Patronal Festival 2020: Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord

Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord

John 19:41-20:18

May I speak in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


Today, is the one Sunday in the year, when we celebrate the life of St Mary Magdalene; Our church’s Patronal Sunday. We’re not able to celebrate with a social gathering this year, but we can still celebrate together with joy in our hearts in our homes, or a personal individual thanksgiving prayer (keeping social distancing) in Church this morning, Between 10am-12noon. But for a minute or two, allow me to take you back just over 2000 years to the land of Palestine.

Come with me this morning, and imagine if you will…

It’s early, on a Sunday morning and still dark. Mary Magdalene wakes with a sigh to the sound of a cockerel crowing. She sits up, shivers and rubs her arms. It’s been a restless night. She’d been lying there, drifting in and out of sleep, exhausted, her mind refusing to close down and rest. Vivid pictures of Jesus on the cross flash back across her vision. Now she closes her eyes, wishing for a moment that she could blot it all out, but she can’t. “If only…”

There are things to do. She hears voices in the street below, and the shuffling of animals in the courtyard. She smells the smoke of early morning kitchen fires. She splashes cold water on her face, combs her hair without thought or care; the routine actions that begin every day; wrapping a shawl around her shoulders and picking up the spices she had prepared the day before; she slips on her scandals and leaves the house.

Her mind is still so heavy with grief. Saturday hadn’t helped. It merely continued the nightmare of Friday and delayed the opportunity to weep over Jesus’ body, to show her respect and love.

The main gates in the city wall are still closed but she slips through the tiny Needle-Gate.

She finds the path to the tomb; she knows where it is, she was there on Friday; and the tomb was new; the marks of the mason’s chisel still sharp and clear on the stone.

By now there’s a soft early morning light in the garden, and as she gets near, she pauses, and her eyes widen. The tomb is open! The stone’s been moved! She stops, looks around, then peers in a little closer. The tomb is empty!

Imagine if you will…

Mary Magdalene beginning the day early; while it was still dark. She couldn’t wait. Since she’d first met him, Jesus had filled her life. He’d accepted her without conditions, loved her as she was. Made her whole, helped her to love herself, to find new dignity and purpose in her life. Mary had responded with a passionate love which nothing could change. The men around Jesus had blown hot and cold. Sometimes they responded to his teaching with enthusiasm, at other times with questions and doubt. They’d misunderstood and quarrelled about their places in the coming Kingdom. And in the confused confrontation in the darkness of Gethsemane they’d run away. Abandoned Jesus. But not Mary. She’d stayed by the cross to the end.

She’d watched Jesus die, felt the agony; seen every laboured breath and movement of his muscles; and finally followed his body to the tomb. She was still numb, although a slow, weary acceptance of her loss was beginning to seep into her mind. This morning, with great courage and determination, she’d gathered the spices and cloths and set out for the garden.

As Mary arrives at the tomb, it’s all very sad and low key, like a film in slow motion. Everyone in the other Gospel accounts tell us other women went with her; everyone seems to move slowly; voices hushed.

Then suddenly, it’s as though someone’s pressed the fast-forward button and the film speeds up. Details vary; eye-witness accounts often do; but as they got nearer; they saw the guards had disappeared; the stone had been rolled away; the tomb was empty!

It was the first day of the week. Let’s take hold of the symbolism here. Jesus was laid in the tomb just before sunset; in the darkening shadows; at the end of the day. But now the morning light was chasing the darkness away. A new day was beginning. A new era. New? An adjective used to describe many things; a new tomb; a new commandment; a new covenant; a new creation; a new heaven and a new earth; but all that was still in the future; waiting to be understood. Mary had no inkling of it; no hint of reassurance yet.

She was walking towards the point of transformation; where two worlds, divine and human, met and focused, and where our understanding of life and death would be changed forever! Mary, was walking in sadness and despair towards a soon-to-be-revealed joy and hope.

But not quite yet…She was bewildered and could only interpret the scene in human terms. The stone was rolled away, the tomb was open and empty.

