Mary Magdalene, mother of our Easter faith

John 20:1-18
Easter: April 16, 2017
Isaac Villegas

John 20, verse 1: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” it says, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed.”

It was still dark.

The dark night of Good Friday lingered into Easter morning, two days after his death. And Mary is there, before dawn, at the tomb, restless, awakened by nightmares, memories from Golgotha flashing through her dreams, images of torture—the lashes streaking his back, the spear slicing open his side, the nails plunging into his hands, then his feet.

At the crucifixion of Jesus, they also crucified Mary Magdalene’s soul. When the soldier ripped open Jesus’ side, his spear also pierced her heart. Her hope for a new world lay buried in that tomb. Now she’s a shadow in the night. At least when she weeps she remembers she’s alive.

On Easter morning, she goes to the tomb because she longs for the life she had, life with Jesus and the rest of his followers, a life that meant something, that meant everything, a life where she was treated as an equal, as a co-worker, as a partner, a subject not an object, not a servant to men, not a slave in a man’s world. With Jesus, a new society had taken shape in their world, a new world of relationships, where she was respected, honored, loved—not as a possession but as a friend. All of that now lifeless lay in the tomb, and she is there to mourn the death of what could have been.

Mary Magdalene. She is among the disciples throughout the ministry of Jesus. In John’s Gospel she is named only twice—first in chapter 19, at the crucifixion, where she is among the five people who refuse to let Jesus die alone; and second, here in chapter 20, at the tomb, where the story builds to this moment when the resurrected Jesus calls her by name. Mary doesn’t recognize him at first. He looks like a gardener, the groundskeeper. But then he says her name, and everything comes flooding back.

The leaders of the early church revered Mary. They gave her an honored title: apostolorum apostola, “the apostle to the apostles.” Because she is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus, the first person to bear witness to the good news of Easter. As early as the year 200, there are people writing about her as the apostle to the apostles. Much later, in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian of the Western Church, explained that she deserved this title because she “was the first to announce to the Apostles the words of life.”

Mary Magdalene as the one who announces the words of life. That’s who she is. That’s who she becomes, on Easter morning.

“Go to my brothers,” Jesus asks her in our passage, “and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus commissions her as a preacher, the first preacher, to announce to the disciples the news about the risen Christ, to proclaim the good news, to speak words of life (John 20:17-18). “I have seen the Lord,” she says.

This is the birth of the church, when Mary sees Jesus, when she bears the responsibility of sharing the words of life. We gather here, today, because of Mary, because of her witness, because of her life, the apostle to the apostles. She is, in some sense, our mother, the mother of our faith, of our community. She is the first to announce the words of life, which is what we are called to do—to speak life.

This world is full of death—the spectacle of death, unleashed this week by the U.S. military, by this president, an exhibitionist of violence with his missiles and bombs and warships. There are also insidious forms of death, everyday violences, ordinary destructions, routine oppressions, words and deeds that diminish a life, acts that squelch someone’s spirit, a world that daily eats away at our humanity, at your humanity.

Mary Magdalene knew both those forms of death. She lived under oppression of the militarized empire of Rome, an ancestor of this U.S. Empire. And she lived under the daily subjugation of patriarchy, the stifling power of male domination, of men who controlled her world, her life, her body.

Mary knew those deaths, those violences, and she knew the new world that Jesus began, the world that heard come alive again there at the tomb, when she heard her name spoken without demands, without coercion, without violence—a voice abounding with love, with life-giving peace.

To speak life—that’s the gospel. That’s what happens to Mary, when Jesus speaks to her. She hears life, she comes alive again. And she is commissioned to bear witness to life—to share with her friends, with the disciples, that there’s an aliveness to this world, a love that can’t be destroyed.

That’s Easter. That’s resurrection—the hope passed down to us from Mary, the apostle to the apostles, the mother of the church. We are a people who speak life, like she did. We are people who announce words of life, who proclaim life, even though we are overwhelmed by death, by violence.

To speak life. It’s what happens when someone calls you by name, and you come alive. It’s the way their voice helps you remember how to hope again, their words reminding you of God’s love, reminding you that there’s a love that can’t be squelched, a love that cannot die.

That love is in you—resurrected love, resurrected life. That’s who you are: the beloved of God, known by name, alive with eternal love.

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