St Mary Magdalene

TWO YEARS AGO, on St. Mary Magdalene’s Day (22nd July), I was preaching at the Patronal Festival Evensong of a famous Lincolnshire church. The afternoon had been increasingly hot and humid and the first hymn was punctuated with deafening claps of thunder. As the bidding prayer continued the tranquility of the church was destroyed as hailstones driven by a gale damaged the leaded lights of the East Window and as they hammered on the lead roof it became impossible to think or hear. Then torrential rain swept down the church path and steps and flooded the aisle, the electricity was cut and within minutes what had been a brightly lit church bedecked with flowers became a gloomy mark on a storm lashed landscape. Broken glass lay in pools of water on the floor and the congregation were now a rescue party sweeping and mopping and consoling one another. Once order had been restored, the service took up a new beginning.

The storm was a providential illustration to the sermon. Mary of Magdala’s passion for Jesus! In Mary is a person wrecked and lost in turmoil and disorder of the world who is restored to wholeness in Christ. Yet, Mary the disciple remains a person of passion, of unreasonable devotion. In Mary there is no temperate half way; there is not steady breath in her; there is still the stormy temperament that will not be dissuaded, that cannot be denied. It is her passionate, deeply felt love for Jesus that draws her to Golgotha and it is the same relentless powerful devotion that carries her to the garden tomb as day was breaking. In John’s gospel (ch. 20 vv 10-18) we see how this love and devotion enables her to be the first real witness to the resurrection.

Simon Peter and the other disciples had returned home on the discovery of the empty tomb, but Mary is fixed there weeping, unable to move in the depth of her grief. We see her in the midst of a kind of storm, a new madness, a blindness of heart and deafness of spirit to everything but her love of Jesus. Like Peter before her, she stoops to look into the tomb more afraid of denying her hope and her need than the darkness of death. It is out of this awe-ful vulnerability that she speaks to the angels. “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. ” Her directness, her awareness of herself, her honest seeking, her questioning, her courage are to us all an example of true prayer. This is a person of passion -unwilling and unable to deny her needs, her desires and her conviction that she can and will do something for Jesus.

Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, making the ridiculous offer to take away the body. In recognising Jesus when he speaks her name, she does come to carry him away, not physically but as a bearer of good news that he has risen from the dead. Although she can no longer cling to him, her passionate devotion has led her to see that Jesus is Lord, even of death.

That Mary Magdalene Storm taught me a lasting lesson, that the neatness, the order of our religious life sometimes need smashing up to be renewed with a new understanding of our venerability and needs. Mary teaches us that a living encounter with the risen Lord can be born out of living in our weakness by being honest in our asking and searching, by being moved by a passionate love for Him who calls us all by name.

Andrew Hawes is Vicar of Edenham with Witham-on-the-Hill in the Diocese of Lincoln.