St Mary Magdalene and the anniversary of Church
In the name of the Father…
I wonder if any of you have ever been to Machu Picchu? I haven’t, although I understand it is a beautiful, mysterious and fascinating place. It was discovered exactly 100 years ago today, by a certain Hiram Bingham, a Hawaiian explorer. Known as the lost city of the Incas, it is set high in the mountains above the Urubamba valley in Peru, some 2,430 metres (that’s 7,970 ft to you and me) above sea level. It is one of the highest tourist locations on earth, and you have to be careful up there with your breathing. Dating from the mid-fifteenth century, it lay undiscovered for centuries, although there is an irony in that while today marks the hundredth anniversary of its discovery: it was there all the time of course, and the local people knew it too. Nevertheless, history commemorates its hundredth anniversary today.
This, I think tell us something about anniversaries - or rather our modern interest in and celebration of anniversaries. Today we celebrate the 128th anniversary of the Dedication - the opening of this church. Today we celebrate, as we do every year, our patronal festival, which very conveniently combines the Feast Day of our patron saint, with the anniversary of the consecration of the building. We did it last year, and we’ll do it next year. Although, let me say that I hope that next year, we will have cleaned the chancel behind me, and in association with that, we will have learned so much more about the history of our building and community, through the wonderful work that the Drama Group are already embarked upon: producing a dramatised history of our origins. Joy Heywood is doing fantastic research, compilation and authoring, I know, to produce what will be a fascinating dramatic presentation in September. And it is all part of our Lottery bid, and you’ll be pleased to know that after 16 months of preparation, discussion and goodwill raising, I finally submitted the Lottery bid this week. So we are now in the hands of the…. well, whoever they are. The Lottery, yes. And indeed I fear that that is exactly what it is. We’ll see.
In the meantime we celebrate this year, but celebrate what? A bit like the celebration of the discovery of Machu Picchu, we can pick a date, but that date is simply one among many. For there is an important sense in which it is not true that our church was founded 128 years ago, any more than it is true that Machu Picchu was discovered 100 years ago. Machu Picchu was there all along, and so too was our church.
For our church, whether we think globally, or locally, was there all along as well. Locally, the community growing up around here was new - it was a new creation, a new gathering of people, who began to settle around here for work and living after the Railway came in 1871, and business folk began to move into new properties built on the Bycullah, Ridgeway Park and Old Park estates. But while the worshipping community that gathered from 1883 onwards were new to each other, the people of God - the church was not new.
Our church - God’s church - is not something which came into being on a particular date. As Christians we date ourselves back to the first resurrection experiences - indeed to the first one of all - which, rather delightfully for us, involved the apostle to the apostles - the first person to meet the risen Lord - Mary Magdalene. Our church began, not with Georgiana Twells in 1883, but with Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Christ in the early hours of Sunday April 5th 33 AD. That is the general consensus, by the way - the crucifixion took place at a Passover festival sometime in the governorship of Pontius Pilate, who was in charge of Jerusalem between 26-36 AD. That 33 AD is widely accepted leads to the assumption that Jesus was 33 years old when he was crucified, leading on from the spurious assumption that he was born in 1 AD, or 0 BC whichever way you’d have it. But since it is extremely unlikely that that was the year of his birth, and there is evidence that it might have been on one of various dates between 6 BC and 4 AD, we can dismiss the idea that he was 33 when it all happened.
But happen it did - external sources acknowledge the crucifixion as an historical event, and Mary Magdalene’s encounter took place on the third day afterwards. And in that encounter we have the foundation of the Christian church - and therefore, inevitably, of, this church on top of this hill.
Every church should date its foundation to Mary Magdalene, who began the church by declaring to her brother disciples - ‘I have seen the Lord’. Faith begins at that moment. And all of us, beginning with her, but also remembering Thomas, who did not believe it at first - all of us are called to engage with, question, doubt even, but to ultimately accept the historical truth of the life and death of Christ, and the spiritual and physical reality of what Mary saw first - the risen Christ.
So it is lovely for us - who, perhaps rarely, as a parish, are dedicated to St Mary Magdalene, and to whom every other church dedicated to anyone else, owes a great debt. From our vantage point high on this hill - this holy hill even - we can truly look down on the others - for without Mary Magdalene, there wouldn’t be any other saints!
All of this is deeply ironic given the bad press, and ostracisation Mary Magdalene has had to endure in her life and after. I was in St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday for the consecration of the new Bishops of Salisbury and Stepney, and the Dean of Salisbury - our most senior woman cleric, preached. And she quoted a story in which, in her best Northern accent, she said, ‘there’s not a shred of evidence that Mary Magdalene was a tart’. Nor is there a shred of evidence that she was married to Jesus either. Mary Magdalene’s reputation has been throughly manipulated and duffed up over the centuries, all of which overlooks her fundamental purpose, value and claim to fame. She was the first person to see the risen Lord, and while there have been various attempts - not leastly on the part of the Catholic Church - to discredit her suitability for this role, no-one has ever disputed the fact of it. They just don’t like the fact that a woman should have this honour. And yet, if you think about what actually happened that early morning - when she went to the tomb, it was extremely likely it would be a woman doing that kind of loving, mournful thing. None of the men would dare.
And, as is often said, as a woman, she is an unreliable witness - women could not give evidence in court - and so it is rather strange that the very beginnings of Christianity should hinge on the testimony of a woman. It is a very risky, vulnerable way to kickstart a faith. And for many that fact lends a note of authenticity of the story, which alongside the undisputed facts of the crucifixion around 33 AD, make the Christian story not something which can be simply dismissed as a fairy tale or fabrication.
So there is a sense in which it all hinges, for us and for everyone else, on Mary Magdalene - on her loving act, going to the tomb that morning, and of spreading the unbeliavable story about who it was whom she met as the sun rose. And so it was that the sun rose on our faith, and on our community here. For while we can date the beginnings of the elevated ecclesiastical location our church building occupies to 1883, it is, in fact, irrelevant. ‘We’ve been here 2000 years’, as the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ puts it. What matters is the people within the building - the true church - the ecclesia of God’s people. Ecclesia means ‘people called out’- called out of a community to give witness, that is. Not called into the building, but called out of it. The English word ‘church’, comes from the old Germanic Kirike which itself derives from the Greek κυριακή kuriakē, which means ‘House of the Lord’.‘Kyrie’, you might remember from our opening Kyrie eleison, means Lord.
‘I was Glad’, sings the Psalmist - we were glad - to go up to the house of the Lord - and we truly can go up to this, our 128-year old house of the Lord, perched as we are on our hill, but we are even gladder to go out from it and share the good news of God’s kingdom - the Good News that Christ is alive - the good news that we, like Mary Magdalene, have seen the Lord. We see the Lord in scripture, in history, in bread and wine, and in each other - for we are the body of Christ. And that is why, like Mary Magdalene, we too must go to our brothers and sisters and tell them what we have seen.
So, thanks be to God for all our anniversaries, for all churches, and for all the people of God, beginning with Georgiana Twells, who have gone up to this house of the Lord on this our hill, to sing God’s praise and share the gospel of his Kingdom.
To be him Glory, praise and honour, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 24/07/11