Sermon for St Mary Magdalene Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 July 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses
Psalm 63; Zephaniah 3.14-end; Mark 15.40-16.7
For much of the Church’s history, Mark’s Gospel was a poor relation; assumed to be a sort of “Reader’s Digest” abridged version of Matthew. When scholars realized that this was not the case, but that Matthew and Luke had taken Mark as their basis and expanded on it, then attitudes began to change. However, there has still been a tendency to see Mark as the “simple” gospel; short and unsophisticated.
In fact, Mark is a great deal more subtle than that. While his narrative does power on relentlessly, he does much more than string together a series of events.
In this building, to which this evening we welcome members of the Victorian Society, architecture and iconography serve to draw eye and the mind to its purpose. There is a master plan; everything has its place. All things point to font and pulpit and altar, to word and sacrament as the heart of the Church’s life; and to the Jerusalem above. So, too, in Mark events, themes, words, echo and illuminate earlier ones as the gospel progresses; always seeking to answer the question of who Jesus is and what he means for us.
We can see that guiding and unifying theological mind at work in tonight’s passage for the feast of St. Mary Magdalene,Jesus’ last word to his disciples before the passion narrative in Mark had been: “Watch.” Mark then shows the disciples, particularly the three key ones, Peter, James and John, failing to do this. Then he introduces a balancing trio of women who do what Jesus has asked.
At the same time that all the men flee, there were women who do not. They are at the cross; “looking on,” or “watching,” or “seeing” from a distance (15.40). The verb that Mark uses for “watching” is about more than visual information – it suggests spiritual insight; knowing what is going on beneath the surface of these events.
The women’s watchful “seeing” stands in contrast to:
- the betrayal of Judas;
- the denial of Jesus by Peter;
- and the flight of the other disciples.
Mark does not call the women “disciples” but he does describe them as acting in the way Jesus had asked his disciples to do. He tells us, too, that they had “followed” Jesus in Galilee and “ministered to him.” Mark names three but says there were many others.
The first among those he names is Mary Magdalene, known in all the Gospels as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection, but not yet called that here.
(The idea that she was a “sinful woman,” propagated by St. Gregory the Great on the basis of the story of the woman who washes and anoints Jesus feet in Luke 7, and found in much medieval and Gothic Revival art, is a case of mistaken identity, and has no foundation in the gospels.)
Just as William Butterfield’s decoration of this church all plays its part in the whole, so Mark loads every detail of the burial scene with significance.
First, he tells us that “it was the day of Preparation, the day before the Sabbath.” This is more than just simple reporting of fact. He wants his readers to consider that the burial of Jesus was “a day of preparation” for his resurrection. The preparation before the passion in Chapter 14, with his anointing by the un-named woman at Bethany – “she has anointed my body before hand for its burial,” and the disciples making preparations for the Last Supper, is brought to completion.
Joseph of Arimathea is a member of the Jewish Council that has just condemned Jesus. His asking for the body of Jesus suggests a transformation in his understanding of Jesus, just as much as the centurion’s proclamation on seeing Jesus’ death: “Truly, this man was God’s Son.” Together, the member of the Jewish Council and the Roman centurion reverse the judgements against Jesus of the institutions they represent.
Mark also tells us Joseph was “awaiting the kingdom of God.” This is the seventh time “the kingdom of God” has appeared in Mark and it is an important theme throughout the Gospel. When Mark says that Joseph was “awaiting” it, he also picks up the themes of “watching” and “preparation.” In seeking to honour Jesus in his death, Joseph now links him with that kingdom.
Pilate’s response – wanting to make sure that Jesus is dead – confirms Mark’s description of the non-spiritual level on which he exists. He is unable to “see.”
The “linen cloth” in which Joseph buries Jesus recalls the young disciple who left his linen garment behind when he fled the scene of Jesus’ arrest. The reappearance of a “linen cloth” suggests a restoration; a reversal of that moment of fear and flight.
There is also an echo of the transformed demoniac, who had “lived among the tombs” until his encounter with Jesus changed him. After his cure by Jesus, is seen “sitting there clothed and in his right mind.” This echo of his story, just as Jesus is being laid in a tomb, is a sign of hope.
