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Sunday 22nJuly 2018 – Solemn Evensong
Feast of Mary Magdalene
Zephaniah 3:14-end Mark 15:40-16:7
On 10th July 2011, our third son, Dominic, sang his final service as a choral scholar at St John’s College, Cambridge. The atmosphere in the chapel at Evensong was emotionally charged for everyone. Not only did it mark for Dominic the end of three wonderfully happy and fulfilling years in Cambridge, it also brought to a close the period of his formal education.
Sitting in front of us during the service were a couple of youngish parents with two children. The mother had been steadily snivelling all through the service, but by the time we got to the end she was a crumpled wreck. She’d clearly exhausted her supply of tissues, so as the congregation began to leave, Sue, assuming she was the mother of a leaving chorister, leant over and pressed a handkerchief into her hand, saying, ‘It’s hard, isn’t it. We’ve been through this three times. Have a good cry; we know just what it’s like.’ Whereupon the mother looked at Sue and said, ‘Oh no, our son’s not leaving. He’s not even starting until next term! I’m not sure I can bear it!’
I suspect that cathedral and college Evensongs all over the country are similarly emotional at this time of year. And the Minster’s no exception. For all of us it marks something of a transition, because some are leaving the choir – though not necessarily the Minster – and moving on to other things, and their departure affects us all. We’re part of one another, and although we know full well that circumstances change and that people and things move on, we still feel a certain loss. So today we bid farewell to Charlie, one of our bass songmen, as he returns to teach in his beloved Cornwall; to Jeremy, our Assisting Organist, whom we congratulate warmly on his appointment as Assistant Director of Music at Rochester Cathedral; to Jack, George and Chris, three of our four choral scholars, who embark on their professional careers; and to our year eight choristers, Ivor, Grace, Sophie, Orlando, Sarah, Catherine, Louis and Kit, as they move to senior schools in York and elsewhere.
With all this in mind, the question arises as to how Mary Magdalene’s story can speak to us today? I want to suggest two things, both arising out of the second lesson. The first has to do with the central events of the Christian story concerning suffering, death and resurrection, and the second has to do with how we live in relation to these things.
Exactly what Mary Magdalene’s story was is difficult to pin down. At the very least, what seems likely is that she was in some distress, and her life in disarray, when she first met Jesus, hence the reference in today’s collect to her being restored to health of body and mind. We don’t know the back story, although many have speculated. Luke’s Gospel suggests she’d been possessed by demons. The significant thing is that Jesus enabled her to recover a sense of order and balance in her life.
We heard in Mark’s Gospel that she was among a number of women who provided for Jesus when he was in Galilee. Perhaps she came from a wealthy background and had some independent means, which she used to support Jesus’ ministry in thankfulness for her own healing. Whatever the case, she appears also to have been strong. As we heard earlier, it was she and other women who kept company with Jesus as he hung on the cross, when others had run away. Mary and the other women stayed to the bitter end, quietly supporting him by their presence.
Despite this instinctive response of enduring love, it seems hard to believe that Mary and the other women weren’t also in complete emotional turmoil. In a sense, perhaps, life had only really begun for her when she encountered Jesus. But the cross wasn’t how it had been supposed to end. Before her very eyes she saw everything falling apart. Her own life was descending into chaos, the whole thing an utter disaster.
So Mary and the other women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body and complete what they hadn’t been able to do on the day he’d died, so hurried had it all been. On arriving at the tomb, they found the stone mysteriously to have been rolled away, only then to be greeted by a stranger, who told them that Jesus wasn’t there because he’d been raised. The reaction of the women? Sheer terror! It must have seemed like some kind of sick joke. In any case, they had no frame of reference for what they were met with. As far as they were concerned, they were in completely unknown and uncharted territory. They’d totally lost their bearings and simply didn’t know what to make of what was going on, hence they said nothing to anyone.
John’s Gospel tells a slightly different story. Mary Magdalene meets the Risen Christ in the garden and, although she’s grieving and perplexed, once she’s recognised him, her heart bubbles up with joy. So excited is she that she runs to tell everyone all about it.
There’s actually no discrepancy between these two accounts. Together they ring true in terms of how we adjust to things that are initially beyond our comprehension. Mark captures that sense of shock and bewilderment we all feel in the face of the unexpected, particularly when life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and we’re rendered mute. John characterises what it’s like when the truth dawns, and we realise that despite how it might seem, life’s never actually at a dead end, but always full of surprises, possibilities and opportunities. The important thing is how we respond to what comes our way. For those moving on to new schools or work, the future’s probably tinged with both hope and anxiety. There’ll be a mixture of joy and success as well as frustration and disappointment all through life. We all delude ourselves into thinking that one day everything will be just as we want and expect things to be. Mary Magdalene shows us that life is never what we expect it to be. The important thing is to embrace the whole of it, with all its ups and downs, with open arms, as the very place where we encounter God. How we respond is what matters.
The second and final point arises out of the fact that Mark’s Gospel ends surprisingly and abruptly, it leaves everything hanging in the air. It’s as if it ends mid-sentence. One scholar has suggested that the last line could be rendered something along the lines of, ‘They were afraid, you see’, without then going on to explain why. A great deal of scholarly ink has been spilled in an attempt to explain the significance of why Mark ends as it does. One possibility is quite simply that the story doesn’t end there, it ends with the reader, with you and me. It’s we who complete the story by how we respond to it. In this sense, the story’s never-ending, because each individual and each succeeding generation continues the story and adds to it. So the question for all of us is what do we contribute to the continuing gospel story?
And that’s how the Minster itself symbolises the very character of the gospel story. All of us are part of the story of the Minster and will be forever. Those who’re moving on to other things today don’t cease to be part of the story, it’s just that their relationship to it changes somewhat. The story for all of us continues in the places we move on to, in the communities of which we become a part, and in the relationships we make. So today is really neither an ending nor a beginning but just a stage on the amazing adventure we call life. Mary Magdalene, with her experience of how her life was changed through her relationship with Christ, would surely encourage us to see that our stories aren’t ours alone but part of a larger one – God’s story – and perhaps with confidence in her experience of resurrection, she’d paraphrase Jesus’ own words by saying, ‘Live your life, whatever it brings, in all its fullness, for this is God’s gift to you and to the whole creation’.
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