A sermon preached by Canon Dr Robert Titley, Treasurer for the feast of St Mary Magdalene on Friday 22 July 2016.
Twenty-eight days later, still many questions posed by the referendum. Take the freedom of the press. Are newspapers free to act just as cheerleaders for one side or the other, or do they also have an obligation to present evidence objectively? Of course, falling print sales bring big temptations not to let evidence get in the way of a good story. And that is something the church knows about too. Take Mary Magdalene.
Thanks to our glazing team, Sam, Tom and Vicky, we have found at least six images of her in the windows of the cathedral. Whereas Mary the Virgin is typically dressed in chaste blue, her head modestly covered, Mary Magdalene always has red in her dress, while her head is probably bare, her hair (sometimes red as well) flowing free. Mary the - literally - scarlet woman, visual signals that point to the ancient identification of her as a prostitute. This gives a clear message: Jesus welcomed – welcomes – everyone; even you promiscuous women have a place in the Lord’s heart.
We see here the old religious obsession with sexual sin (which in its secular form helps newspaper sales) but it’s a message we need to hear when, according to the latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3), British women aged 16-44 have had on average seven to eight male partners. Stated as a general truth, though, the message lacks force. What Mary gives is that journalistic gold, a human interest story.
There is no saint to do this job for men, for whom the figures are much higher. Why is that, do you think? We are again indebted to the glazing team for some possible candidates for the human face of promiscuous manhood: St Charlie Sheen, St Simon Cowell or St Warren Beatty - but would they do? They know all about seduction, but what do they know of salvation?
Someone who knew about both was John Donne, the seventeenth-century writer of ravishing erotic poetry, who was to become a priest. For a while he was Rector of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, in Kent, South East England; which - centuries later - became the home of another Anglican poet, CH Sisson, who died in 2003. Sisson was concerned that the faith of Jesus seemed to cut no ice with the successful commuters catching the London train every morning, so he wrote A Letter to John Donne, that makes our very point. He says to his predecessor,
Come down and speak to the men of ability
On the Sevenoaks platform and tell them
That at your St Nicholas the faith
Is not exclusive in the fools it chooses;
That the vain, the ambitious and the highly sexed
Are the natural prey of the incarnate Christ.
Amen! But that last bit - is that what Mary Magdalene was like? There are two sensual moments in the gospels which are traditionally associated with her: in Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, while Jesus is at dinner, a woman pours ointment over his head (Mark 14.3-9, Mathew 26.6-13); and in Luke, when Jesus is again at dinner, a woman comes in, wets his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and kisses and anoints them (Luke 7.36-50). Now Luke’s woman is ‘a sinner’ and, from the nose-tapping remarks of the other guests, may be a prostitute. But neither story gives us a name, certainly not the name of our Mary.
All we know of her is this: she perhaps came from Magdala in Galilee (=Magdalene); according to Luke, Jesus had cast demons out of her and she was among the women who supported Jesus during his ministry (Luke 8.2); and all four gospels have her as a witness to the crucifixion of Jesus and to his resurrection. And that’s it. No parental advisory. No illicit passion. Nothing to stand the traditional story up.
The stained-glass picture of Mary, the siren who becomes a saint, points to a powerful truth. God accepts your passions and mine, sensual passions, the passions of ambition; they are all the raw materials of holy living, if we offer them to God; and you don’t have to become a certain kind of person before God or the church of Jesus will have you. And that’s wonderfully true, even if our Mary was a person of great modesty, who spent every evening knitting woolly gloves (or the Palestinian equivalent). But with her it’s not just that the truth gets in the way of a good story: the truth is a good story, and it has nothing to do with illicit passion.
Despite the natural tendency to boost the credentials of the male disciples, the gospel tradition is stubborn: among those who stay to see Jesus die is Mary, and she is also among the first to know the terror and joy of his resurrection, as in our reading tonight. Mary is there at the end and there at the new beginning, what St Paul tonight calls the new creation.
So she is a woman of passion, after all. With the passion of Christ, when others turn away, she stays; when others stay away, she goes back, with a passionate determination to look truth in the eye, even when the truth looks ghastly and the story is all wrong. That’s why she is the first to see the story come right.
And here is the risk of faith. There is so much in the world to set against the Christian hope of glory that many hedge their bets and don’t take Jesus too seriously. Or they ignore the inconvenient truth that following Jesus does not bring a string of happy endings. Others, though, like Mary, trust with passion. They try to stand close to where Jesus is, to be open to the glory of God and to the wounds of the world, all at once. And they are the ones who will know the truth of that gospel promise for hard times, that it is those who endure to the end who shall be saved (Mark 13.13).