Someone must have removed his body…

Imagine if you will…

Early on that Sunday morning, Mary running back from the garden to Peter. She rushes up the stairs and bangs on the door. She went to him first. In spite of his denials, he was still the acknowledged leader of the Disciples. Mary is breathless from running and from the shock of finding the tomb open and empty.

Mary and Peter face each other in a meeting of opposites: The constant and the inconstant, the reliable and the unreliable, the joyful and the despairing. Yet Jesus had offered friendship to both. Welcomed, loved and accepted them both for who they were, and for what they could each become.

Gasping for breath, Mary may not have been at her most coherent, but Peter, and then John, heard what she had to say.

They looked at each other, questions in their eyes. What had really happened? Could it be true, or was Mary mistaken? They had to find out. Without any further word they made for the door, Mary following. The urgency made them run too. They were faster than Mary; Mary had already run the road once; and by the time she reached the garden again, they’d already seen the empty tomb and gone to tell the others…

Imagine if you will…

Mary, left at the tomb weeping. The tomb was open and empty so why did she stay? She’d gone early in the morning to care for Jesus but there was no body; there was nothing for her to do. Wasn’t it enough that they’d killed Jesus? They could have at least left his body in peace? Left it for her. Perhaps she felt as empty as the tomb. Jesus had been her life, now she was bereft, and left in complete despair, helpless.

Nothing could have prepared her for this!

Then Mary sensed movement, just out of sight. She turned, her head bowed, wiping away her tears. She sees a man’s feet, a gardener’s feet. “Why are you crying?” he asked, echoing the question of the angels. Mary, who’d loved Jesus so much, failed to recognize the voice. The last time she’d wept, she’d washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. “He’s gone,” she sobbed, “they’ve taken him away.” I doubt if she could have identified who they were, but we always need someone to blame, somebody to hold responsible for events outside our control. Mary was weeping for Jesus; weeping for herself; weeping for all the love and hope she’d lost. Jesus had died; that was the end. Her grief didn’t allow for the impossible. And at this moment all the pent-up emotion, building within her over the Sabbath, finds its release. The dam breaks and the tears of emotion flood out!

“Why are you crying?” he asked. Mary was the first person to meet the risen Jesus and to hear his voice. Why her? Because she was there, waiting! Creating, the conditions in which he could speak to her. Yearning still for him, for his presence and his voice.

Immediately after the question “Women why are you crying?” comes another question. “For whom are you looking?” And in this one gut-wrenching moment of bleak distress Jesus reveals himself to Mary Magdalene. He came to her, as he comes to each one of us, in moments of our deepest weakness; hovering on the edge of our vision, offering his presence. We are never left alone…in our darkest moments we are never left alone!

Imagine if you will…

That deep surge of feeling that exploded in Mary’s heart as she recognized the voice; the grief and anger gone in an instant. In a wave of excitement and love and hope she accepted the impossible immediately. She had no questions, no reservations, no doubts. Mary’s heart recognized what her eyes had not. It was Jesus. He was there…

The other Gospels tell us that the messengers at the tomb had said, “He is not here; he has been raised!” (Matthew 28:6) But he was there, no longer lying inert in the tomb, but outside in the early morning quiet of the garden. Alive, vibrant!

Mary, cries out, but it’s the one word that Jesus speaks that captures the imagination; her name. Mary, (Mariam)…Jesus called her by name. It was more personal than the word women he’d used earlier. She’d heard him call her name many times. Asking for help, thanking her, using it in conversation with other followers on the road.

Using her name holds a greater significance than we realize. God loves the whole of his creation with passion. God loves the life he created, plants, animals and humankind. Then, God in Jesus loves his followers as a community; and he also loves each one of us as individuals. He loves Mary as Mary; loves Us as Us. Jesus called her by name. Just as we are all called by name. Here, there are echoes of the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not!” says Isaiah, “For I have Redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.(Isaiah 43: 1)

The prophet recognises and rejoices in an intimacy between God and every part of his creation, between him and each one of us, a relationship even death cannot interrupt.

