Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
“Ain’t I a Woman?” Anyone know who said that? This is the name given to a speech delivered by the African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Quoting from a transcript of her extemporaneous speech to the crowd: “”Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Whar did your Christ come from?”
How about “I Am Woman”? Do you remember that one? In 1972, the singer-songwriter Helen Reddy released her single “I Am Woman,” which became an anthem for The Women’s Liberation Movement. The song begins “I am woman, hear me roar,” and continues, “Yes, I am wise…I am strong…I am invincible.”
I am a woman. And while, as most of you know, I’m not usually one to roar, I do have the opportunity to preach. Today, the theme for our worship service is “lifting up the feminine voice.” We had originally hoped to do this in March, during Women’s History Month, but as we’re in mid-April, I’m glad that this emphasis on “affirming the female voice” and the season of Easter have coincided. Because the female presence and voice are very prominent, and vital, especially at the Resurrection.
Women as witnesses to the Resurrection are found in all four of the gospels. Women first learned that the tomb was empty, they were the first to hear the good news that Jesus was risen, and they were the first to be told to share this news with others. The first preachers of Easter were women.
Each of the Gospels make women the most important witnesses to the Resurrection – at a time when women were literally and legally ignored. Skepticism of women was enshrined in the law: a woman’s testimony didn’t count in a Jewish court during Jesus’ time, and the wider Greco-Roman culture devalued and disparaged the word of women.
Women figure prominently throughout Jesus’ ministry, yet most of them are unnamed. Most female figures in the Gospels are identified by descriptions such as “the woman with the issue of blood,” “the Samaritan woman at the well” and the “woman caught in adultery.” So when women ARE named – like Joanna and Susanna – the message is that they are especially important.
The woman I want to focus on this morning is Mary Magdalene. The title of my sermon isn’t meant to say that she was the victim of sexual assault, although she very well may have been. Instead, I want to acknowledge that the #MeToo movement has its roots in the same historical circumstances that existed thousands of years ago: the disempowerment and silencing of women that allows for sexual harassment and rape. The history and traditions surrounding Mary Magdalene that have been passed down over the centuries are very telling illustrations of the diminishment of women that has plagued humanity for so long.
So who was Mary Magdalene? Her last name is identified not with a man, but with a city – Magdala, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. She’s listed by name in all four Gospels, and when referred to amidst multiple women, she is listed first to indicate her primary leadership role. She was one of a band of female disciples who shared in Jesus’ inner circle. These women heard Jesus’ teaching and preaching, were sent out on mission projects, and were empowered to witness to God’s work in their lives. While some scholars suggest that women were primarily providing domestic duties, the term used for service, diakonia, had a range of meanings, from “woman’s work” like cooking and sewing, to the work of discipleship. From the Gospel of Luke we know that the women had their own resources (either through inheritance or professionally). They worked with the disciples, and they engaged in ministry.
The only biographical information we have for Mary is that she was sick with seven demons, at a time when all sorts of illnesses, physical and mental, were attributed to demon possession. Jesus cast out the demons plaguing Mary and she became whole and well. And in all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene is named among those who witness the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
That’s it! That’s all we know. Unfortunately, over time, Mary Magdalene’s story became interwoven with other women in the Gospels: In Luke and John, there’s Mary of Bethany, and in Luke’s gospel, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet – a sinner, assumed by many interpretations to be a prostitute, although even that isn’t clear. In the sixth century Pope Gregory the Great conflated Mary Magdalene with the others and declared that these three women were one and the same, and his distorted picture took hold for centuries.
Artistic depictions have also diminished Mary. In her book Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor, the scholar Susan Haskins has studied the frequency and ways in which Mary was depicted naked, most often with explicitly erotic overtones that even degenerated into pornography. Haskins also points out something I find fascinating: the word maudlin – defined as “self-pityingly or tearfully sentimental, often through drunkenness” – crept into the English language as a variation of the medieval French pronunciation of Magdalene. But Mary Magdalene was never described as drunk in the Bible! The image of Mary as a licentious, sexualized woman has persisted in Western culture, including in Jesus Christ Superstar and The DaVinci Code.
Fortunately modern scholars have adopted a different understanding of Mary Magdalene, and regard her as one of Jesus’ most prominent disciples, who stood by him to the end while his other devoted apostles didn’t. Mary was an independent woman, whose life was dramatically restored, healed and changed by Jesus; and she was the first person to proclaim the news of Christ’s Resurrection. Her depiction in this light can be seen in a new film, Mary Magdalene, which was released a couple of months ago in Europe and Australia. I’m not promoting it – the movie’s gotten pretty poor reviews – but I find it ironic that it hasn’t been released yet in the U.S. because of the collapse of its original distributor, the Weinstein Company.
Mary Magdalene and other women were the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. They were the first to see evidence of the Resurrection, and they were to the first to be told to pass on the good news that Jesus was risen. They were told to pass on truly and authoritatively what they had seen and heard to a group of male disciples. Yet in the Gospel of Luke we read that “…they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.” I was reminded of this passage just the last few days, when the President’s new U.S. economic advisor told reporters that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley “got ahead of the curve” on imminent Russian sanctions. He said “She’s a very effective ambassador, but there might have been some momentary confusion about that.” Ambassador Haley responded with a statement saying, “I don’t get confused.”
At a time when women’s voices were rarely acknowledged, Mary Magdalene asserted the power of her witness. She was commissioned by Jesus for a critical role. Jesus said, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And she went, declaring that she had seen the Lord.
God chose women as the first witnesses to the Resurrection; the first to share the good news of Easter. The surprising, powerful role of women in the Gospel stories is just one of many ways that God is doing an altogether new thing through the risen Christ, and that this new thing will involve the transformation of all things, including gender roles.
God is bringing new life all around us, and we get to witness that work and be part of it. Even if we’re overlooked, even if our names aren’t remembered, we’re all important to the work God is doing in the world. Just as Jesus calls Mary by name, God calls us by name. And all of us – women and men – have important roles to play in sharing and living out the Good News of the Resurrected Christ. Amen.