Saturday, April 19, 2014

We Are All Mary of Magdala!

Mary Magdalene in the Garden
At the age of 15, the artist Maurice Denis wrote in his diary, “Yes, it is necessary that I am a Christian painter, that I celebrate all the miracles of Christianity. I feel it necessary.” While still a student he met other painters and formed a “school” called the Nabis – the Hebrew word for prophet – because they felt they would be creating new forms of expression .  Denis became known as Le Nabi aux Belles Icons, the prophet of beautiful icons, and went on to co-found the Ataliers d’Art Sacre, the Studios of Sacred Art, which would create murals and stained glass windows for churches all over Europe.

He is perhaps most famous for having written, “Remember that a  picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface with colours assembled in a certain order.”

The gospels themselves are like that – words, images, stories, memories assembled in a certain order on a flat surface, which, when studied like a canvas or a stained glass window, provide a more than three-dimensional  recreation in the viewer’s mind of just what the artist herself has in mind. And even more importantly, aids the viewer in coming to terms as to just what that moment in time depicted on the canvas or in print might mean for you or for me.

Denis’s Holy Women Near the Tomb (1894) does just that. His particular arrangement of colors and images mean to transfigure our understanding of that moment when Mary Magdalene literally bumps into the Risen Jesus. Mary, fallen on her knees before a radiant and golden Jesus, is far in the background of a walled and fenced in garden, while from a distance but in the foreground Denis has six other figures:  two on the left, angels, waving to the pair in the garden, and the other four, including a young girl (another angel?), heads covered, looking away, looking quiet, looking somewhat fearful, trembling, not quite sure of what is happening, all of them painted in a blue-grey light suggesting early morning light at the break of dawn.  All possible human and angelic reactions are represented by Denis as all happening at the same moment. This pretty much sums up the vast array of different emotions, reactions and understandings of people today whenever they hear,
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

One cannot help but notice the witnesses to the Resurrection are all women, or women and angels. Women. Women who were not considered reliable witnesses at the time of this account. Let alone a woman like Mary of Magdala whom tradition has painted as having been demon possessed, possibly a prostitute, a woman everyone else had written off, and yet, also a companion of Jesus who witnessed both the crucifixion and is first of all his disciples to witness the risen Jesus!

A quintessential outsider, a powerless, and much maligned woman, the likes of which have been on parade throughout the gospels: the Samaritan Woman at the well, the Man Blind from Birth, Nicodemus, Martha, the confrontational housekeeper, Lazarus stinking in the tomb, and now Mary of Magdala, Mary Magdalene.

She leaves the house while it is still dark. That is, it is still Sabbath: time to rest. But she who had always been restless until she met Jesus can rest no longer. He was the only person who had ever made her feel healed, healthy, and whole. When she was with Jesus all the demons seemed to vanish into thin air. So she had followed him and ministered to him, listened to him and watched him as he spread his Good News of God’s love for all people.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

So Mary Magdalene is the first to find the stone rolled away from the tomb. She runs back to tell the others. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb! We do not know where he is?" Who is this "we?" Wasn’t she alone at the tomb in the still darkness of Sabbath morning? Are the demons back? Is it possible that she already knows that we who are reading her story are already with her wherever she goes? That we who come to eat and drink with him are somehow inextricably linked with her so that wherever she goes we go, wherever she runs, we run, when her heart is racing, so is ours, because we, too, have been to the tomb in the darkness and can see that the stone has indeed been rolled away?

Mary, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved run back to the tomb. It is like a footrace. Peter, "the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved," look like a couple of kids racing down the streets of Jerusalem, the City of Peace, the City of God’s Shalom. Their hearts and feet are racing! The other disciple outruns Peter. But then he puts on the brakes and does not go in. He looks in and sees linen cloths lying about, but stands back. Peter, ever the impetuous one, goes in and sees the cloths, like swaddling cloths, lying all about. As he surveys the scene, the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, comes in. Then, we are simply told, “…he saw and he believed.”
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

There has been endless speculation as to who this other “disciple whom Jesus loves” might be. Some say John. Some suggest it is Lazarus, who otherwise says nothing in John’s gospel. Others say the Samaritan Woman at the well is the beloved disciple. Still others say it is whoever reads or hears this Gospel and also sees and believes. That is, the beloved disciple is you and me.

All this takes only a moment. Then the boys return to their respective homes. Only Mary stays behind, all alone, weeping. She stoops to look in, and where before there had been nothing but swaddling cloths lying all around, there were now two angels asking her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

And as she blurts out her answer she turns and bumps into someone else who is also asking her,
"Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why is everyone asking me these questions? Who are those men in white in the tomb? Can’t any of them see what has happened? Oh, no, it’s the demons again! I’m losing my mind! "You’re the gardener,” she says. “You tell me! Where have you put him? You should know, not me! You work here. You tell me. Whom do I seek? Why am I weeping? Why indeed!!" Then it happens. He says one word. "Mary."
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

She has heard this voice before. Only one person ever said her name in just this way. But it does not look like him. It cannot possibly be him. But suddenly her heart is racing again! It is about to leap out of her chest as she throws herself on the one she has supposed to be the gardener! Thank God I am not crazy after all. The demons are not coming back! They are never coming back. It is Jesus. "Rabboni!" she cries as she embraces him.

And for a moment it seems as if it is all in her hands, in her embrace. It appears as if she can hold it all back, keep him there, hold onto him forever and ever, when he says, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the father, my father and your father, my God and your God. Go and tell the others."

And with that, she is given a new task: to go back and tell the others. And our text simply says, "She went and told the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord, and she told them all the things he had said to her."

It took courage for Mary to go back to the tomb. It took even more courage for her to let go of Jesus. But in doing so, she gives birth to the Church. By her witness, by her testimony, the history of the world is changed, made new, transformed. Her words to his friends are the first Easter sermon ever preached! Because of her testimony, we know and experience resurrection today! Mary continues to run through the ages to this very day, gathering us all to be a community of his people, his beloved disciples. She is first to know that the disciple whom Jesus loves is her, is you, is me, is anyone who will take the time to look into the empty tomb to see and to understand that  we come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. God’s love never leaves us, but surrounds us on all sides at all times.

As with Mary, he has new tasks for each of us, a new purpose in life, a renewed spirit within us. For that is what resurrection is: new life, new purpose, and a new spirit. We are all God’s beloved disciples. Like the people who were changed by her words, others lives will be changed by ours.

God needs you. The world needs you. They need your time, your words, your care, your love. This is what I believe Maurice Denis depicts in his paintings. This is what John depicts in his Gospel. This is the most elemental truth of all: You are God’s beloved. God is well pleased with you. Living out of this simple resurrection truth, as with Mary of Magdala, the world will be changed and made new. Since that morning when she risked everything and embraced her new role in life the world has never been the same.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
And so are we… And so are we! Amen!

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