Our readings this morning take a little detour. Today, July 22nd is the feast day for St. Mary Magdalene. The rule is that the readings for the Sunday govern the divine service, and the feast day readings are used at the other services. But since this is the only service we have, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene it is.
Our Lutheran Confessions encourage the right honor of the saints. The Augsburg Confession and its Apology speak of how we rightly honor and praise the saints. We honor them first by thanking God for them and for all that He accomplished through them. They are the Church’s “Hall of Fame,” the heroes of the faith, and we are thankful to God for their blessing. We honor them by imitating their faith in Jesus, how they lived as justified sinners who trusted not in their own holiness and works but in the holiness and work of Jesus Christ. The saints of old would have us look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith and ours. And finally, we honor the saints by imitating their works in our own callings. They inspire us to greatness, that even though we are great sinners and our works are sadly imperfect, nonetheless we can be, and are, instruments in God’s hands, to serve and bless others.
Our detour this morning takes us to the garden and the tomb of Jesus. It is early in the morning of that fateful first day of the week. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb with the other women to complete the burial of Jesus. They rose early that morning to buy spices and oils to anoint the body. They made their way in the semi-darkness to the tomb. They saw the stone had been away. Mary assumes the worst. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Mary knew what Jesus had told them while He was alive, that He would be killed and three days rise again. She knew how to count from Friday to Sunday. But her first impulse is not “He is risen, Alleluia!” but “Someone took the body.” It’s hard to believe this business of resurrection because dead men don’t rise in our experience. Resurrections are relatively rare. In the OT there was the widow of Zarephath’s son whom Elijah raised and the vision of Ezekiel of the valley of dry bones raised to life. Jesus raised three people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, and his friend Lazarus. He told His disciples three time that He would be crucified and rise from the dead on the third day.
We confess the resurrection every day in the Creed. We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Eternal life means life in a body risen from the dead. It’s the hope of Job who said, “Though worms destroy this body yet in my flesh will I see God.” Yet when we face the death of those we love, when we stand at their grave, when we look on row after row of headstones in cemeteries marking burial places we have a hard time wrapping our reason and senses around that word “resurrection.”
Certainly Mary did. Her dear friend Jesus was dead. He’d been crucified. She was there at the foot of the cross until the end. And now His body was gone. It was too much for her to bear. While Peter and John investigate the tomb and see the folded linens, Mary stood outside, her eyes flood over with tears of grief. Her deep sobs cut through the still dark morning air. She musters enough courage to look into the open tomb, and there she sees two angels sitting where Jesus had laid. One at the head, the other at the foot. If she remembered her lessons from the books of Moses, she might have remembered the ark of the covenant with its two angels flanking the mercy seat, the gold cover where the blood of the atoning sacrifice was poured. Here on this stone ledge, the Sacrifice for the sin of the world had lain. And the angels look in awe.
But Mary doesn’t recall that. Grief has a way of clouding over what we learned in church and Sunday School. That’s why we need things repeated over and over, rehearsing and exercising them, like emergency procedures, for when you need to use them. “Why are you weeping,” the angels ask her. Again, “they’ve taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” This time, it’s personal. My Lord, she says.
Much has been written recently of this woman Mary of Magdala. She is often associated with the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet, but there is no evidence that she was a woman of the streets. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her, and she was among the group of faithful women who accompanied Jesus and stood with Him at His cross. That’s all we know about her. Clearly she loved the Lord and worshipped Him. Clearly she was grief stricken when she found His tomb open and His body gone.
In the midst of those tears and that grief, Jesus comes to her. “Woman, why are you weeping? Who is it you are looking for?” At first she doesn’t recognize Him. She thinks he’s the gardner and retells the whole sad story and pleads with him. “If you took him, tell me where you put him so I can go to him.”
But He has come to her, and calls her by her name. “Mary.” And then, at the sound of her name, she knows, and tears of joy replace tears of sorrow. “Rabboni,” she cried out happily. “My rabbi, my teacher.” And she falls down to the ground and embraces His feet. She’d lost Him once, she wasn’t letting Him go again.
Jesus says to her, “Don’t keep on holding me. No need to hang on. I’m not going anywhere. I have not yet ascended to the Father.” I will be with you always, in ways you can’t even imagine yet. But now you go and tell my brothers that I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. And so Mary went and told the disciples.
She is the first eyewitness of the resurrection, the first apostle sent by Jesus to the disciples. Hers are the first human lips to say those glorious, happy words: “I have seen the Lord!” Later that day the disciples would see Him, but she was the first – the first eyewitness. A woman. Perhaps it doesn’t mean as much to us today, but in Jesus’ day that was something. That Mary was a chosen disciple of Jesus and could call Him “rabbi,” was already radical. That Jesus should select her to bring the good news to the Twelve is off the charts. A woman’s testimony had no legal standing in Jesus’ day. And yet He sends her to tell what she had seen, this poor woman who had once been plagued by seven demons was now privileged to be the first person in the world to speak the good news of Easter morning. And so she has her place in that unique day in history, and her place in the Hall of Fame of the church.
Much has been said of Mary Magdalene in our day that is simply not true, how she was Jesus’ girlfriend and wife and mother of his children. Things intended to bring down Jesus and all who believe and proclaim Him. Mary would weep over what was being said of her today, and of her Lord and her Teacher. Jesus was her Lord and Teacher, not her lover and husband. Such silly things we can believe when we believe nothing!
We thank God for Mary of Magdala today – the first eyewitness and proclaimer of the resurrection, who boldly proclaimed the risen Lord Jesus Christ to a bunch of men who were predisposed not to believe her testimony because she was a woman.
We remember her faith, a faith forged by the Word of Christ and His Spirit. She was a sinner, not because she once had seven demons, but because she was born a sinner, as you and I are. Her demons were a spiritual sickness over which Jesus demonstrated His power. She trusted Jesus who healed her. And in that trust, she followed Him all the way to the foot of the cross and did not abandon Him.
We remember her works of faith and her devotion, her tears of grief and of joy, her happy embrace of the risen Lord Jesus, and the joyous good news the Lord put on her lips, “I have seen the Lord!” We number her among the privileged eyewitnesses whose testimony is the foundation of our faith. If Christ is not raised, our faith is empty, in vain, and we remain in our sins. But Mary Magdalene speaks to us through the words of the Gospel and declares to us, “I have seen the Lord.”
Like Mary, we too are sent by the Lord, sent from His divine service to those who do not know and have not heard and do not believe. No, we have not seen the Lord as Mary did. That is not given us. But we have heard Him in His Word. We have felt His touch in Baptism. We have received His absolving words of forgiveness. We have knelt at His table and received from His hand His own Body and Blood that we may embrace Him as Mary did that first resurrection day. We have something to tell – that this Jesus is Lord and Christ and Savior and Teacher for all, that His death atones for our sin, that His life is now our life, that His glory is our glory, that we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting because Jesus Himself is risen from the dead and now lives and reigns to all eternity.
For Mary Magdalene, first eyewitness and proclaimer of the resurrection, all praise and honor and glory to God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.