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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 22nd July 2018 – St Mary Magdalene
2 Cor. 5. 14-17 & John 20. 1-2, 11-18
Wednesday was the last time I had some decent sleep. By Saturday I was past feeling tired. My heart was beating very fast and if I lay down I doubted if I could have physically shut my eyes. It felt as if they were permanently open. Not sleeping properly is a funny business. You never get used to it – even years as a fisherman, often working solidly for two or three days and nights, doesn’t prepare you for the strange sensations that come with total exhaustion.
On Thursday night we struggled to stay awake in the garden while he went and prayed alone. He did this sometimes, it was normal, and so we dozed – until the soldiers came and everything began to go wrong. It all happened so fast – as the soldiers searched the garden I justified running away by reasoning that I would be no use to him sitting in a cell. A few of us gathered back in the upper room – we sat – sometimes talking, sometimes arguing, sometimes in silence. We did not know what to do and he wasn’t there to ask. A damp, grubby towel hung over the back of a chair accusing us of the selfish weakness which was the cause of our guilt.
We made ourselves believe that he would be able to talk himself out of any trouble he was in – we expected him to walk through the door sometime on Friday. But Friday passed in the blink of an eye, yet in agonising slow motion. Before we knew it, before we could do anything, he was dead.
On Thursday night we had contemplated his temporary absence. On Friday night we struggled to comprehend his permanent absence. We did not sleep; we talked, we argued, we wept, we remembered times past. With him gone we had no focus, no direction. We were aimless and exhausted – a paralysing mixture of feelings. The instinct for survival made us eat on Saturday. We ate in silence, we were all remembering the last meal we had shared with him – remembering the things he had said and done – we broke bread and shared wine without words being said. We gained some strength from the food, we gained more from sharing it together.
I began to look forward to the escape of sleep which would surely come on Saturday night. I made myself comfortable and settled down. For hours I loitered and fidgeted on the edge of sleep.
In the dark hours just before dawn I heard movement in a room down the corridor. A door quietly opened and closed and I saw Mary, our friend from Magdala, walk quietly into the dark of the pre-dawn morning, her head bowed, her step nervous and tentative. I saw the old Mary, the wounded and troubled lady we had made friends with all that time ago. I let her go – we all needed to do things our own way – she was probably just going to the grave to weep. I went back to my mattress, laid down and thought of Mary. Her friendship with us had been her salvation. She seemed to grow in stature, of course she didn’t, it was just that she started walking with her head held up instead of bowed down. She certainly grew in confidence. I sensed that for the first time in her life she felt valued, respected, loved. What would become of her now? We had already started talking about returning to Galilee to pick up our nets, but where would she go? What would she do now he was gone?
As these thoughts and questions rumbled around my head sleep finally came, the heavy, deep, dreamless sleep of exhaustion and grief. When the others woke me up I had no idea if I had slept for minutes or hours. I came round slowly – I could tell by the light and by the angle of the shadows that it was early morning. I thought I had slept for a whole day and then I noticed the candle that was still burning by my mattress – I knew it in every detail having stared at it so much during that troubled night – it was the same shape and size. I realised I had slept for only an hour or so. I began to be angry but then I noticed the atmosphere in the room was very different from the night before. People were fully awake and listening to Peter. It was all very strange and confusing. Peter was saying that Mary had gone to visit his grave very early and that when she had got there the stone had been rolled away and the grave was empty. Mary had run back and woken Peter and one of the others (presumably I slept through that minor commotion) and they had run back to the grave with her. They saw that the grave was empty as well – they had even gone inside and seen the shroud neatly laid where the body had been. Peter and the other one had then run back here to tell the rest of us. That’s when I had been woken.
A discussion began immediately about what had happened. Everyone began to develop a theory mostly based on the assumption that the body had been stolen either by Zealots wanting to start a revolution on the back of news about a resurrection, or by Romans nervous that His grave would become a symbol and a focal point of rebellion.
“Where is Mary?” I asked.
Peter and the other disciple looked at each other.
“I thought she was following us”, Peter said, “she’ll probably get here in a minute.”
I left them all animatedly discussing the empty tomb. I thought there would be time enough to work out what it all meant later. I was more concerned for Mary right now. She was fragile, vulnerable. I remembered the hunched and nervous figure who had walked into the dark morning and I remembered the demons that tormented Mary when we first met her – one day she would be manic, frenzied and the next she would be lifeless and stooped. Slowly these wild moods had subsided and she had become a person, a woman – she could talk and she could listen. It was as if the swirling storm of her moods had lifted and she began to shine with wisdom, compassion and even holiness.
As I walked searching for her my thoughts were mixed. One moment I was anxious for her – what would this empty tomb do to her, I felt sure it would disturb her and feared that her demons would descend and enshroud her again. Then I thought about the empty tomb – had the body been stolen? I remembered some of the things he had said about dying and rising again – I had not understood them then and I did not understand them now – but I began to wonder if something cataclysmic was happening, if something was changing, if God was at work bringing a new kind of order from the chaos of these confusing days.
As I walked, the dawn was turning into the day. All thoughts of tiredness had vanished for the time being and I was consumed with worry about Mary.
And then I saw her some way off walking slowly towards me. At first I did not recognise her, she looked different, taller! Her steps were slow, thoughtful yet sure. Her head was up – she was looking at the trees and the sky. When I finally realised it was her for sure my first thought was relief – she was safe, and then I realised how strong and confident she looked, stronger and more confident than I had ever seen her.
I knew in that moment that the conspiracy theories explaining the empty tomb my friends were developing were nonsense. The transformation in this woman approaching me, the strength and confidence in her step said one thing;
He is risen!
It was then that she saw me. We both quickened our step but we didn’t run. In a few moments we were facing each other – we did not touch or embrace. It’s hard to explain what was happening as we stood in front of each other. Silently we were celebrating, rejoicing. I could see him in her eyes, his love, his wisdom, his compassion, his playful smile.
I held out my arms to embrace her
“Mary”, I said.
She looked at me, paused for a moment, and then she stepped forward, we held each other …… and she laughed.
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