Further hope is found in the final detail of the two Marys “watching” where Jesus was laid (15.47). Just as Mark speaks of women “watching” or ”seeing” the crucifixion, so here he describes women again watching where Jesus was buried. Watchful women enclose Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ burial. Mark says the Joseph “rolled a stone” against the “entrance” to the tomb. The details recall Jesus’ parable of the man who leaves home and “orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.’ (13.34). The gatekeepers here are the women keeping watch for the Lord’s return.
In the morning, the same three women who watched Jesus’ death reappear. Like that anonymous women at Bethany, they come to anoint the body of Jesus. Mark has shaped his story to show that at either end of the passion, there are women coming to anoint him. Throughout the Gospel, Mark asks the question: ‘Who is Jesus?” The actions of these women, the myrrh-bearers, point to Jesus a- God’s “anointed one.” He is the Messiah, the Christ.
The women came “when the Sabbath was over.” Jewish liturgy distinguishes between Sabbath time and “ordinary time.” The Sabbath is set aside to celebrate God and to reflect his kingdom. The other days are times to journey towards this perfect state of being. Sabbath worship concludes with spices to “hallow” and “sweeten” the ordinary days of the week. Mark may have had in mind when he describes the women bringing spices at the end of the Sabbath. On the literal level, the spices are for burial; at a deeper level, they may also signify the transition to “ordinary time,” which for Christians is to be lived in the light of the resurrection.
Mark also says they came “very early, when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week.” Each phrase emphasizes, in a different way, a new beginning.
The “stone” at “the entrance of the tomb” suggests the sealing off of death from life. When the women say to one another, “who will roll back the stone for us?” they show their willingness to accept their vulnerability along with their trust that God will provide.
The young man “clothed in a white robe” is an angelic figure.
- The whiteness of his clothing recalls the Transfiguration – an event Mark sees as foreshadowing Jesus’ resurrection.
- He also resembles the young man who fled the garden when Jesus was arrested, leaving his linen garment behind.
- The fact that this young man is sitting also echoes the transformed demoniac, found “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind.”
- His being “on the right side” recalls Jesus’ proclamation to the high priest that he would “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power” (14.62).
All these suggest that this young man represents a transformed life.
His words form the heart of the Gospel: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” The key words are “crucified” and “raised.” Throughout the Gospel, Mark has stressed the connection between Jesus and the cross, and between Jesus and resurrection. Both high priest and Roman governor mistake his being called “Messiah” as a sign that he sought political power. So his ignominious death was the end of that claim and the threat it presented to their spiritual and political authority. But at a level which these earthly powers cannot see, Jesus is both the suffering, crucified one, who does not seek their brand of power, and the one raised up by the power of God.
The young man then tells the women to “go forth.” This going has a purpose. Just as Mark has shown the women acting all along as disciples, now, by this act of commissioning, he suggests that the women are also sent forth as apostles. They are sent forth to witness to the men, even to the head disciple Peter, to make disciples.
What are the implication of the role of men and women in Mark’s Gospel?
Many commentators have observed that Mark shows the male disciples as a stupid, unseeing lot. Fewer, perhaps because until recently the vast majority of New Testament scholars have been men, have noticed that Mark also shows that Jesus had female disciples who are insightful and wise.
Read in the light of the Wisdom traditions which portray divine Wisdom as feminine, Mark’s purpose becomes clear. He presents Jesus as God’s Wisdom made flesh. In the light of the Wisdom writings, he shows Jesus as a nurturing, healing, compassionate, and even maternal figure, always intent on giving and restoring life. Mark sets up a contrast in his Gospel between the wise and the foolish. There is a creative logic in his choosing women to be like the Lady Wisdom, while their male counter-parts act out the part of the foolish. Mark also makes the women’s raised status and new ministry a symbol of the new creation that Jesus brings into being.
The message the women are sent to repeat is not about Jesus’ glory but about his ministry. It repeats exactly what Mark had shown Jesus saying on the eve of his crucifixion: “But after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.” It sends the disciples back to where the Gospel first began. It suggests a new beginning, one whose consequences the Church is still struggling to come to terms with.
The original ending of Mark’s Gospel says that the women were so amazed and afraid at what they had seen and heard that they said nothing. They must eventually have broken their silence, or we would not be here, but ought we not to think that an event as extraordinary as the resurrection would have such an effect on us? It should amaze and transform us as it did Mary Magdalene and the women.