I was driving home from the gym last
Monday when I saw my friends Alex and Ginger Evans out for their
morning walk on Monument Avenue.
Alex is pastor of Second Presbyterian Church here in town and
Ginger is on staff as Director of Christian Education.
They are delightful people, lots of fun.
I hadn’t seen them in a while and so I pulled over, rolled
down my window, and shouted out a greeting.
They came over to the car to say hello.
We made small talk for a minute and then Alex said, “Well,
this is it: Holy Week.
Are you ready?”
“I’m getting ready,” I said.
“What are you going to preach on Easter?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I answered, “but my thoughts keep coming
back to Mary Magdalene.
I mean, what would compel a woman to get up before daylight and go
stumbling around in a dark cemetery?”
“Nothing but love,” Ginger said.
“Nothing but love.”
It was a good answer, and (I believe) the right answer, but I
learned quickly that you have to be careful when you talk about
Jesus and Mary Magdalene and love.
A preliminary search on the Internet will turn up a number of
scandalous rumors, including the rumor that Jesus and Mary Magdalene
were married, that they had children, and that Jesus often kissed
her, presumably on the mouth (this may be as good a time as any to
remind you that you can’t always believe what you read on the
Internet, and that Wikipedia is not the most reliable source of
largely due to the success of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel,
The DaVinci Code (which
insinuated that the church has been hiding the truth about Jesus and
Mary Magdalene for all these years), many of these rumors have
entered the mainstream of public opinion.
For example: I spoke at a Kiwanis Club meeting last week and
on the way out someone asked me, “Hey, was Jesus married?”
At a Habitat for Humanity build on Friday someone asked,
“Jesus had children, right?”
So let me just say it now, as clearly as I can: according to
the best scholarship available, NO: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were
not married, they did not have children, and there is no good reason
to believe that he “often kissed her.”
Theirs is not a romantic story, and yet it is a love story.
Where did it all begin?
In the eighth chapter of Luke’s Gospel we are told that Jesus was
going through the cities and villages [of Galilee], “proclaiming and
bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with
him,” Luke says, “as well as some women who had been cured of evil
spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven
demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza,
and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their
resources” (Luke 8:1-3).
If you close your eyes you can almost see Jesus and his disciples
traveling around Galilee with a group of grateful women who took
care of them and provided for them.
One of those grateful women was Mary Magdalene.
In the passage just before that one Luke tells a story about a
woman who was extremely grateful.
When she learned that Jesus was having dinner at the home of
a Pharisee in her town she came, bringing an alabaster jar of
Jesus was reclining at the table in the style of that time, his face
visible in the lamplight as he talked and ate with his host, his
feet somewhere back in the shadows of the room.
That’s where this woman knelt down and wept, bathing Jesus’
feet with tears of gratitude and then wiping them with her hair and
kissing them before massaging them with that precious ointment.
It’s a very intimate moment—too intimate for Jesus’ host.
He says to himself, “If this man were a prophet he would know
what kind of woman this is touching him—that she is a sinner.”
But Jesus knew what he was thinking and in Eugene Peterson’s
version of the story he says this:
“Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver
pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the
banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more
answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
“That’s right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but
speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your
home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my
feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting [no
kiss], but from the time I arrived she hasn’t quit kissing my feet.
You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet
with perfume. Impressive, isn’t it? She was forgiven many, many
sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is
minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”[i]
And then, in the very next passage we
hear about some grateful women who traveled with Jesus and his
disciples, providing for them out of their means, and one of them
was Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.
Is she the one who anointed his feet that night?
We don’t know.
Many people are reluctant to make that association because in that
story she is identified as a “sinner.”
But if you were possessed by
seven demons who knows what you would be possessed to do?
There’s no telling, and no way to know if it was Mary
Magdalene, but if it was here is one way it might have happened:
that as Jesus was going through the cities and villages of Galilee,
“proclaiming and bringing the good news of the Kingdom,” he came to
her village, Magdala, and brought good news to Mary by casting seven
demons out of her.
It’s not in the Bible, but I can easily imagine she was so
grateful that she went home and got the most precious thing she
had—this jar of expensive ointment—and then came back to town and
found that Jesus had gone to the home of Simon.
