Power and Passion 6: Mary Magdalene
Passage: Mark 15:38–15:41, Mark 15:46–16:8
My wife’s favorite tv show is the Gilmore Girls. She watched it live way back in the day and has watched it on DVD or Netflix countless times since. As we go to sleep we will have the tv on, I know you’re not supposed to do that because it messes with your rem cycle or something but sometimes we do things we’re not supposed to do, and most of the time Gilmore Girls is what we have on to fall asleep to.
Pretty soon into dating Emily I learned that Gilmore Girls was her favorite show. So I watched it too. Because I’m no dummy. And a funny thing happened. Not only did I find I liked the show, but I started thinking about the show. A lot. Gilmore Girls is named after a mother and daughter, Lorelei and Rory Gilmore. Lorelei had Rory when Lorelei was a senior in high school. Lorelei grew up the only child of very wealthy parents in Connecticut. And her wealthy parents had plans for her life, plans Lorelei didn’t share. So when Lorelei had Rory she left her parents house to do life her own way, raise her kid her own way, rather than bend to her parents wishes.
But here’s the thing. Throughout the series I kept being drawn to the character Emily Gilmore, Lorelei’s mother. She’s initially painted as this overbearing villain of a mother. But that characterization just doesn’t hold throughout the series. And as I got to the end of the series, and especially into the Netflix reboot, I kept wanting the show to focus more and more on Emily and her relationship with Lorelei rather than Lorelei’s relationship with Rory. Emily was just the most interesting character in the show. And it felt like the show never figured that out.
How often have you watched a show and found that one of the ancillary characters, one of the side characters, was actually the most interesting? Was actually the one to pay attention to? Last week we talked about Peter and how he was like many of the flawed main characters we watch on tv. We talked about how much more we resonate with our favorite characters when we see their faults and how it is when we see Peter’s faults his story can be our story and the good news and forgiveness he finds can be our good news and our forgiveness.
Today we are going to look at a character who would most likely get a “guest starring” credit in the gospels. She’s decidedly not a main character. She has a few scenes, but more often than not she’s off to the side. Always there. But never the main focus. And yet she’s probably a more interesting character than many of the people we do spend time with. This morning we are going to talk about Mary Magdalene.
Mary is a tricky character to nail down in some respects. She is named in a few episodes, one of which we will talk about in a minute. Her biggest role comes in being present for the resurrection, John providing the most detail. But there are a number of others stories in the Gospels where an unnamed woman comes and does things. And the tradition has tended to ascribe Mary to these unnamed women. One of the first things we hear about Mary in the Gospels comes from Luke: he says that along with the disciples there were women who travelled with Jesus who financially supported Jesus’ work. Mary is named here and Luke adds that seven demons were driven out of her.
Mention of these demons has led to stories of unnamed sinful women being ascribed to Mary. One such story occurs during Holy Week. Jesus is eating at the house of Simon the Leper, which quick sidebar Jews didn’t eat with lepers they were unclean so you stayed away from the people who are unclean. And yet we always see Jesus going to the unclean not worried that they will make him unclean, but sure that his holiness will make them holy. And we as his church, we as his followers, are called to do the same. Mini-sermon over. So Jesus is eating at this house and someone defined as a sinful woman comes in and starts to anoint Jesus with nard. Now I have no idea what nard is other than it’s a very expensive perfume. Which means I still have no idea what we’re talking about here. But she breaks the jar and pours all of it over Jesus’ head. Which she did not mean as a practical joke, but as an act of devotion. She’s anointing him, preparing his body for burial. The disciples get upset saying you could totally have sold this for half a year’s wages and given that money to the poor. And in thinking about that we can see the size of this woman’s gift. The median household income for Prince William County residents is $98,514. I’m gonna round up to an even six figures. Imagine owning a bottle of perfume worth $50,000. Then imagine using all of it at one time on one person. Wouldn’t that appear wasteful?
