This WORKTALKweekly is really in three parts. They are being broadcasted together so that you can capture the complete story. WORKTALKweekly will take a break and will be back on the 19th April so please take your time and be blessed this Holy Season.
Part 1 – The Story
Here are a few questions for you to consider during a short break in your day: what do you think is the most revolutionary discovery in the history of humanity? secondly, what do you think is the most significant report ever relayed by one person to another? thirdly, what could be considered top of the all time list of greatest “firsts” in the world?
When it comes to discoveries, fire, penicillin, the silicon chip, electricity, nuclear power and anaesthetics might come to mind. Reports are regularly recorded in military annals when tides are turned, nations defeated or armies redirected due to the arrival of vital information. As for firsts, the first man on the moon, the first person to fly, the first printing press, the first nuclear explosion – all vie for attention.
These questions can be seen as multi-dimensional in their scope, in that the answers can be couched in wide-ranging, all-embracing and epoch-making terms. They are to do with time and space. They are also to do with apparently massive events on a grand scale.
I want to suggest that you refocus these questions and point them to a small garden where a very confused woman is in deep distress. The events unfolding are so personal and profound that it almost seems intrusive to connect with them, but in the connecting, the sacredness tumbles out and the significance emerges.
The woman’s name is Mary Magdalene. Her name may mean that she is from a small town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee or that she is named after it. Magdala means ‘tower’ as well as ‘elevated’ or ‘magnificent’. Mary means ‘wanted one’ or ‘wanted child’.
Until this moment we have met her only one previous time in Jesus’ journey when we learn three things about her: firstly, she has been healed by Jesus and the healing is described as being set free from seven demons; secondly, she is part of the travelling inner circle accompanying Jesus and probably joined one year into his public life; thirdly, she is donating money out of her own funds to support him. It is not hard to realise that Jesus has become of primary importance in her life. Her heart is full gratitude for healing, she has arranged her time to be with him and is releasing her money to support him. In short, Mary Magdalene loves Jesus of Nazareth.
By the time Jesus is arrested, tried, and executed, Mary has been with him for two years and it appears her love has not diminished. Mark tells us that she has followed him and cared for his needs (MK 15:41). Now she will not let him out of her sight. She watches from a distance as his life drains away (MK 15:40) moving closer and closer as he reaches his final moments (John 19: 25). She watches Joseph and Nicodemus place Jesus’ body in the rock-cut tomb on the Friday evening (MK 15:47). After an exhausting, grief-filled Saturday, she isup while it isstill dark and on her way just after sunrise to take more spices and ointments to the tomb.
At this moment, a breathless sequence of events occurs. Mary discovers that the tomb is empty and runs back to tell Peter and John who run to the tomb, look inside and then go home. Mary herself comes back and stays at the tomb sobbing uncontrollably.
Everything has imploded, nothing makes sense and she cannot not even carry out her last acts of care and devotion because his body is missing. They are tears of anger, frustration, confusion, despair, disappointment and grief. Lost in a trance-like haze, she looks into the tomb and finds two figures in white, who ask her why she is crying. As she explains to them, their expressions perhaps change and she senses someone behind her. As she turns to meet that someone, we are nearly, but not quite, at our gentle moment.
The man, whom she supposes to be the gardener asks her the same question: “Why are you crying?” and “Who (not what) are you looking for?” Still sobbing, and blinded by tears. She pleads for information and says she will go and get him.
The gentle moment – as so often occurs – finally arrives with the sound of her name. It is almost certain that the whole exchange takes place in Aramaic – so Jesus would say “Miriam”. This is the name she has heard as a child, a teenager and a young woman. This is the name her friends use. This is the name she has heard so many times from the man she has loved for the last two years. Simultaneously replying, she flings her arms around him. Having thought she had lost him, now she holds on very tightly. As you watch that embrace from a distance, you will do well to hold that image and let the power of the gentleness show you what is really happening.
Part 2 – The Moment
In this moment you can see that it was not merely that Jesus was important to Mary Magdalene; she was also of great importance to him. He was her teacher, but she was also his tower. This moment enshrines the most revolutionary discovery in human history. This is top of the all time list of greatest ‘firsts’; to report it would be the greatest privilege, and it has the utmost significance.
Jesus is giving to Mary the gift of being the first to see him risen from the dead. Thirty-three years before, another Mary was given an announcement of his birth; now he is favouring Mary Magdalene with a priceless experience – it is for her and for her alone.
We must be very careful not to miss what is happening. For sure, Jesus, the Lord, the Son of God is granting a startling revelation. At the same time, Jesus the man is showing tender love to a woman who has been his friend and companion for at least two years.
So many revolutions are taking place at one moment: death is being shown to be defeated; Jesus’ mission is being shown to be a success; grief has been transformed to joy; despair is being replaced by hope; tears of pain are exchanged for tears of pleasure; panic gives way to peace.
In those days, when women were often not considered to be reliable witnesses – just one more disgraceful label given to them – Jesus commissions and trusts Mary to go back and tell the others what she has seen and heard. Not to John or Peter or Nicodemus was this trust given, but to Mary. It is one more revolution instigated by the Nazarene.
