Exclusion and Embrace

Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Saviour that you know, but which we haven’t heard’.  Mary responded, ‘I will report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know’.

You may be struggling to locate in the Scriptures this short conversation between Peter, and Saint Mary Magdalene whose feast we celebrate this evening.  You won’t find it in any of the four canonical Gospels.  It comes in fact, from one of those Gospels that the Early Church in the Fourth Century decided against including in the Canon of Scripture, the Gospel of Mary.

The Council of Nicaea in consolidating and formalising the agreed texts that should be authoritative within the life of the Church ruled that the only Gospels approved because of their trustworthiness were the texts ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Prior to that Council, Christian communities had cherished other gospels which they believed also carried the revealed truth about Jesus.  Following the authorisation of the four Gospels that now appear in our New Testament, these other important documents largely fell into disuse.  It has been left to contemporary biblical scholarship to revisit these non-canonical texts in order to discern what (if anything) they have to tell us about the earliest traditions of Jesus and about the particular debates that gripped the first Christian communities.

I read from this one this evening not because I want to elevate these other traditions in order to give them the same authority as the canonical gospels; (there were good reasons why the accuracy of this Gospel was brought into question) but to remind us that the insights which they offer can shed light on issues of concern both to the Early Church and within our Church today.

Saint Mary Magdalene is a person on the margins, on the edge – of society, and of the Church.  If we are to be a Church that truly stands for those on the margins – and some of us will count ourselves this evening as people who not only seek to minister to those on the edge, but ourselves need that sort of ministry because we are on the edge of things as well, then we need to read our Christian tradition carefully and with imagination to see signs of what it was like to be on the edge of the Church throughout its history.  And because Mary Magdalene, the saint who we commemorate this evening, embodies for us the kind of exclusion that has existed in the Church throughout its history; her Gospel – which was written to counter act ideas of exclusion that were around in the early life of the Church – is not a bad place to start.

Of course there is great confusion as to who this Mary actually was.  Varying traditions within the Church amalgamate the sister of Martha of Bethany and the prostitute who anoints Jesus with her hair into the story of Mary Magdalene.  But the Gospels themselves point us to a woman who joins the story of Jesus as one of a group of women who became part of the travelling entourage in Galilee. Each of the woman in this group had had demons cast out of them, and in Mary’s case there were seven.

It was this group that provided for Jesus’ mission out of their own resources.  Having joined Jesus in Galilee, Mary follows him to Jerusalem, still contributing financially to his cause.  We find her, with some but not all of the other disciples present at his crucifixion. After he is taken down from the cross, Mary takes spices to the tomb to anoint his body. And it is Mary and (with the other women) who first report the empty tomb to the eleven disciples, although their report was not initially believed.  Throughout the Gospel narrative, we have this picture of Mary as the person who was always there, supporting Jesus in whatever way she could, ‘looking after him’ as St Mark’s Gospel put it, concerned for his welfare even beyond death, seeing to it that his body was treated appropriately.  Where Jesus’s male followers may have lacked courage, and deserted him at crucial moments, not so with Mary.

It is in St John’s testimony, the one that we have heard this evening, that Mary is given an even more prominent role in relation to the resurrection.  She is the one who discovers the empty tomb and runs to fetch Peter and the other disciple. She is the one who first meets the risen Jesus outside the tomb and mistakes him for the gardener.  She is the first witness to the resurrection, the first person who can proclaim ‘I have seen the Lord’.  So a demoniac woman on the edge of everything, becomes through Jesus as the centre of his plan.  We might say that in Jesus she moves from exclusion to embrace.

Whether we choose to draw our evidence from the New Testament, the tradition of the Church or the fragments of early non-canonical writings, all agree that Mary of Magdalene has a place of preeminence in Christian history and witness.

Within that witness the text of the Gospel of Mary that I mentioned earlier is a comparatively recent discovery.  It is a brief document with over half its pages missing, and is probably of either Syrian or Egyptian origin. Scholars are agreed that it dates from the end of the first century, or early in the second century so it reflects some of the key issues with which those first Christian communities struggled.

Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Saviour that you know, but which we haven’t heard’.  Mary responded, ‘I will report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know’.

This conversation has Peter acknowledging that Jesus loved Mary more than any other woman, and asking her to reveal the content of the conversations she had with Jesus during his lifetime to which the other disciples were not privy.  The setting for the conversation is the Upper Room immediately after Jesus has appeared, greeted his followers saying ‘Peace be with you’ and commanded them to go out and preach the gospel.

‘The seed of true humanity exists within you’, Jesus says in this encounter in the Gospel of Mary, ‘follow it. Those who search for it will find it’. And having said these things, he left them.

The Gospel of Mary records that the disciples were greatly distressed, because as far as they knew, they would not see Jesus again; and the Gospels more familiar to us confirm the anxiety they felt.

In the Gospel of Mary they wonder amongst themselves how they can possibly now go out and proclaim the good news. If the authorities didn’t spare Jesus, why should they spare them? They are in despair and confusion. At this point Mary intervenes.  She chides them for their lack of faith, and turns the conversation away from the disciples’ self-concern to focus on the person and words of Jesus.  It is then that Peter asks her to reveal something of the conversations she has had with Jesus.  Mary goes on to reveal the contents of some of the visions she has received.

Here, when the world of the disciples is crumbling and their courage has deserted them, Mary takes on the role of Jesus, stands in his place as it were, and exercises the kind of leadership Jesus had exercised whilst he was amongst them, calling them to move beyond their holy huddle and to get out into the world.  The disciples’ response was to argue among themselves about Mary’s particular understanding of the good news that Jesus had brought amongst them. Andrew says that Mary’s ideas sound very strange to him and that he doesn’t think they can be the authentic words of Jesus. Peter says that he finds it hard to believe that Jesus would have spoken secretly to a woman and not openly to men.  Matthew says that he is willing to take Mary’s words on trust on the grounds that Jesus knew her completely and loved her devotedly.

Here, in the imagination of the first writers of this account of Mary Magdalene, we find the assertion that those on the edge of things (and Mary had surely been on the edge until she met Jesus) can – through the work of God’s grace within them – be those who can most clearly express the mind of Jesus for others.  It is Mary, not the disciples who have taken authority to themselves, who is able to bring clarity to the situation, and interpret God’s presence amongst them.  What if what was true then, is still true today?

How very careful the Church needs to be when it listens to the voices of the powerful, to the elite, to the establishment – because in the life of Mary Magdalene we find a clarion call for us to do exactly the opposite!  To hear the voice of Jesus, not in those who have the loudest voice, but those who have the smallest.  And that remains the challenge of Mary Magdalene to us today.

Here she stands, St Mary Magdalene, at the heart of our Christian tradition, even if she has been displaced by many.  All around us we witness exclusion taking many different, painful and dehumanising forms.  People excluded from health care, excluded from economic life and work, excluded from supportive relationships, excluded on the basis of gender or race or sexuality, excluded from the fullness of life that Jesus promised.

Mary, having experienced the forgiving, healing and restoring embrace of Jesus, embraced others, and was able to speak his authentic word of life to them.  On this her Feast Day we re-commit ourselves at this Mass to work to ensure that we do the same.  So that the Church of Jesus is never depicted as an instrument of exclusion but only and always as a form of embrace.

Blessed Mary Magdalene, pray for us.