It’s only wasteful if you don’t realize the party is about to end, that the world is about to come crashing down. And that’s what Jesus says, that’s why Jesus commends her. Not because she blew 50k on perfume and then dumped it on Jesus, but because she really saw what was going on. She got it. She knew that Jesus wasn’t going to be around for a long time. She knew Jesus was going to die.
Jesus predicts his death a number of times in the Gospels. Each time the disciples recoil at the notion. There’s no way this story ends that way Jesus. Think about that, telling God what the plan is. But anyways. The disciples consistently say no way you’ll die Jesus. They don’t get it. They don’t get what’s really going on.
This unnamed woman that the tradition has said is Mary Magdalene does.
Last week we talked about Peter and how his boldness was the key to his authority and was his undoing. He believed that his power stemmed from his overwhelming passion; I believe something and will go full bore until what I believe transforms the world. But that was never the passion of Jesus. Peter’s passion was based very much in the logic of this world. To borrow from C.S. Lewis Jesus’ passion was based on a deep magic from before the dawn of time. Mary recognizes this. She realizes that Jesus passion is not just overwhelming love, belief, devotion; Jesus’ passion is also voluntary suffering.
But Mary, assuming this unnamed woman was Mary, isn’t done here. And now it’s time to turn to Scripture and see what Mark says about her further involvement in the Passion narrative.
The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
So there’s a lot in here to talk about. The first place I want to start is at the cross. And just like before when we talked about Mary in light of Peter, we’re going to juxtapose those two again. Last week we talked about Peter denying Jesus, refusing to stand with Jesus in Jesus’ darkest hours. Peter can’t tell randos sitting by the first he follows Jesus let alone follow Jesus to the cross. And here we see Mary is there. Standing with Jesus to his final hour.
And I think his relates to her anointing Jesus earlier. She knew what was coming. She knew that for Jesus passion involves voluntary suffering. She knew it was coming to this. I doubt she knew the full story, I doubt she hoped in resurrection. But I imagine she had faith in Jesus, that if Jesus wasn’t fighting this then somehow this was necessary. And if it was necessary she would stand by home while he goes through it.
In many respects that’s what it means for Christians to access power. We never get the whole story. And that can be incredibly maddening. There have been times where I’ve enjoyed a tv show that I’ve recommended it to friends and family and have been told let me know when it finishes if it ends well and if so I’ll binge it. We are conditioned as people to want to know the full story, the full plan, before we jump in to something. As people of faith there is some much that we have to leave up to, well, faith. We don’t get the full story. We don’t get the balcony view. We get snippets. And we are left to make decisions that sometimes are not within our best interest trusting that God will deliver. Or we are left praising and worshipping and praying to and relying on God for certain things when we don’t see how it will all come together.
Mary follows Jesus all the way to the cross, all the way to the point of his death because she believes that if anyone can make a way through this its Jesus. She goes to the cross because she believes there’s something more going on here, something that she can’t see but she knows Jesus can. She goes to the cross because she believes that God has a better perspective than she does.
She goes, but I can’t imagine it was easy.
Peter doesn’t go. He’s not there. He’s fled. And let me give a twenty second defense of Peter: if Jesus was executed as a political criminal, if Jesus was executed as an insurrectionist, the Romans wouldn’t have wanted to merely stop with Jesus. They’d have been after his closest lieutenants. Peter would be risking his life in hanging close to Jesus. The women were not under the same sort of pressure. While it was still difficult and dangerous to follow Jesus to the cross, the Romans would not have the same drive to arrest Mary that they would have to arrest Peter.
So that’s my brief defense. That doesn’t really hold up. Because Peter in his bold moments was all about standing with Jesus forever. Fighting, killing, dying for Jesus. And yet he’s not there. Because his faith was in a different type of victory. His faith was in something else.
