There is a sweet irony, perhaps several, in St Peter’s hosting this service for the Feast of Mary Magdalene, one which makes this traditional gospel for the day more than appropriate.
John’s gospel is among the later to be written. The footrace, on the one hand so exuberant and on the other, so competitive, between Peter and John (or the other disciple) reflects within the text a certain struggle for leadership. Between Mary’s discovery of the empty tomb and her encounter with the Risen Lord, it poses the question: Who got there first? Well, John is fleeter and arrives first, but Peter entered in first, but then John looked around and was first to believe. Is this a carefully negotiated settlement or what?
The apostle Paul in his resurrection writing to the Corinthians says this:
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. 3For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)
Fact is, according to the gospel accounts the one person who is witness to these three creedal elements of the tradition – Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection – is the Magdalene. In every single gospel it is she, alone or with other women disciples, who goes to the tomb and first knows.
There is a kind of struggle going on within and between scriptures. More than a footrace.
This is to say, that finding our voice, more often than not, is over against forces of silencing: political, personal, spiritual.
Perhaps an important thing to be said here is that crucifixion is intended, designed, to silence voices and scatter movements. And Peter is the very epitome of this. Outside the Temple proceedings, before the cock crows he is silenced, denies who he is and whom he’s come to stand with. He goes quiet and slinks away. His own encounter with the Risen Lord, much later in the gospel of John, entails an excruciating confrontation with that denial: three times – Do you love me?
If the scriptures in any way, represent a silencing of Magdalene on behalf of his authority or figure or voice, then it is another layer of sadness and grief.
Here at St. Peter’s we dare to name ourselves for this frail and human disciple; we honor his struggle, and pray to walk like him, the way of discipleship, wounded and healed. We would not presume to speak in his voice, but could we, we might yearn to hear him say: “Mary Magdalene, if I or any others for the sake of my voice and authority have sought to silence yours, please forgive me.” I believe she would, indeed perhaps does.
Not that he could grant or free her voice; she finds and speaks her own. It would be for his sake more than hers.
The amazing thing about the gospel accounts is that the crucifixion fails to drive away the women disciples, especially Mary Magdalene. She stands nearby the cross, eyes and heart open, refusing to walk away. She goes alone by dark to the grave. She discovers the empty tomb. She and the other women are so like the Mothers of the Disappeared, dancing and drumming in the plaza, refusing to go away or be silenced. The gospels are in part the story she insisted on telling, irrepressible, full of faith and intimacy. They are the evidence in her voice.
I want to add a text to the ones we’ve already heard this evening. This from Audre Lorde, a Caribbean black woman lesbian warrior poet, who died fifteen years ago of cancer:
Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I believed could have meant pain, or death. But we all hurt in so many different ways, all the time, and pain will either change or end. Death, on the other hand, is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had only betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words. I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…
In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear — fear of contempt, of censure, of some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid… And there are so many silences to be broken. (“The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action”).
She is right, though I might put it a little differently. Death is a silencing power. Silencing a little death.
What does it mean that Mary Magdalene has encountered the Risen One, that she is a witness of the resurrection? It means that she is not ruled by the power of death, that she lives free of its bondage. It means that she is not silenced by fear. It means that her grief is transfigured to hope. It means that she is beloved and knows it. It means, against all odds, that she finds her voice and tells her story.
For such a witness we may give thanks this day, and pray to find our own.