God loves with an unconditional love. God loves because he is love. He may be all-powerful but has set himself to work within the parameters of his love. God cannot not love. Love is the core of his very nature and we are called to live out that nature. We are called not to judge and condemn!

Imagine if you will…

Mary Magdalene in the garden, recognising Jesus in the early morning light. She reaches out to him, arms wide. It’s a natural reaction. Stand near the barrier at the railway station, or in the Arrivals hall at the airport and watch how people meet those they love. They touch, hug, kiss, hold; Mary hoped, expected that Jesus would stretch his hand out as he’d done in the past. She’d seen him do it to so many; to the paralysed man; the blind man; and the man with leprosy. And her hands naturally went out to him.

Mary is learning that she can no longer physically hold on to the risen Jesus, like she had in the past; life is going to be different now, there is so much for her to learn, but Jesus still loves her.

Imagine if you will…

Mary Magdalene the first person to see the risen Jesus. The first to hear his voice; the first to speak to him, and to be given the message to pass on to his friends. And Mary was a woman. Jesus gave Mary a message of good news to pass on; she was the first post-resurrection evangelist; and what good news it was!! Through Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the door to God’s Kingdom is now wide open. “Go to my brothers” Jesus said The family bond is confirmed. The relationship which Jesus enjoyed with God, and which he expressed in calling him Abba, Father. Is offered to all of them, and to each one of us.

“I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” The intimacy with God, which Jesus enjoyed, is offered to us all. An astonishing possibility which takes the breath away. The stone which stood between God and his creation is rolled away for ever…

The love in which Jesus lived can be ours and can give us the power to live for him; to change and to grow.

Mary Magdalene was willing to begin that process of change, for Jesus, her Lord. It doesn’t come ready-made. It calls for effort, and evangelists who claim it’s easy; do the Kingdom of God little service. There’s still a struggle. It’s no quick fix. The growth process lasts a lifetime and is never fully completed, but there can be much joy and fulfilment in the journey…

In this developing relationship, we can begin to see the world through new eyes, to identify the presence of God all around us.

Sometimes it’s shadowy, on the edge of vision, at other times crystal-clear. There’s joy when we catch a glimpse of it, when we hear the echo of it, even though we must wait for the fullness still to come. And as we grow closer to Christ, we realise that this relationship isn’t a transplant from outside. The presence of God is already within us, waiting to be released, waiting to flood and transform the depths of our being.

Much of life is routine, but at times, moments of transcendence may break through, and a feeling of the presence of God can suddenly overwhelm us…

Travelling by coach, on my own one year; to my parents’ home; in Devon; the weather was pretty dismal, there was a storm overhead, and the rain was torrential, when all of a sudden the sun shone through; there was not just one beautiful rainbow, but seven rainbows, bouncing this way and that, skipping across the fields. I sat at the window of the coach, the rain pounding on the glass; the reflections were quite breath taking. I felt an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe!!!

My smallness, seemed caught up into the immensity of God and his Universe. I had no words, they weren’t needed. The whole experience lasted only a few minutes (or was it a lifetime?) I’ve carried the wonder with me ever since.

And I believe Mary Magdalene too, carried the wonder of God’s presence in Jesus Christ with her throughout the rest of her life.

Mary Magdalene, that is, whose Feast Day we celebrate today in our hearts; who encountered the Risen Jesus in the garden, at the entrance, to the empty tomb.

He is risen, Jesus is risen indeed, Hallelujah! Amen.

Let us pray:

Father God,
We wish that we could see you as Mary did
But though we cannot see you with our eyes
We hear the whispers of your presence everywhere.
Earth is alive with echoes of your love,
Your rainbowed beauty treasures far and near.
Hints of your glory spread
In children’s innocence,
In lover’s joy,
In lives well lived,
In those who fight for justice and for truth.
In Jesus name

The Rev'd Jackie Fish, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 19/07/2020