Friday, 22 July 2016

St Mary Magdalen - 22 July

Readings: Exodus 16:1-5, 9-15; Psalm 78; John 20:1-2, 11-18

The story of Mary Magdalen involves conspiracy, religion, and sex. She always has a place in the (fictional) conspiracy interpretations of Christianity. Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was just the latest in a line of such interpretations. They usually involve also the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, the Priory of Sion, other secret societies, corrupt clergy, secret information, and a Catholic Church desperate to keep hidden some knowledge about its beginnings that would destroy it and bring its historical mission, finally, to an end.

Conspiracy itself is part of the excitement. It seems that we prefer to believe that some of what happens in organisations and institutions is the result of conspiracy (thoughtful and clever planning) whereas what we are trying to explain is often simply the outcome of incompetence, bad management, and disorganisation. But there seems to be a 'paranoia gene' in the human mind that prefers conspiracy. Or perhaps it is a childish wish for security, that somebody somewhere knows what is going on, even if they are not telling us about it. If the conspiracy can be attributed to the Catholic Church, this makes it even more compelling, it seems.

The other two ingredients essential for this kind of best seller are religion and sex. That combination always catches the eye and has a particular frisson that either by itself would not generate. Once again, if the religion involved is the Catholic Church, then it is of even greater interest. If Jesus and Mary Magdalene did get married, and had children who were the ancestors of the Merovingian kings of France, then it is certainly a story worth telling. The predictable reactions of condemnation from the Church usually serve only to generate greater interest in the book or film.

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. And her story, as we see from the gospel reading, really does involve conspiracy, religion, and sex. The conspiracy - somebody somewhere knows what is going on; what is happening is the outcome of thoughtful and clever planning - is one hatched in the mind and heart of God before the ages began. This is how Paul speaks about the conspiracy or, as he calls it, 'the mystery'. The gospel is preached openly, the Word is broadcast for everyone to hear, and there is nothing esoteric in the teaching of the Church. But what that teaching means is continually being uncovered. There are always depths to be explored. There are hidden treasures in Jesus Christ, and our true life is hid with Christ in God. Only very slowly do we come to realise the truth of what is going on.

What better conspiracy could we be involved in? We do not yet know everything about it but we know enough of what it means for us, and we know enough about the One behind it, to embrace that teaching and to enter into that mystery, with confidence and enthusiasm, even if also with fear and trembling.

Mary Magdalen was also, clearly, in a love affair with Jesus. He became the centre of her life. And today's gospel reading is about the most intimate moment in that love affair. Wherever her memory is celebrated as a feast, one of the readings recommended by the Church is from the Song of Songs, in which the bride searches for her beloved, the one her heart loves, the one she has lost. In the early dawn, in the garden, with the guards hovering nearby, a tryst involving anxiety, desire and mystery: this is the atmosphere in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene meet again.

Lovers, we might say, create each other. Love enables us to be more fully, and more truly, ourselves. It creates the space in which the loved one can be, can flourish, and can grow. In the case of Mary encountering Jesus it is not just a matter of a new life - as Dante described the experience of falling in love with Beatrice - it is a matter of a new creation, a new world, a new human being with a new deepest happiness and fulfillment. The conspiracy is unlocked by Jesus saying 'Mary'. This is the magic word, to call her by her name. She recognises him, called by her name she is immediately taken into his world, and she begins to live as a creature of the Resurrection.

Tradition says that Mary Magdalene went on to be a preacher of the gospel at Marseilles before retiring to a cave in the mountains outside that city. In that moment in the garden after the Resurrection, she is the new woman encountering the new man in the garden of the new creation. This is the kingdom of which Jesus had spoken, where they no longer marry and have children, but in which a different kind of communion and fruitfulness are found. 'Do not touch me', Jesus says to her, 'for I have not yet ascended to the Father'. The plot thickens.

You see how the truth of this mystery is far more interesting than the fiction of the conspiracy theorists. You see how the religion and union of persons involved here is far more profound than anything novelists manage to describe. In a way she never expected, Mary Magdalene, searching for the one her heart loved, was found by Him. He called her by her name, 'Mary', as if he had said 'let there be Mary'. And in the light of His recognition of her, she saw the Lord.

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