Mary Magdalene has been called "the apostle to the apostles" since early in Christian history.i For, as you've just heard in today's gospel lesson,ii she was the first to discover and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. It was she, who first having discovered the empty tomb, went to tell male disciples, and it was she, who first having actually encountered the risen Christ, went and announced this to the men, "I have seen the Lord." The four gospel stories of the resurrection differ in their details, but in all four Mary Magdalene is the first at the empty tomb, sometimes with other women, and then goes on to tell the male apostles.iii
But the men don't believe her, according to two of the gospel stories. Mark, in its longer ending, which is missing from the earliest Greek manuscripts,iv reports that "When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it."v Luke explains that "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."vi Women were not considered reliable witnesses in the world of the ancient Mideast. They had no standing to prevent evidence in court, and as one biblical scholar puts it, their "accounts...could be all too readily written off as old wives' tales, silly stories told by foolish women who simply don't know better."vii
Mary Magdalene in particular had a difficult reputation to overcome. Her name is actually only mentioned once in the Bible prior to Jesus' crucifixion, where she was said to be one of several women in Jesus' circle "who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities."viii In particular, she'd had seven demons exorcised from her. Her story also became connected with that of other unnamed women around Jesus who were caught committing adultery or who were prostitutes. In modern times she has been presented as Jesus' lover in plays, books, and movies like Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Da Vinci Code.ix In fact, the only solid biblical evidence about her beyond the exorcism is that she was wealthy enough to have been one of the patrons of Jesus and his male apostles and travelled with them, along with a number of other named women like Joanna and Susanna, providing for the men out of their own financial resources.x
All four gospels put Mary Magdalene faithfully at the cross during Jesus' execution.xi None of the male apostles seem to be there, having run away or denied knowing Jesus, like Peter.xii (Actually, the gospel of John does mention one, but only one, male disciple at the cross).xiii Mary Magdalene is also reported in three of the four gospels to be at the tomb as Jesus is buried,xiv and then in all four gospels to come back to find the tomb empty on the third day after his crucifixion.xv
Ultimately, though, the male apostles come to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead. The gospel of John reports that the resurrected Jesus comes through a closed, locked door to stand among them.xvi In Luke's account, when he stands among them, "they were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost."xvii In Matthew, Jesus meets them suddenly, telling them not to be afraid.xviii In the longer ending of Mark, Jesus appears to the eleven as they are sitting at the table, "and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen."xix
This story of Jesus' resurrection remains hard for many of us to believe today. In the gospel of Matthew, the chief priests are portrayed as spreading the word that what actually happened was that Jesus disciples came in the middle of the night when the guards at the tomb were asleep and stole his body away.xx Others have said that the resurrection story was concocted by the early church so that it could become a successful religious movement. But then why would the church have told a story with Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection? Surely, they could have invented a more reliable witness and a story that would be more credible to the larger Jewish and Greco-Roman world.
The apostles must have been very discouraged after their leader's death. They had denied him and were on their way back up north from Jerusalem to the rural Galilee region from which they'd come. It must have taken a lot for them to believe that Jesus was alive again among them, and clearly they didn't buy Mary Magdalene's first report. But then there must have been very convincing appearances to them personally to turn them around and provide the impetus for a new religious movement which has now become the largest in the world.
Biblical scholars split on whether the resurrection appearances were concrete bodily realities or visions -- a result of dreams, mystical experiences, or imaginative reinterpretations of other events.xxi Liberal scholars like Marcus Borg speak of apparitions, particular kinds of vision not necessarily experienced by everyone around, like the Apostle Paul dramatically experiencing Jesus' presence on the road to Damascus while no one else around him did.xxii Paul also explains that with resurrection, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,"xxiii implying that the resurrected Jesus was a spiritual presence but not a physical reality.xxiv Conservative scholars like N.T. Wright, though, interpret Paul's words about resurrection to mean that Jesus was transformed into a new mode of physicality; hence, there was a kind of concrete reembodiment of Jesus, not just a purely spiritual one.xxv Both Borg and Wright agree, though, that whatever happened with Jesus' resurrection, it was not a matter of a resuscitated corpse.xxvi After all, Jesus resurrected body was reported in the gospel accounts to appear and disappear at willxxvii and to pass through closed, locked doors.xxviii Both scholars would say, "Jesus lives again, but in a radically new way."xxix Theologian Rudolf Bultmann pushes us to the next step: "How the Easter faith arose in individual disciples has been obscured by legend and is not of basic importance."xxx
What is of importance for all of us, however, is Easter faith, in the sense that crucifixion and death are not the final word, speaking metaphorically as well as literally. We had an ecumenical Good Friday service here in Memorial Church at the end of the week, where we were powerfully reminded of the excruciating, torturous pain of Jesus' death after being scourged and nailed to a cross. He slowly suffocated from the way crucified bodies hang. His suffering was extreme. The instrument of execution has now become the primary symbol of the religious tradition he began, hanging decorously in gold and silver crosses around many necks, here in this church and around the world. That's because the cross was overcome, and Jesus was experienced to live again among us. His message of hope and love not only has never died, but also it's been infinitely enhanced by how it's been lived out in countless lives over millennia since. The unconditional love Jesus represents is utterly transformational and always will be: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."xxxi "Love your neighbor as yourself."xxxiiLove your enemies, do good to those who hate you."xxxiii
We so often can't see beyond our current troubles and travails to hope and to love. We so often are stuck on Good Friday and unable to move to Easter. Mary Magdalene is weeping in the garden near Jesus' tomb and addresses a person she supposes to be the gardener, the one she assumes is responsible for taking Jesus’ body. But then she has a transforming vision of the gardener, the one who buries, as Jesus himself, her rabbi alive to teach again. She realizes she shouldn't hold on to him herself, though, but should spread the good news he represents as he's ascending.
