Patronal Festival 2019 ~
Moonstruck Mary Magdalene
I wonder if Mary Magdalene ever looked into the night sky and wondered about that white blob we now call the moon? She, whom some scholars have taken to be some kind of lunatic - someone from whom seven kinds of demon were cast out. The word lunatic comes from the idea that someone who was mad, was somehow affected by the phases of the moon, someone who was, perhaps as far as her contemporaries were concerned, ‘moonstruck’ - lunaticus in Latin, from whom we get the derogatory term ‘lunatic’, which suggests a long-standing, unfounded but prevalent connection between being of unsound mind and the moon. Nowadays, especially in recent months even, there has been positive developments in public concern for, attitude towards and indeed treatment of mental illness, and of course, we know a lot more about the moon than we used to. We all know it is not made of Camembert, nor even Brie. In our post-Brexit land, we know all too well that the Moon is British, and is surely made of Cheddar. And the cow that jumped over the moon was of necessity travelling at 25,000 miles an hour - the speed you need to reach to leave the earth’s orbit. Of course there is no record of it coming back - and since the earth’s gravitational force is so strong and the heat on re-entry so high, it would have vache-landed as ready-minced well and truly overcooked burgers. Vache-landed? (Never mind).
This weekend, as we celebrate our Patronal Festival, we have much to reflect upon alongside our annual celebration of those two very different women, St Mary Magdalene and Georgiana Twells, who lived nineteen centuries apart. A Victorian benefactress and an intelligent, perhaps even wealthy, perhaps troubled female disciple of Jesus. We have the restoration of our organ, which you have now heard - and international retrospectives on the Moon landings fifty years ago are also at the forefront of our minds.
Mary Magdalene was the first person to recognise the risen Christ - the first person to see and believe something impossible and world-changing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first people from this planet to walk on a surface that is not this planet, and of course one must not overlook Michael Collins who kept everything going above them so they could get home safely. Much has been said about them as heroes, as explorers, and that landing men on the moon was the greatest technical feat and exploratory success in human history. It was remarkable in 1969 and it still is. John F Kennedy, in declaring an intention to send people to the moon said of it, eight years earlier, that it was worth doing, not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Fifty years later, in a world of easy living for some and very hard living for others, these words still resonate across space and time. America was sending men to the moon, but also prolonging a terrible war in Vietnam, chilling a Cold War, and denying equal rights. The Vietnam war is over - a war in which more bombs were dropped than in the entire Second World War and every member of the population had on average 500lbs of explosives dropped on them - the Cold War is over, but they might as well not be. Human Rights and equalities are still work in progress - or not.
The effects of the Moon landing are still to be felt perhaps, in that subsequent explorations of space, by unmanned craft going as far as Pluto have stretched our knowledge and imaginations. For some, the development of scientific, astronomical discoveries have challenged their faith in an earthbound creator God; for others it has underlined the vastness of creation and the greatness of God and the specialness of our situation and context as sentient beings on a blue planet swirling in the midst of nothingness. We are no closer to answering the question ‘is there anybody out there’ than we ever were - we just understand the question differently, and answer it with mathematical probabilities rather than any evidence which we simply do not have the ability or lifespan to collect. This is to say that with increased knowledge of space and time travel (and they are the same thing) we have not solved the mystery but made it bigger. Since the moon landing half a century ago, we now know far more about what we do not know. There is more room for God, not less. You may have heard the story that Buzz Aldrin revealed that they took holy communion to the moon - the reserved sacrament, and consumed it there. There is no place on earth, or in the heavens where God is not.
That is, of course, if you believe any of it at all. There are people who deny the holocaust - the murder of Jews and others by Nazi Germany - and this, in some countries at least is a crime. Yet there is a mindset that considers the emergent newsreels, photographs, first-hand accounts by victims and perpetrators alike, and indeed human nature itself, to have created a conspiracy of half-truths to fabricate it. Unbelievable as this disbelief is, there is an even greater one, which is that there are some people who did, and still do to some extent, believe that the moon landing did not actually take place and that it was a stunt to impress the Soviets, assert American technological superiority and was carefully fabricated to be seen to meet Kennedy’s dream and pretend to ‘win’ a race that galvanised a fearful generation. Professor Brian Cox is sufficiently exercised by the preposterous idea that people believe it didn’t happen to post ‘proofs’ on the internet. But surely the idea that it didn’t happen doesn’t merit any credence at all and isn’t worth discussing. Even Donald Trump doesn’t think the Moon Landing was fake news.
What is interesting though is the connection between Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus in the garden after the resurrection, and the moon landing. Which is more believable - or unbelievable - that we God should raise Jesus from the dead, or that we should get two men on and off the moon safely? And if one is more ‘believable’ than the other - how and why is that?
For one is an observable experience with eye witnesses which is treated at least by some people as something which may or may not be believed. The other is an observable experience with eye witnesses which is treated at least by some people as something which may or may not be believed.
What the Moon Landing teaches us is that, even if cameras, newsreels and documentaries had been available such that the risen Christ could have been filmed and Mary Magdalene interviewed for Newsnight, there would still have been folk who would not have believed it. We cannot demand the same means and standards of reporting truth we operate today of an event that happened so long ago, but we do have the standards of truth and fact that they had so long ago. Eye witness accounts have always been valid, however reported. But in our age of fake news and false truth, we are not so far removed all those years on from relying on unverified stories that people tell, and the dismissing of what looks on the surface to be decent journalistic reporting. You may have heard that YouTube are being cited as instrumental in the rise of membership of the Flat Earth Society. Yes – there are people who believe that the earth is flat, after all. Some of them might be some of the folk who believe that the Mon Landings never happened. And there are folk – billions of them in time and place - who have believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These beliefs are not mutually connected of course, but all of these cause us to ask questions about what is true and what to believe and how to believe.
A recent survey of Christian Leaders asking what they thought was the most significant task facing the church today, came back with a strong emphasis on the need to reclaim and re-educate on the concept of Truth.
Some things are the case.
Some things happened.
Some things are true.
They are not to be relegated to the murky depths of ‘belief’, because that denigrates them and corrupts not only truth, but belief. Since when has truth been the opposite of belief? Since when has it been the same thing?
So our biggest challenge today is the corruption of truth and the elevation of belief to something personal and unsubstantiated. This is what the world is fast learning to believe about belief and hold true about truth. Yet Truth is honest and good and incorruptible. And so is proper belief. And Belief is not personal and negotiable. And nor is Truth personal or negotiable.
Mary Magdalene learned this, albeit the hard way. She had seen Jesus crucified, bleeding, dying, dead and buried. That made it true in her eyes. So true in fact that when she saw something to shake her truth, it did not cross her mind that Jesus had risen. Like Thomas only a few hours later, she would have been inclined to the view - ‘I saw with my eyes and touched with my hands this man I loved, dead and buried. Thomas refused to believe until he could touch again - at which point doubting Thomas became believing Thomas. Mary’s reaction is more emotional perhaps - she simply isn’t capable of recognising one whom she knew was dead. If Thomas thought with his head - Mary reacts with her heart. And it is Jesus’ word - his speaking her name - that opens her heart and her mind to recognise him. Interesting therefore that when Mary realises that it is Jesus, she wants to touch him and he will not let her - Noli me tangere - ‘do not touch me’ he says. Whereas Thomas, a few days later wants to touch, indeed will not believe unless he can - and he is allowed to. But he is told, ‘blessed are those who believe and do not touch with their own hands and see with their own eyes’. Mary wanted to touch, but did it need to - her desire to touch comes after belief, not before it. And there was to time - her immediate task was to go and tell the others, Thomas among them.
Mary’s initial inability to recognise truth and Thomas’s refusal to accept it are flip sides of the same coin. But we must not blame or criticise them - they were both human beings faced with stressful and unexpected, indeed impossible realities. In other contexts before and after them, people have had similar difficulties, whether we are talking of large scale events, or personal tragedies. Anyone who has lost a loved one will know of the constant reminding of oneself, the counter to disbelief that one has to keep going over in one’s mind - they have died, they are gone. Sometimes seeing someone dead can help with this coming to terms with reality. Unbelievable as it is - and we don’t want to believe it - but we must believe it – he or she is gone.
There are things we must make ourselves believe, for our own sanity. Things we must not refuse to believe. When someone dies, we must believe it - and that is what Mary Magdalene did. And we must make ourselves believe in the Moon Landing, if we ever didn’t, because if we don’t, we truly are lunatics.
And for peace of mind, eternal peace and earthly joy, we must believe in the saving death and life-affirming resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is our only hope.
Neil Armstrong, when féted by an American President as a hero, said that he was not a hero. The riposte came back - at his funeral - that if Neil Armstrong was not a hero, no-one was. I beg to differ - with no disrespect to Armstrong of course - we have a hero, and that is Jesus Christ, without whom none of us would be here now. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the one who paves the way on the journey we must all take. And we - we here at least - along with the rest of the world - also have a heroine - and that is Mary Magdalene, the first to recognise the risen Christ as both personal and eternal hero. May her faith, and his saving grace be recognised here on Earth, and out there in space, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 21/07/19