I worry that I often treat the Bible like a medical student treats a cadaver. I imagine interns make incisions with great care, exploring the anatomy, and practicing how to do real surgery, but it is very different working with the body of a living person. Likewise, we can study the history, translations, and try to form creeds to answer our questions about God. But will that alone get us any closer to the reality of God, or to relate to God, or deeper still, does it transform us in any way to be a disciple of Jesus? We can be transfixed by scientific questions and theological doubts about the resurrection of a dead body, and how essential that is to our faith, or not. The point learning the skills of surgery and medical science; is to learn how to save lives. The point of the Gospel is the same-to mend our broken hearts, forgive our greatest failings, to bring justice and make it possible for us to live abundant life.
John’s Gospel is brilliant in this regard. His genius is not in science but character development and storytelling. We are supposed to be looking at the disciples, and especially Mary Magdalene and Peter. What is happening for them in the story?
Mary Magdalene is intriguing, especially after Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code.” Was Mary Jesus’s wife, lover, a repentant prostitute, or a woman disciple pushed aside by men as the tradition developed? Scriptures say little about Mary, but more books are written about her than all the other disciples of Jesus, except Peter. She has an astonishing career after her death. A third century fragmented text called the Gospel of Mary exists. In it, Peter asks Mary for her wisdom, and wants to know what Jesus said to Mary in private on Easter morning, and then there are six missing pages. The next words are that the disciples do not believe her. Don’t you want to know what is in those missing pages?!
What about Mary being a prostitute? This is never said in the Gospels. She is not a prostitute. Mark and Luke say Jesus caste seven demons out of her. I have no idea what that means, except that she must have been a tormented soul before she meant Jesus. So where does this prostitute stuff enter the story? The first reference is not until 591, in a sermon by Gregory the Great, and throughout medieval Roman Catholicism, there is a huge following of Mary the repentant prostitute. It is bad enough that people make up stories about you, but imagine they wait 600 years to start their lies about your character.
Mary now is enjoying a resurgence with another persona, and let me read you a few titles from Amazon of recent books:
“Unveiling Mary Magdalene: Discover the Truth about the Bible’s Not so bad girl.”
Sacred Feminine Awakening: Wisdom from Mary Magdalene and the Healing of the Self.”
“Return of the Divine Sophia: Healing the Earth through the Lost Wisdom Teachings of Jesus, Isis, and Mary”
It is fascinating to see Mary Magdalene morph from prostitute to feminist wisdom figure, in only 1300 years or so. Mary has singular role in the four Gospels. She is the soul eyewitness who sees both the crucifixion and resurrection. Every Gospel places Mary at the cross and the first to witness the Risen Christ. She has no other reference in the Bible apart from the cross and the resurrection. It may be true that she was a disciple just as much as Peter. It may be true that she was loved by Jesus as a companion or even spouse. But we should not overlook her singular role as the witness to the death of Jesus and resurrection of Christ.
Why is this witness role of Mary Magdalene so important to the story in all four Gospels? This occurred to me on Maundy Thursday as we read from the Gospels. The point of the crucifixion story is the various ways everyone failed Jesus. Judas betrayed him, all the disciples fell asleep, Peter, so bold at the Last Supper denied him three times, religious leaders conspire against him, Pilate goes along, the crowd jeers him, and in the reading I had, even the bandits who are being crucified with him start to join in and taunt him. That is just cold. You would think they have enough of their own problems. Only a desolate little cluster remains, Jesus mother, Mary Magdalene, and John remain through this nightmare.
Our text today is three days later. Before sunrise, still dark, when Mary emerges. The disciples went to bed fearful and hiding. Were they contemplating how to move on with their lives after their huge defeat and disappointment? Only Mary has gone to the tomb to grieve. When she saw the stone removed from the tomb, she does not say, “Alleluia, He is risen!” She thinks there is no dignity for the dead. Remember the local stories of funeral homes which did not properly respect and care for the bodies of the dead. It is a sacrilege that dishonors life itself. Mary is likely outraged and heartbroken. She rushes to tell Peter and another disciple.
Who knows what Peter thinks at this point. He carries greif, and the guilt of failure and cowardice. He is no hero at the tomb either. He sees the grave clothes neatly folded, but John doesn’t tell us what Peter makes of it all. Then Peter just goes home. He doesn’t look for the body, or comfort Mary, he just leaves her in the garden crying. I can imagine Mary thinking, “Why did I even bother to tell this jerk? He is absolutely no help-again!” She has to deal with this by herself. She investigates the tomb for clues, and now there are two angels there, who ask her, “Woman why are you weeping?” She is at a tomb! I love how she is totally unimpressed by the angels. She is single-minded in her quest for the body of her Jesus. She turns to the gardener, who also want to know “Woman, why are you weeping?”
I have a really hard time with all this crying. Not that I don’t get teary-eyed at funerals and even when I’m preaching. But I always feel like I’m the one who is supposed to hold it together. I’m not supposed to cry, there is no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks would say. But some things can’t be held together. Sometimes hot tears need to flow down our cheeks, as our anger burns against the injustice of death, the killing of innocent people, against cruel and senseless violence. We need a good cry, the kind that soaks a box of tissues as we wipe away all the snot from our noses and we taste the salt on our lips. Whether my heart is broken by cancer claiming another person we love, or the crass celebration of “the mother of all bombs” as something good, sometimes we really should not be holding it together.
Falling apart and having a good cry can be grounding. Mary’s weeping is a sign of true discipleship. She is not the silly woman crying when she should be rejoicing at the resurrection. She is the one who has had the strength to endure and weep and be fully present for the full catastrophe of evil and injustice. She has borne witness, she has been present to it all, not flinching at any cruelty. Who else should be the first to see Jesus on the other side of death and share the news of Christ arisen?
I still want to know what is in those lost 6 pages in the Gospel of Mary. The real Mary Magdalene might remind us that wiping away tears is a sign of hope throughout the Bible. She would quote the prophet Isaiah:
“God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
She would invite us on Easter morning to claim the words of the Psalms, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Take heart, people of God, for it is Easter morning. Christ is Risen, Risen even in our world of tears. Christ rises as we face our fears of death at the tomb as Mary did and find that love wins. There won’t be a press conference, you won’t get a Facebook event notification, and 10 AM on Sunday may not be the appointed hour. Jesus found Mary in the garden, and then he went to the disciples and came through a locked door to them. He came and absolved Peter’s guilt and Paul’s rage, he showed his scars to skeptical Thomas. He eventually made it around to everyone who needed him, and so he will find you too.