But we so often can't see beyond our current trouble and travails to hope and to love. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote about one of the witnesses at the Nuremberg war crime tribunals. What could have been a worse time of anguish and agony for European Jews than the Holocaust, when two out of every three of them were slaughtered between 1941 and 1945?xxxiv
This witness had lived for a while in a grave in a Jewish cemetery in Poland -- the only place that he and a number of others could survive after they had escaped the gas chamber. One day in a nearby grave a young woman gave birth to a baby boy, with the eighty-year-old gravedigger assisting. As the newborn emerged and its first cry was heard, the gravedigger prayed these words: "Great God, hast thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah himself can be born in a grave?"xxxv A resurrection experience.
But we so often can't see beyond our current trouble and travails to hope and to love. The cycle of the year can help. This is spring now. "Arise, my love... and come away," it is written in the Hebrew Bible Song of Solomon. "For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come."xxxvi How great can our problems really be in the face of the great resurrection of nature itself? Smell the roses. Walk in the foothills of the mountains. Look up into the clear blue sky (to come soon, if not today!). Listen to the birds. Get some perspective.
Novelist Thomas Wolfe expressed it this way: "Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower -- something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April."xxxvii
Happy Easter to you.
In the tomb of our souls, we carry secret yearnings,
iii Matthew 28: 1-10; Mark 16: 1-11; Luke 24: 1-12; John 20: 1-18.
iv Harold W. Attridge (ed.), The HarperCollins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), p. 1758.
v Mark 16: 9-11.
vi Luke 24: 11.
vii Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, p. 224.
viii Luke 8:2.
ix Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, pp. 179-187.
x Luke 8:3; see also Mark 15:41.
xi Matthew 27: 55-56; Mark 15: 40-41; Luke 23:49; John 19:25.
xii Matthew 26: 69-75; Mark 14: 51, 66-72; Luke 22: 54-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27.
xiii John 19: 26-27.
xiv Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23: 55-56.
xv See note ii.
xvi John 20:19.
xvii Luke 24: 36-37.
xviii Matthew 28: 9-10.
xix Mark 16:14.
xx Matthew 28: 11-15.
xxi Jean-Luc Nancy (as translated by Sarah Clift, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas), Nolo Me Tangere (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. 219, 254, 349.
xxii Marcus Borg, "The Truth of Easter," in Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 132.
xxiii I Corinthians 15:44
xxiv Borg, "The Truth of Easter," p. 133.
xxv N.T. Wright, "The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection," in Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 113, 120.
xxvi N.T. Wright, "The Transforming Reality of the Bodily Resurrection, p. 114.
xxvii For example, Mark 16:14-19 and Luke 24:31.
xxviii For example, John 20:19.
xxix Borg, "The Truth of Easter," p. 135.
xxx R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (New York: Scribners, 1951), 1.45, as cited in Jane Schaberg, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 219.
xxxi John 15: 13.
xxxii Mark 12:31; Matthew 22:39.
xxxiii Luke 6:27; see also Matthew 5:44
xxxiv "The Holocaust," Holocaust Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2010) at www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005143 on 4/3/10
xxxv Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, as cited in G. Peter Fleck, The Blessings of Imperfection: Reflections of the Mystery of Everyday Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), pp. 52-53.
xxxvi Song of Solomon 2: 10-12.
xxxvii Thomas Wolfe, The Web and the Rock (1937), as cited in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), #555.