In the middle of the momentous, Jesus always had time for his friends – John at the cross, Peter at the breakfast meal, Martha and Mary at Bethany. In this moment, he reserves the most special piece of himself for his friend Mary and gives us a glimpse of perhaps the tenderest moment of all in the Gospels.
But this moment has to pass; this embrace is also for just one last time before a different era must start. So Jesus says “Don’t hold on to me – I have not yet returned to my Father”. The truth of the matter is, we don’t really know what that means; we do know that one week later, Thomas is invited to put his finger in Jesus’ wounds, so it is not just about touch.
Somehow Jesus is communicating to Mary that one era is over and a new one has begun. I am going to suggest one thought about this last exchange. It is possible that when Jesus said he had not yet returned to the Father he was not referring to his later ascension. It might be that on that very day he was going to report to his Father the completion and success of his work. As they part, Mary is to report to the disciples; Jesus is to report to his Father.
If that is the case, then you have a glimpse of a Man giving a gift to Mary almost by way of interrupting his schedule and going out of his way to affirm her. Whatever the exact scenario, this encounter is taking place in the context of a flow of history in which men have oppressed and abused women over the centuries, and it remains a deliberate reversal of damage, and a statement for all, that Jesus was overturning more than money changers’ tables to usher in that revolution.
I suspect that the more Mary thought about it, she knew this as well.
Part 3 – Reflections
There has been much speculation over the centuries concerning Jesus’ relationship to Mary Magdalene. Mary herself has been identified with Mary of Bethany, the sinful woman and the disciple whom Jesus loved. More extreme speculations speak of Mary being Jesus’ wife and still others have identified her as an apostle. True to form, she has been either elevated or demonised according to the agenda of the speculators.
Mary’s existence in the story at all does raise an important question. Before we express it, we need to place it in a biblical framework. Firstly, Jesus grew up as a normal, authentic human being. Luke tells us that he grew in wisdom and stature (mentally and physically) and in favour with God and men (Luke 2:52). Throughout his life, the Gospel writers show him as a real human man, who thirsts, gets tired, gets angry, weeps, rests, sleeps, eats, drinks and goes to parties. He experiences temptations and struggles with the enormity of his mission and work. He is a carpenter, a son, a brother, a friend and a teacher. He speaks several languages and is a master story teller. Paul tells the Philippian Christians about Jesus being in very nature a servant and a real human being. The writer to the Hebrews explains that a body was prepared forhHim and goes on to describe a high priest who is able to sympathise with us and who has been tempted in every way that we have – without sinning. It is not exaggerating to say that the New Testament writers go out of their way to depict that Jesus has experienced what it is really like to be human. Preachers today will go out of their way to reveal a Jesus who “understands what you are going through”. It is central to what we call the incarnation that the Word became human and lived among us.
So in this biblical framework, did this thirty-three year old man ever know what it was to like to be in love? Your reaction to the question will reveal not only your views on Jesus but your attitude to such love. Some react in horror at the thought. Some dismiss it as blasphemy. Others consider that it would have to be true of him if he is to understand our journey. Still others recognise that the originator of love himself is present in the Saviour. Love, and being in love were after all divine ideas. The story of history is a love story and Jesus is the highest expression of love wooing the beloved.
The Gospel writers are apparently silent on this subject, were it not for this one moment by the tomb. In this one moment, something so startling is taking place that it makes us stop and think about the special attitude that Jesus showed towards this one individual. I will leave you to your own reflections on this thought, but as you reflect, remember that heresies over the centuries have generally arisen when people have made Jesus so divine that his humanity is lost or so human that his divinity is lost.
Our final reflection on this gentle moment set in the holiest of weeks concerns the paradox of Tears: Mary’s tears were tears of love and yet at the same time tears that signified misunderstanding. She, along with all the others, had not grasped that Jesus would really rise. Again, it was her tears that blinded her eyes to seeing Jesus, but her tears that evoked his compassion. Tears have a habit of getting in the way as well as opening up the way. Either way, the surprise of the new dawn has arrived with the beloved. It still does.
He is risen!
Author’s note: a tribute
A few weeks ago, I set out to write a short lent series based on describing some gentle and tender moments encountered on Jesus’ journey. By the time I had finished the third piece, I realised I was also writing a series about Jesus’ encounters with women. This I had not set out to do. There are numerous other gentle moments – the healing of the deaf man, the touch to a leper, John leaning on Jesus at the last supper – but it seemed appropriate to continue the theme.
Several things emerged in the research and the writing: firstly, how few commentaries see the journey from the women’s point of view; secondly, how many encounters Jesus indeed has with women; thirdly, how comfortable Jesus is in a company of women and men and how that is reciprocal.
What is also striking is the deep devotion displayed by these women, often in the face of great difficulties. There is much more to be written on these subjects but in the meantime, this series is a tribute written with profound respect to these daughters of Eve who, in spite of criticism, poured out their perfume; in spite of ostracism, reached out and touched; in spite of being demonised, found dignity; in spite of being pitied or patronised, continued to be daring. Heiresses of their legacy still do all this and more, and many read these pieces each week. If you are one of them, I pray that you find encouragement in this short series which is also a tribute to you.
1Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head.
The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. 8Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9(They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10Then the disciples went back to their homes, 11but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” ”They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
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