She went there, and talked someone into letting her slip in
through the back door, and that’s how she got into the room with
Jesus where she wept tears of gratitude on his feet, covered them
with kisses, and massaged them with precious ointment.
That’s why Jesus knows who she is and why she’s doing what
she’s doing: because she has been forgiven many, many sins, and is
therefore very, very grateful. The
next thing you know she’s traveling with him, along with several
other women, and providing for him and his disciples out of her
In Luke’s Gospel she is among those who first hear Jesus say that
he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the
chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and on the third day
be raised” (Luke 9:18-22).
She must have been, because later, at the empty tomb, the
angel says to her and the women who are with her, “Remember how he
told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of
Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the
third day rise again?” (Luke 24:6-7). And then they did
women—Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James, and
others—were part of the inner circle.
They heard what Jesus said in some of his most private
And so it shouldn’t surprise us too much that Mary Magdalene is
one of those standing at the foot of the cross in John’s Gospel.
John says she was there with Jesus’ mother, and with his
mother’s sister, and also Mary the wife of Clopas.
Just the four women, apparently, and the disciple whom Jesus
loved, standing there beside Jesus’ mother, so that he said, “Woman,
here is your son,” and to him, “Here is your mother.”
But that means Mary Magdalene would have been there when
Jesus was crucified, when the soldiers drove the nails into those
feet she had kissed; when they gambled for his clothing, leaving him
naked and dying on the cross; when he said, “I am thirsty,” and when
he said, “It is finished”; when they broke the legs of the thieves
on either side of him; and when they pierced his side with a spear,
so that blood and water came out.
She may have still been there when Joseph of Arimathea took
his body down from the cross, and she may have even seen how he and
Nicodemus anointed that body with a mixture of myrrh and aloes,
wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a garden tomb.
The next day was the Sabbath, and she wouldn’t have been able to
go to the tomb, but can’t you imagine how she tossed and turned that
night, waiting for daylight so she could go and be as close as
possible to the body of her Lord.
Because that’s what she seems to want most: to be close to
him. From the time he
casts those seven demons out of her she stays as close to him as she
can—bathing his feet with her tears (if that was, in fact, her),
walking the dusty roads of Galilee with him, standing there at foot
of the cross, and coming to the tomb early on the first day of the
week, while it was still dark.
My friend Rachel May is pastor of Boulevard United Methodist
Church. Last week she
told me that she would be doing a sunrise service at Hollywood
Cemetery this morning. I
said, “Would you go extra early, while it’s still dark, and spend a
few minutes walking around among the tombs so you can tell me what
that’s like?” Rachel
appears to be a very brave person, but even she shuddered at the
thought. What would
compel a woman to do such a thing?
Nothing but love.
That’s what caused Mary to throw back the covers, finally, to get
up, put on her sandals, throw a shawl around her shoulders and set
out toward that garden.
I picture her feeling her way, tripping over roots and rocks, trying
to get back to that place where she last saw the body of Jesus.
She doesn’t care that she’s stumbling through a graveyard.
She doesn’t think to ask who will roll away the stone.
My guess is that she just wants to sit outside the tomb,
leaning back against that stone, getting as close to Jesus as she
can get. But by the
first light of dawn she is able to see that the stone has been
rolled away. And she
goes racing back to the city, telling Peter and the disciple Jesus
loved, “They have taken away the Lord, and we don’t know where
they’ve laid him!” And then
Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb, but the other disciple
got there first, looked inside and saw the linen cloth lying there.
When Peter got there he went in, saw the linen cloth and the
cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head rolled up by itself
in a corner. The other
disciple went in, saw those things, and even though he didn’t
understand all that the scriptures said about the Resurrection he
And then he and Peter went back to the city.
But Mary stayed behind, weeping.
She bent over and looked into the tomb and saw two angels in
there! They said,
“Woman, why are you weeping?”
And she said, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know
where they have laid him.”
She turned around and saw Jesus standing there but she didn’t
know it was Jesus. She
thought it was the gardener (and maybe it was because he had
borrowed some of the gardener’s clothes from the toolshed,
especially if he had left his linen wrappings behind in the tomb.
Some artists have pictured him in the first-century
equivalent of a pair of overalls, holding a shovel, hiding his eyes
behind the brim of a big, floppy hat).
