A couple of years ago, I was running a course in Rome out of the Anglican Centre for women leading in the Anglican church. Women from around the world were participating. A woman from Rwanda, who had since become a church leader, was one of those in attendance. She told her story of the genocide, of family and neighbours, killing and being killed. Among those dead was her husband and one of her children. She fled with the thousands of others, becoming a refugee, suffering rape, beatings and in constant fear for her life. She had two children with her, one a babe in her arms, the other a few years older. They crossed borders and headed north to escape. Finally reaching a port, they were searching for a boat to cross the sea. On the journey as she fled with strangers and others whom she knew, she had been told her husband was alive, he had been seen. She had not believed it. The trauma and horrors had been so dreadful. In the port, as she was searching for a boat that would take her and her children to safety, her small daughter exclaimed, ‘papa, papa, over there, mama’. My friend turned but could see nothing. Her daughter pulled her hand out of her hers and ran across the distance into the arms of a man who had turned at her calling, as she threw herself into his arms. My friend was horrified, running after her, her daughter accosting a stranger. She did not recognise the man. As my friend described it, her grief and denial of the events over the past few weeks had made it impossible to believe in the good news. She did not recognise her husband until he said her name and took her in his arms. She wept.
John’s Gospel tells us:
‘Mary stood weeping outside the tomb’ (John 20:11).
The angels in white asked her why she was weeping. Mary replied:
‘They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’ (John 20:13)
Mary Magdalene turns away from them and sees a man, she assumes to be the gardener who also asks her:
‘Woman why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ (John 20:15)
These are, in John’s Gospel, the first words of the risen Christ: He comes asking the meaning of our tears and our grief.
Mary’s grief is overwhelming. She along with other women have travelled with Jesus throughout his ministry and were present as he died, while all the others fled. She has maintained her vigil without flinching or fear. She stood by Jesus until the very last moment of his human life, bearing witness when all others had deserted.
On the morning after the Sabbath she returns faithfully to the tomb to bring precious spices to anoint his body and prepare him for his death. She is so deeply concentrating on this final act of care and love for the man she followed to his death, her purpose is one of deep reverence, grief and respect, that when Jesus speaks, she is unable to make sense of what she is seeing.
Let’s think about this. The catastrophe of the loss of Jesus’ body, speaks to all those who have suffered under oppression, terror, rape and torture, facing the total disappearance of those who have lived.
All refugees speak of such horrors after living under dictatorship, the experience of resisting unfettered power with its supreme disregard for human life and its uniqueness in God’s love.
Those who cannot flee speak of the grief of the disappearing of loved ones, no trace existing, no mark of their humanity remaining. They hold up pictures, they speak their names, they harass power and publicly grieve, demanding acknowledgement of lives lived, and the right to life and existence. They show us we dare not forget because by forgetting we collude with the powers that deny the very existence of the right to live and love. In the meantime, those considered inconvenient continue to be obliterated by those with power and with evil intent, to remove all trace of their existence.
Mary Magdalene’s witness gives hope to all who suffer in such circumstances. Like Christ she was present at such a moment.
The tomb is gutted, open, empty, nothingness prevails. Jesus has been disappeared, as if he had never existed.
‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46b)
The cry of Jesus and all of us, resonates around the world. All those who despair have uttered those cries. Mary is oblivious to everything except her loss and her utter outrage at the horror perpetrated by the authorities on this man, and on those who loved him. She cannot recognise his voice for the roar of injustice in her ears.
Is it possible in our grief, or anger or shame or guilt, that we have been stumbling over angels?
The people most eligible for Easter joy may not be able to see it when it comes.
Mary has no idea and is walking away when the moment turns.
Jesus said to her: “Mary!” (John 20:16)
The risen Christ awakens with our names on his lips.
His voice stops Mary in her tracks; the truth breaks through and she turns towards him and the risen Christ fills her sight, her heart, her mind, her spirit. In John’s Gospel, this is the moment when the resurrection is declared. No angels have announced Jesus is risen. His calling of her name is that announcement. This announcement is made not by telling her who he is, but by his appeal to who she is.
There is tremendous power in the speaking of a name. Your name is a sound, but more than that, it is you. To be called by the wrong name is to be misidentified, not rightly known. Then how your name is spoken, indifferently, appreciatively, roughly, tenderly, as a stranger or as someone well known, with joy and love speaks with power into our lives.
Mary recognises Jesus’ voice, the sound of her name from someone who knows her, loves her and who understands her in deepest friendship. For her, as perhaps for us too, this is the turning point. The world seems without meaning until divine love grants meaning to us and all is changed. The risen Christ awakens with our names on his lips.
‘My teacher’ she cries and reaches for him. ‘Do not hold onto me’, he says (John 20:16b, 17a).
There can be no clinging to what was before. Everything is new.
Notably for Mary, this newness offers a new vocation. Quite the opposite to holding onto him, she is sent by him back into the world. It turns out the calling of her name is so Jesus may commission her.
Jesus crowns her life with purpose as he tells her: ‘Go and tell my brothers’.
Her commission is to ‘be’ as the early church said of her: ‘the apostle to the apostles’, apostola apostolorum’, a title conferred on her by the early Church, absolutely refuting the notion Jesus did not call women to be his disciples.
Before conveying Jesus’ message to them all, she declares, ‘I have seen the Lord!’ in firm conviction and truth as undeniable testimony (John 20:18).
Clearly Mary was called by Jesus, and if Mary Magdalene was so called, so too is Mary Smith, Mary Malali Yousafzai from Afghanistan, Mary from India and Pakistan, Mary from Korea and China, and my friend Mary from Rwanda, and myself as Mary Lucy from England and now Australia.
Jesus is calling each of us by name, including all the Marys here today, and all the Peters, Johns and Davids, from near and far who hear this news and celebrate this morning.
Mary speaks with the authority of grief overturned by the living Christ – as we may also do, we who, like Mary, discern our own names being called through our tears and grief, and we may hear Jesus’ summoning our own voices to declare ‘Christ is risen’.
See now our grief becomes faith, turning from mourning to proclamation as the world is now made new, reborn as we are in Christ resurrected, as the new creation of God.
The Lord is risen, Allelujah! Allelujah!