And all of this is why Mary goes to the tomb and Peter doesn’t. Peter can’t stand to the sight of Jesus’ body. He can’t stand to be out in public. He can’t stand to confront the fear and the disappointment the cross brought. Mary is in a totally different place. She can go to the tomb because she’s accepted the cross. She’s accepted that what happened to Jesus was necessary. She accepted that this is part of a story that isn’t over. Even if she doesn’t know what’s coming next.
So she goes to the tomb. And here we have Mark’s version of the Easter Gospel, at least the earliest version of Mark’s telling. They go to the tomb and the stone is rolled away. I love the buddy comedy moment where they are like what are we gonna do about big rock? And they get there and big rock isn’t a problem. They go into the tomb and Jesus’ body isn’t there. But someone is. Or something? Unclear. And this man angel thing says Jesus isn’t here, he’s risen. He’s in Galilee, go tell the others. And Mark’s gospel ends with the words the women didn’t say a word to anyone because they were terrified.
It’s such a cliff hanger ending, I love it. But it’s also true to the faith of the women, Mary in particular, who went to the cross. They didn’t know what was going to happen through the cross but they knew it was central to who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing in the world. They didn’t have all the answers. They had faith. And where we leave Mary and the other women at the tomb is a similar place. They don’t have answers. They have hope. They have faith. They have enough to go on that justifies the faith they had that led them to the cross.
And here we arrive at the central message of this series. And that is as Christians our power is not rooted in the logic of this world, but rather the logic of God, more specifically the logic of resurrection. Sam Wells writes: Resurrection is the vindication of the passion of Mary Magdalene, the passion of persistent faithfulness at cross and tomb, and resurrection is the announcement that the overwhelming love of God is not to be withstood forever. Passion is no longer tragic, a doleful, melancholic love for the lost. Passion is now an advance token of final fulfillment—a longing for union that may be experienced now as suffering but will in due course be consummated in union with God.
Mary and Peter each had deep, genuine connections with Jesus. But only one of them could follow Jesus to the cross. And I think what happened was Peter had assumptions about truths of this world. And that meant seeing death as final and death as defeat. And Peter’s passion for Jesus meant that his view of power was acquiring the ability to stave off the things that are final and the things that mean defeat.
Mary had faith in something else. And what the resurrection of Jesus means is that there is no greater power than the power of God made real in the world. We are connected to the greatest source of power, chance, and transformation in the universe. Which means we need not fear what connection, deep connection, to others will bring. We can have faith in what God is doing in our world and in our lives. We can have deep connection with others, particularly those that have less than we do, and not worry about what that might mean for our lives. While we will never welcome voluntary suffering, we can believe and maybe even accept that suffering does not have the final world and can be, will be, redeemed by our God. And we can have faith, sure faith, that the sufferings we do encounter, voluntary or otherwise, will be redeemed by the resurrection power of our god.
Running under the surface of the last six weeks has been the relation of power and passion as both are experienced in our world. And often they can have an inverse relation. Pilate had near universal power in this story but his hold on power drove him to be dispassionate. Barrabas had no power and his lack of power amplified his passion to violent ends. Joseph of Armithea had power but was afraid to be passionate. Mrs Pilate had no power but wasn’t afraid to be passionate. Peter believed passion was the wellspring of power. Mary teaches us that power, when properly understood as deriving from God, enables passion.
We all have different understandings of power and passion. Easter seeks to reframe and refine them in relation to God’s raising Jesus from the dead.
Sam Wells has been our muse throughout these six weeks and I’m going to allow him the last word. “Politics [our way of being in the world] becomes the reorientation of life according to the freedom made possible by the overcoming of death, and not just death but sin—through the power of forgiveness. Thus those aspects of society that had previously been just window dressing—lament in the face of death, bitterness and regret in the face of sin, in short, passion—now become the key points of transformation, the nerve centers in the new politics. Now, in the resurrection of Jesus, we can see that every small gesture of reconciliation or care of the vulnerable is part of the way God is transforming the world. Power and passion can come together at last.”
Let us pray.