Love and Hope:
The Feast of Saint Mary Magdalen falls on Thursday, July 22, 2021 this week.
In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, there is a debate between two characters, a man and a woman, on the question of whether it is more the nature of man than of woman “to be inconstant and forget those they do love, or have loved”. It ends in a draw, but the woman says: “All the privilege I claim for my own sex … is that of loving longest when existence or when hope is gone”. That is Mary Magdalene on Easter morning: loving her Lord, even ‘when existence or hope is gone’; loving her Lord, even when his body (as she surmises) has been “taken away”. This is love without hope: in the words of the Song of Solomon, “I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not”. Worldly common sense says ‘you have to move on’, you have to ‘snap out of it’, you have to ‘get on with your life’; but there is nothing the world can say that is going to help her at this point: because with Jesus dead her hope is dead also. Without hope, her love cannot attain its object.
For Mary Magdalene, the irony is that the evidence for the resurrection is right before her, but in the fog of grief she can’t see it. The evidence of the empty tomb is not enough – and the gently probing question of the angels is not enough: she tells them the same thing she told the other disciples, “They have taken away my Lord”. Even the gently probing questions of Jesus himself are not enough: with Jesus standing in front of her she asks him if he knows where the body of Jesus is! Because she is looking for a dead Jesus, she cannot even see the living Jesus in front of her. Only when Jesus speaks her name, and calls her back to the unique personal relationship between them – forged in gratitude for the grace of her deliverance from seven devils – only then does amazed recognition break through the fog of her grief; only then do her tears of sorrow turn to tears of joy.
What was Mary’s problem? Why could she not see what is so evident? It wasn’t that she did not believe in Jesus as the Christ – but that her idea of him was too small. Like the other disciples, she believed in an earthly Messiah, through whom the saving power of God might work an earthly salvation for his people. She did not think that the Messiah could suffer, die, rise again, and still be the Messiah. To her that is just a contradiction, a Savior who needs salvation. She did not grasp that the Son of God has power to lay down his life, and power to take it again (John 10:18). She did not realize that the Messiah would plumb the depths of hell, and ascend the heights of heaven, to rescue his people from death and judgment, and make them children of God and heirs of the Father’s kingdom. When in faith she knows at last the Christ she loves, and can embrace a hope for deliverance from death and access to glory, her love is set free from sorrow for joy; set free to serve the Lord, as the first witness of his resurrection.
“Touch me not”, Jesus tells her – the Greek could be translated more accurately if less strikingly as “don’t keep on clinging to me”. “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God”. He has revealed himself to her, and called her again to faith; but a faith that is adequate to him in his glorified state requires she must let go of what she can see and touch, the earthly and fleshly form in which she has known him so far, so that she may know him in a faith appropriate to his ascended humanity, “after an heavenly and spiritual manner”. She must give up trying to keep his body down on earth, she must rather follow him up to heaven in her heart and mind. “Lift up your hearts: we lift them up unto the Lord!” It is this Jesus, crucified, risen, ascended, bringing her into communion with the Father, that will satisfy all the longing of her heart; will set her free from self-preoccupation for the service of others. Instead of trying to hold onto Jesus, as a finite option, she will be able to share him with other disciples as one whose presence and power are without limit; she will be able to tell them the one they thought was dead, is alive; that the one they had failed and forsaken, loves them still as brothers; that the one who has descended into hell, now ascends into heaven, and that his Father has now become their Father also.
We can seek the Lord, our restless hearts are in continual quest of him – “looking for love in all the wrong places” as the country song puts it – but only he can find us, and call us each individually to faith in himself, a faith which looks beyond the finite to grasp an infinite goodness, to see the life that comes from death. It is this faith that allows hope to rise to the fullness of what can be hoped for, and which allows love to embrace the full extent of that which is to be loved.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, July 18, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.