Mary Magdalene, the Massacre in Our Town, and Defiant Alleluias
"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her."
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As a woman preacher, I can’t help but love St. Mary Magdalene. She was the first witness to the resurrection. When I first discerned my call to be a preacher I got a tattoo of her on my forearm – it’s from a rare depiction in ancient Christian art – of her proclaiming the resurrection to the apostles. I felt that when I needed to, I could borrow her strength. And since July 22 is her feast day, we decided weeks ago to ditch the normal Sunday readings and celebrate her as an important saint to us.
But then Friday happened. I was still in New Orleans when I saw the news of the shooting. After praying that you were all safe I soon thought, “we can’t really hold a celebration of a saint today … it just wouldn’t make any sense.”
I had gone to New Orleans with an idea for a sermon on Mary Magdalene – a sermon about who gets to speak in the Bible and who gets to be named and blah, blah, blah.
And just as I was about to ditch it all and go with the regularly assigned reading for today, I went back and again read this story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb and realized, given the violence and terror thrust upon our community this week, that maybe Mary had more to say about it than I could. I decided again to borrow strength and voice from her. So were I a pastor who titled her sermons, this one would be WWMMP – "What Would Mary Magdalen Preach?"
I think Mary would not shy away from naming the darkness and despair of an event like Friday’s massacre. She was familiar with darkness after all. Luke tells us that it is from Mary Magdalene that Jesus cast out seven demons. Then having been freed from her demons, she followed Jesus and as the text tells us, even supported the ministry from her own pocketbook. And at the end it was Mary Magdalene who did not deny Jesus nor betray Jesus nor high tail it out when things got rough. But she ,with just a couple of other faithful women, stood at the cross. And after Jesus died, it was Mary who came to his tomb, as we are told, while it was still dark.
My Bishop Allan Bjornberg once said that the Greatest spiritual practice isn’t yoga or praying the hours or living in intentional poverty—although these are all beautiful in their own ways. The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up.
And in some ways Mary Magdalene is like, the patron saint of just showing up.
Because showing up means being present to what is real, what is actually happening. She didn’t necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think … but none of that is nearly as important as the fact that she just showed up. She showed up at the cross where her teacher Jesus became a victim of our violence and terror. She looked on as the man who had set her free from her own darkness bore the evil and violence of the whole world upon himself and yet still she showed up.
I think St. Mary Magdalene, were she your preacher, would be braver that I. She would not shy away from the dark reality of innocent people slaughtered while it was still night. She would show up and name the events of two days ago exactly what they were: horrific, evil, senseless violence without a shred of anything redemptive about it.
And I think that were Mary Magdalene here she would have very little tolerance for the platitudes and vapid optimism of so much overly churched Christianity. Those are simply luxuries of people who’ve never had demons. But equally would she abhor nihilism or the idea that there is no real meaning in life – ideas present in so much of post-modernity. That too, is a luxury, but it is one of those who have never been freed from demons.
I think she would show up and tell us that despite it all, despite the violence and fear, that it’s still always worth it to love God and to love people and always, always it is worth it to sing alleluia. For surely the devil hates the sound of it.
Speaking of which, I thought for a moment of canceling Beer & Hymns on Friday night. We have so much fun at that event and I though that perhaps it wasn’t the right thing to do that night. Thankfully that thought only lasted a moment. Then I posted on Facebook that that night we would still gather to sing praises to God, for, as the funeral mass says, even as we go to the grave still we make our song alleluia.
And then after Beer & Hymns, we sat in a noisy Denver bar and sang Vespers together. We sang our prayer to God, and in our singing I heard a defiant tone: the sound of a people who simply will not believe that violence wins, a people who know that the sound of the risen Christ speaking each of our names drowns out all other voices.
It drowns out the sound of the political posturing, the sound of cries for vengeance, the sound of our own fears and anxieties, and the deafening uncertainty – because all of it is no match for the shimmering sound of the resurrected Christ calling our name. Because in baptism we are a people marked by the cross of Christ. Upon our foreheads is the mark of violence and death but this violence and death has been overcome by the love of a God who in the three days between Good Friday and Easter reached into the very bowels of hell and said even here I will not be without you.
This is the God to whom we sing. A God who didn’t say we would never be afraid but that we would never be alone. A God who shows up. In the violence of the cross, in the darkness of a garden before dawn, in the garden, in a movie theater, in the basement of a bar.
In 2010, on that first evening after the earthquake in Haiti, news reports came in that said that when night fell on the streets of Port-au-Prince, people were singing hymns and Psalms. Blessed be God, they sang. People were singing praises to God amidst their entire world destroyed.
It’s important to note that to sing praises to God among destruction and violence is not the same thing as saying, Hey God we think you’re awesome for allowing these horrible things to happen. To sing praise to God amid destruction and violence is to simply put evil in it’s place. It’s to draw a line and say here and no further. For the devil surely hates the sound of alleluia.
This is why here at House on the evening of Good Friday we took the purple tulips that we had laid at the cross during the liturgy and we drove to where a teenage boy had shot and killed another teenage boy the week before. We laid those holy flowers at the site of the murder and we sang Holy God Holy and Mighty Holy and Immortal have mercy upon us.
Singing in the midst of evil is what it means to be disciples like Mary Magdalene.
Because to be disciples like Mary Magdalen is to show up. It is to be a people who stand – who stand at the cross and stand in the midst of evil and violence, and even if we are uncertain, we are still unafraid to be present to all of it. We are unafraid to name the dark demons of evil and to call a thing what it is.
And to be disciples like Mary Magdalene is also to be a people who weep. A people who show up to the tombs and weep. Weep for ourselves and weep for each other and weep for our city and weep for dead 6-year-old girls. And to be disciples like Mary Magdalene is to be a people who listen and turn at the sound of our names.
Among the sounds of sirens and fear and isolation and uncertainty and loss, we hear a sound that muffles all the rest: that still, small voice of Christ speaking our names. And finally, the very reason we can do these things is not because we happen to be the people with the best set of skills for this work. Trust me, we are not. But the reason we can be disciples like Mary Magdalene – the reason we can stand and we can weep and we can listen is because finally we, like Mary, are bearers of resurrection.
We know that on the 3rd day he rose again. We do not need to be afraid. Because to sing to God amid all of this is to defiantly proclaim, like Mary Magdalene did to the apostles, that death is simply not the final word. To defiantly say that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can not will not, shall not, overcome it. And so, evil be damned, because even as we go to the grave, still we make our song Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado — an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more atwww.houseforall.org. This post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.