Sunday Worship 23 May 2021 – Pentecost

Our service this morning was led by Heston with Lydia, Katherine-Alice and Adriaan leading our worship and Adriaan sharing his thoughts with us on “Mary of Magdala” based on the picture panel of the Leigh Russell Memorial Panel. You can read more about the panel on our website 

Here is the text of Adriaan’s sermon:

The story of Mary Magdalene as a Pentecost story

Readings: Genesis 1: 1-5 and John 20: 1, 11-18

What on earth has Mary of Magdala to do with Pentecost? That was my immediate thought when I was asked to preach this Sunday about the final section of the Leigh Russell Memorial Panel. The panel depicts a series of women in the Bible, and section number seven featured Mary of Magdala – the woman who, according to each of the gospels, was one of the first, if not the first, witnesses of Jesus as the risen Lord.

Indeed, Mary Magdalene is closely connected to the story of Good Friday and of Easter: she was present when Jesus was crucified, and three days later she was there to meet him after his resurrection. But we encounter her today, on the Sunday of Pentecost. I could not immediately see a connection between these two themes. Or is there?

The artist has painted Mary in radiant red. And red is the colour of love. Does the artist mean love in a spiritual sense, symbolising Mary’s close connection to Jesus? In our Gospel reading, she addresses him as Rabbi, meaning ‘Teacher’ – a title expressing that she considers herself Jesus’ pupil, disciple, and follower.

Or does the artist also suggest that there might be another form of love involved, an emotional, bodily, perhaps even erotic love? The Gospel of John narrates the encounter between Mary and the risen Lord in the setting of a garden. It has some remarkable resonances with Song of Songs, that book in the Old Testament full of erotic poetry, about an unnamed woman searching for her lover. This has inspired creative writers, most famously Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code, to speculate that Mary Magdalene had an intimate relationship with Jesus, and possibly even was his wife.

Regardless of whether their love was spiritual, emotional or erotic, or a combination of these, Mary of Magdala, according to the New Testament gospels, had a very close relationship to Jesus. Her name is mentioned twelve times, which is more often than for most of the male disciplines. Each of the four gospels tell that she was an eyewitness to Jesus’ crucifixion, and was among the first to witness the empty tomb. The Gospel of John provides the most detailed account, in which Mary not only is the first to discover the empty tomb, but also the first to meet the risen Lord, and to tell the male disciples about this highly significant encounter.

Let’s go back to the meaning of the colour red. Because red is the colour of love, but it also is the liturgical colour for Pentecost. This symbolic meaning recalls the story from the Book of Acts, about the Holy Spirit descending upon the disciplines in the form of tongues of fire. Might the artist have also had this meaning in mind, when she decided to paint Mary Magdalene in red? And if this is the case, was the artist after something? Is there a connection between Mary Magdalene and the Holy Spirit? Does the Gospel of John, subtly, allude to this connection?

We often associate Pentecost with the story from Acts about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of the Christian church. However, the Old Testament also speaks about the Spirit of God – in fact, it does so immediately in the opening verses of the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

Am I reading too much in John’s story about Mary Magdalene, when I hear resonances with these well-known opening verses of Genesis?

Early 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.

Both stories have an emphasis on the first day. Both stories have an emphasis on the darkness initially defining that day. Both stories convey the point that this darkness is conquered by the light that God miraculously brings into the world.

Is John suggesting that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is a second creation story – the story of God’s recreation of humankind, of the earth?

Is John drawing a parallel between the Spirit of God who, according to Genesis, was hovering over the dark waters, and Mary Magdalene, who was wandering around the garden where Jesus had been buried – a garden set in darkness, because the forces of chaos, of death, of destruction, appeared to be stronger than the forces of life, of hope, of faith?

Am I reading too much in the words of John chapter 20? Are these resonances just a coincidence? It might well be. But we do know that John the Evangelist had a strong theological interest in the book of Genesis. This is clear from the beginning of his gospel, where he writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Although John puts these words at the opening of his gospel, it might well be that the full truth of these words is realised, not in the birth of Jesus, but in his resurrection.

The resurrection is the focal point of the history of the world – only through the belief in Christ rising from the death does it makes sense to believe that he was with God in the beginning, and that through him all things were made, and are being remade. He is the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end – in him, everything comes together.

And the Spirit of God was present, in the beginning, hovering over the waters of darkness and chaos, when God on the first day created light to combat the darkness.

Similarly, Mary Magdalene is present, in this new beginning, wandering around the garden of darkness, when God on this first day again speaks the Word of Light and Life.

Earlier in this service, we sung this beautiful Pentecost hymn from the Iona community, about the Holy Spirit as a Bird brooding on the waters: ‘She sighs and she sings, mothering creation, waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.’

Please do take time to read the words of this hymn closely, to digest them, and then sing them again with Mary Magdalene in mind. Because much of the imagery in the hymn can, in fact, be applied to her as well. The phrase ‘enemy of apathy’ that is used to describe the Holy Spirit is apt for Mary, the first witness of the risen Lord. She did not fall into apathy after her Rabbi, whom she dearly loved, had died. Instead, she went into the garden, risking the darkness, and allowing her eyes to be opened to the lightening presence of Christ. As the first person in human history, she claims: ‘I have seen the Lord!’

In 2,000 years of Christianity, Mary Magdalene has not always been favourably depicted. On the contrary, since early Christian history, she has been identified with the ‘sinful woman’ who anointed Jesus’ feet. Subsequently, she has been depicted as a penitent prostitute or promiscuous woman. These traditions about her reflect the age-old anxiety about women’s sexuality, intelligence, and power.

Only in 1969, the identification of Mary Magdalene with the ‘sinful woman’ was removed from the official teaching of the Catholic Church. And as recent as 2016, Pope Francis declared her to be ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, because it was Mary who ‘was the first witness of the Risen Christ and the first messenger who announced to the apostles the resurrection of the Lord.’

In the Pentecost story of the book of Acts, Mary is not mentioned once. Indeed, the Book of Acts tells a rather male-centred story of the early beginnings of the Christian church. But let us not forget that the Holy Spirit, in biblical language, is female. And let us not forget that it was a woman who was the first Christian witness – ‘I have seen the Lord’.

Perhaps the story of Mary Magdalene is the true account of the birth of the Christian church. No, not just perhaps. Let us be bold: the story of Mary Magdalene is a Pentecost story!

She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters
Hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day
She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.

She dances in fire, startling her spectators
Waking tongues of ecstasy where quietness reigned
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open
Nor can she be captured, silenced, or restrained.

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