He said, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
And if you have ears to hear it there is almost a playfulness
in his voice. He knows
why Mary is weeping. He
knows whom she is looking for.
He is not insensitive to her grief but he knows that in a
matter of seconds her grief will turn to joy.
She said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where
you have laid him and I will take him away.”
And then he can’t wait any longer.
“Mary,” he says.
“Mary!” And he lifts his
head, and she sees his face, and her pet name for him pops from her
mouth like the cork from a champagne bottle:
We really don’t know what happened next.
John doesn’t tell us.
But I can picture her flying across the space between them
and into Jesus’ arms with such force that she knocks him to the
ground, and covers his face—as she once covered his feet—with tears
and kisses, not tears of sorrow, not tears of gratitude, but tears
of joy, until at last he laughs and says, “Mary,
You’ve got to let me go.[ii]
You’ve got to let me ascend to the
Father. But go and tell
my brothers that I’m ascending to my Father and your Father, my God
and your God.” Somehow
she does it. She lets
go. She disentangles
herself and heads back toward the city, but slower this time, still
savoring the warm, solid, flesh-and-blood reality of that embrace,
and the sound of her name on his lips: “Mary.”
It’s not a romantic story, but it is a love story.
It’s the story of someone who loved Jesus almost as much as
Jesus loves us. Mary
went back to the disciples and said, “I have seen the Lord!” and in
that moment became the first Easter preacher ever, the first person
to share the astonishing good news that Christ had risen from the
dead. For Mary and those
disciples things would never be the same.
If resurrection was real, then death was no longer an enemy.
If resurrection was real then life had won the day.
If resurrection was real then anything was possible.
It was true for them; it’s true for us.
At 3:40 this morning I woke up from a dream that was so vivid I
thought it had really happened.
I lay there for a while just going over the details,
impressing them on my memory, because I didn’t want to forget.
Many of you know that my father died back in January.
In this dream I was with my backpacking partners in the
woods, breaking camp. I
remember that I was winding up a piece of nylon cord so I could put
it in the side pocket of my pack, where it belongs.
I heard someone singing and looked over to see my dad,
pulling up tent pegs. He looked young and strong.
He had a full head of thick, dark hair.
He was singing an old hymn as he often did when he was
outdoors. I nudged
Chuck, my brother-in-law, and said, “Look at that.” He did, and
gulped. He knew how sick
my father had been. He
knew that he hadn’t sung for a long time.
“We need to pause and acknowledge the miracle of this
moment,” I said.
“My dad is singing.”
And that’s what Easter is for: it’s a time to pause and
acknowledge the miracle of this moment.
Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed.
And because he is death is no longer an enemy; life has won the day;
anything is possible;
And nothing will ever be the same.
It’s possible that I owe this mental image to C. S. Lewis’
description of Aslan’s resurrection in
the Lion the Witch,
and the Wardrobe.
“The rising of the sun had made everything look so
different—all the colours and shadows were changed—that for
a moment they didn’t see the important thing.
Then they did.
The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great
crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no
Aslan. “Oh, oh,
oh!” cried the two girls rushing back to the Table.
“Oh, it’s too bad,” sobbed Lucy; “they might have
left the body alone.”
“Who’s done it?” cried Susan.
“What does it mean?
Is it more magic?”
“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs.
“It is more magic.”
They looked round.
There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had
seen him before, shaking his mane stood Aslan himself.
“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at
him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.
“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.
“Not now,” said Aslan.
“You’re not—not a—?” asked Susan in a shaky voice.
She couldn’t bring herself to say the word
Aslan stooped his golden head and licked her
warmth of his breath and a rich sort of smell that seemed to
hang about his hair came all over her.
“Do I look it?” he said.
“Oh, you’re real, you’re real!
Oh, Aslan!” cried Lucy, and both girls flung
themselves upon him and covered him with kisses.
children,’ said the Lion, ‘I feel my strength coming back to
me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!’ He stood for a
second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing
himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their
heads and landed on the other side of the Table. Laughing,
though she didn’t know why, Lucy scrambled over it to reach
him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round
the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach,
now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between
them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and
beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now
stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over
together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs.
It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia
and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or
playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind…“And
now,” said Aslan presently, “to business.
I feel I am going to roar” (pp. 131-133).