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Last Monday I went to the induction of a new vicar in a local village. As I had arrived in good time there was still plenty of space and I was just wondering where to sit when a retired gentleman came up to me and said, “I think I know you from somewhere!” It turned out that he and his wife were members of the church in Birmingham where I was first a curate 25 years ago. They had recognised me before I them! We then spent the time before the service started catching up with old times.

There is a common thread to the resurrection stories in the gospels. Jesus is not instantly recognised. Think of the Emmaus Road story, or Jesus’ appearance at the lakeside. I might be forgiven for failing to recognise someone I’d not seen for almost 25 years, but you would have thought the disciples would have recognised Jesus instantly as it was only a few days since they had seen him alive. But perhaps the words of 2 Corinthians helps to explain the difference: even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. There was something different about Jesus after his resurrection: he was not instantly recognisable. Perhaps he could only be seen through the eyes of faith and that kind of perception did not always comes straight away.

Who was Mary Magdalene?
It might be helpful just to pause and talk about who Mary Magdalene was. According to official Anglican information all four gospels give Mary is given a unique place among Jesus’ followers. Her “surname” denotes that she was from a community by the Sea of Galilee. Having been healed by Jesus she then accompanies him along with other women, including his mother, during his ministry. She stayed beside the cross along with other women and the young John, when the other disciples had fled in fright. She saw where his body was laid and then was the first disciple to discover the empty tomb on Easter morning. She was then the first to see the risen Jesus who sent her to take the good news of his resurrection to the other disciples. This commission earned her the title “Apostle to the Apostles” in the early Church. These are the things which we can clearly draw from scripture about her. However, we may be aware of other things believed about Mary’s character that are more in the popular imagination than based solidly on scripture. There are two other women in the gospels who are sometimes confused with Mary Magdalene: an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and often presumed to be a woman of suspect morals; and Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. St John’s gospel does connect Mary of Bethany with the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, but it doesn’t say that this is also Mary Magdalene.

It is very appealing to roll all three characters into one and popular culture does just that as in the films The Last Temptation of Christ, (Martin Scorsese) or Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, or in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. All we can say is that St John’s gospel doesn’t explicitly connect them all as one Mary and nor is it apparently important to him. Mary was a popular name and there are many Marys in Jesus’ life. As for the legend, popularised in The Da Vinci Code, that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife and they had children together, all we can say is that does not fit with either scripture or the Church’s tradition. It is also part of the conspiracy theory that the Catholic Church has deliberately suppressed any evidence for Jesus and Mary having been married. That is a complete distraction from our faith!

Caring for Jesus
What is important in the gospels is what they tell us of Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Only Luke introduces her at an early stage, saying that she was one from who Jesus cast out seven demons and who was one of the women who followed him about providing for him from their own means. She really comes into her own at the end. She is the only one of all the followers who is witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection. Others witnessed these things, but not all three together. The important points we can draw out are that she cared for Jesus and was witness to his resurrection. These things are connected, as well. We can imagine that she cared about what Jesus’ needed on a practical level: cooking for him and the other disciples; perhaps doing their washing; maybe generally fussing over their welfare. She accompanies the band on their last pilgrimage together to Jerusalem. She is around when things take a terrible turn for the worse and when she cannot do any more, faithfully watches at the foot of the cross. So we can imagine, once she had helped to take him down from the cross and saw where he was buried, that she wanted to care for the dead body as much as possible. There were rituals of cleansing and embalming normal to the Jewish burial rites, but these had to be interrupted by the Sabbath ban on any work. Jesus was hastily laid to rest until he could be given the proper attention as soon as the Sabbath was over. That’s why Mary Magdalene and some of the others went as soon as they could to the tomb at daybreak on the Sunday – as soon as the Sabbath was over.

Searching for the body
John takes up the story, explaining how upset Mary was when they discovered the body was missing from the opened tomb. If she couldn’t have a living Jesus to look after, she at least wanted to show his dead body some respectful and tender care. Now even that is prevented by his body having gone missing. No wonder she is completely distraught! We may think that the questions of the angels and of the supposed gardener are insensitive: “Woman, why are you weeping?” but they are part of the narrative: they help to reveal what was going on in Mary’s feelings. It would be quite logical for Mary to suppose that this extra pair of legs that appear at the entrance to the tomb belong to the gardener, arriving early in the cool of the morning, to do his work. She has a straw to clutch at: perhaps he has taken the body somewhere else and can tell her where. All it takes is for her to hear her own name being said by a familiar voice in a particular way and the transformation begins to take place within her.
Do not hold on to me
Recognition does not happen straight away, it is only when she hears her name that she realises who it is standing before her. Then her natural instinct is to want to lay hold of him. She longed to care for the body, but now there is a living being to grasp hold of. In a modern culture she’d give him a bear hug. Perhaps in her culture she fell to cling on to his feet. So why does Jesus say, “Do not hold on to me!”? Is Jesus being insensitive? Does he not want her to contaminate him? The word is not just that for “touch” – as in, “Don’t touch me!” The word has more the idea of fastening onto, clasping hold of, as if she would never let him out of her sight again. Going back to that phrase in 2 Corinthians: she is now not to know Christ from a human point of view even though she once did. Now she is to relate to him in a new kind of way. She is to be a new creation, everything old has passed away and she is to relate to him as witness to the resurrection. She is to show her devotion not by caring for a physical body, but to tell first the other disciples, and then the world, that she has seen the Lord. That is why she has earned the title: “Apostle to the Apostles” – the one sent to tell those who would in turn be sent to spread the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection.

This is to be the way for us, if we are to live up Mary Magdalene’s name and to be faithful followers of Christ. At a meeting the other week a number of us listened to a Humanist explaining his point of view. He said that religion was not based on scientific proof and therefore he could not accept it. However, this is to be a misunderstanding of faith. We base our belief on the witness of the apostles, including Mary Magdalene. We don’t believe blindly because there is enough evidence of the resurrection. The evidence does not mount to scientific proof. It is more the weight of evidence such as that used in a court of law or in history, pointing to the highest likelihood of something being true. We too, may show our devotion to Christ by bearing witness to his resurrection. We too have heard him calling our own name and know that he is working a transformation in us.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith