playing itself out on our TV and computer screens.
Things feel anxious and uncertain in this world of violence and corruption,
Where we feel terrible for the whole thing – helpless, but terrible –
And we feel even worse that we’ve come to the point
That we already know how it’s going to play out.
We feel uncertain about ourselves when we’re confronted with the tragic,
And yet there is a very real part of us that has already seen this before:
A part of us that knows that it’s going to happen again.
We do all the things we do every time this happens –
Saying the prayers and watching the footage and reading the paper –
Do all the things we’ve done before,
Only we do them with just a little less pain this time,
Maybe even a little less pain the next time,
Because we know how much it hurts to look with our hearts completely open,
And wouldn’t it be easier not to be torn to shreds by it all again,
If we can at all afford to turn away a little faster each time.
If this sounds a little confused, it’s because it’s confusing.
Senseless violence makes the common mind a jumble.
If it sounds like an attempt to convict you,
Believe me: it’s only because of how badly I myself need to be convicted.
What we need this morning is what we always need.
It’s what we’ve always needed.
It’s what we will require for as long as we shall exist.
We need to hear the news again.
We need Mary of Magdala back in the room, stirring the pot.
We need something that takes us out of our small selves
And asks us to put on a higher mind.
Mary and the other women burst into a room of men
Stinking drunk on uncertainty and anxiety
Burst in, with a word designed to cut through the chatter and the clutter:
Jesus Christ is risen. See what God has done.
Somehow in this world of tragic and inexplicable violence,
Good has prevailed; Love has prevailed; A better way has been shown.
Jesus Christ is always rising from the tomb. See what God is constantly doing.
Sometimes you’re the messenger of this word.
Sometimes you’re the one who needs to hear it.
Either way: resurrection didn’t just happen once; it happens all the time.
Jesus’ life is pointing to that bigger reality.
Let’s give thanks, then, to our good and gracious God, host of this eucharistic feast today,
For Mary Magdalene.
May we strive to emulate her by doing all that
We have been commissioned to achieve.