A Sermon from Sherborne

Mary Magdalen

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 22 July 2018 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson


We seem to have had a plethora of sporting finals this last week or two … so … A footballer arrived at heaven’s gate and was asked sternly if he had anything on his conscience. He said that he had. “I played for St Tudwal’s football team and once scored the winning goal which I’m sure was offside. It won the match and the cup for St Tudwal’s but I’ve always been troubled by it.” “I don’t think that is anything to worry about” said the guardian of the gate. “Come on in” “O thank you, St Peter” said the footballer. “Oh, I’m not St. Peter. He’s got the day off. I’m St. Tudwal.”

There seems to be a growing fashion amongst TV presenters to interview sportsmen and women as soon as possible after their athletic feat. I am amazed that the athletes deal with their questions so patiently. I would have thought that, tired and exhausted, the last thing they would want, would be to have a microphone thrust into their faces and to be asked a series of questions when they can hardly suck enough air into their weary lungs. Invariably the athletes are asked how they feel.

If our intrepid band of interviewers could be taken back in a Time Machine a couple of thousand years, you can imagine them using the same interview technique on those significant people who were part of history, someone like Mary of Magdala. “Well Mary, you have just become the first person to speak to Jesus after the Resurrection. How do you feel?” The very idea seems odd, incongruous.

The New Testament, however, is singularly unhelpful in dealing with the questions our modern age would like answered. Indeed, the Gospels are not in the form of biography even of Jesus himself and certainly not of the other players in his life who come and go and receive the briefest of mention. We know very few of the names of the people he healed. A good many of the 12 disciples appear in a list and are heard of no more. Governors, Jewish high priests and so on are there because they are part of the story of Jesus and for no other reason – the intention is not to give us a history of that period of time. This makes it all the more surprising that Mary Magdalene is named in the gospels and appears in all four of them and altogether some twelve times. The names people have often reflected where they came from. Jesus himself is called Jesus of Nazareth. Mary of Magdala we might suppose tells us of the village she came from. An excavation a few years ago at the village reckoned to be Magdala on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee revealed the remains of a first century synagogue and this, as you can imagine, caused great excitement. But an alternative derivation notes that the Aramaic word ‘magdala’ means tower with the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was a strong woman. As so often, a number of different interpretations vie with each other for acceptance.

Whether she was strong or not what is certain is that she was an important disciple and this at a time when the general attitude to women was to give them a subordinate place in society. It is not easy to find contemporary evidence, but since attitudes change only slowly, a wider range of years probably still reflects fairly accurately how things were at the time of Jesus. So it seems that women were expected to take no part in public life. Where Jewish families faithfully fulfilled the law, certainly in cities like Jerusalem, when a woman left the house her face would be concealed by an arrangement of two head veils. A woman was expected to be unobserved in public and should not speak to anyone in the street. On the whole it was preferable for a woman, especially an unmarried girl, not to go out at all. That was the strictest behaviour. But it would be wrong to generalise too much from this. In royal households no one bothered about such restrictions. More generally economic pressures meant that women had to help their husbands in their professions perhaps by selling their wares.

And in the country there were further relaxations. Married women worked on the land with their husbands and children, or sold olives e.g., at the door. However, a woman must not be alone in the fields and it was not customary, even in the country, for a man to converse with an unknown woman. (This will remind you of Jesus ignoring that protocol when he addressed the Samaritan women by the well and of the surprise of the disciples at such a blatant disregard of the usual conventions).

A girl belonged to her father and had few rights until she was 12 ½ after which she could not be betrothed against her will. Wives were obliged to obey their husbands but a wife kept possession of the goods she brought with her as a marriage portion and she had the marriage contract – the sum fixed which had to be paid to her in case of separation or the death of her husband. The women had their own section in the synagogue but did not read the Torah publicly and were forbidden to teach. They had no right to bear witness at trials because they were regarded as unreliable witnesses.

We have the impression, then, that at the time of Jesus women were chiefly valued for their child bearing ability and not for much else. They were kept shut away from the outside world, submissive to the power of father or husband and, from the religious point of view, inferior to men. A prayer of the time runs: “Blessed be God that hath not made me a woman.” Well we regard that as odd, incongruous even outrageous and shows how much attitudes have changed in the West though not until comparatively recently. Only against this background can we appreciate how Jesus differed from his contemporaries in his treatment of women. He numbered women amongst his followers and supporters, which seems an unprecedented happening at the time. We read that Mary Magdalene and some other women supported Jesus and his disciples from their own means – clearly financial support is intended.

John the Baptist had already preached to women and baptised them and Jesus too overthrew custom when he allowed women to be part of his team of followers and supporters. Jesus was not content just to bring women to a higher plane than was then the custom, but as Saviour of all he brings them before God on an equal footing with men. The way Jesus behaved gives us a theological understanding.

Mary’s early meeting with Jesus led, we are told, to the driving out of seven devils though the detail of that healing is not given to us. She becomes much more significant in the last hours of Jesus life, being present at the crucifixion, his burial and as a witness of the empty tomb. Today’s media like to explore feelings and emotions and there are plenty of these in the account of Mary’s meeting with the risen Jesus. Her pure love for Jesus would have translated into agony at his death. The last ministration she could do for him was to prepare his body for burial. Imagine her horror when his body was found to be no longer in its tomb. Imagine her desperation as she tried to discover what had happened to it and then her exaltation when she realised he had risen to new life. But at the time, it would have been thought odd and incongruous that a woman should be the first witness of the resurrection.

She plumbed the depths and scaled the heights in the breadth of her emotional experience. The risen Christ was seen, not by his enemies, not by Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas but by his friends; met first not by Peter or James or John or any of the 11 disciples; conversed with not by a man but a woman – by Mary of Magdala. She was the first to know God’s power in raising Jesus from the dead and she believed while others wondered or doubted. Others may have thought that the evidence of a woman was suspect but they soon learnt the truth and, to give the gospel writers their due they all record that it was the women who first were aware of the empty tomb and began to perceive that God had raised Jesus to new life. It is St. John though whose gospel gives a special place to Mary Magdalene.

So, this day honours someone who played a key part in the story of Jesus, to whom he revealed himself in the resurrection and who faithfully relayed her insight to the other disciples. It could be said that our presence in this Abbey church today, our Christian faith and our belief in the resurrection owe much to that first witness, Mary Magdalen.

The Reverend Christopher Huitson 22/07/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne