Letter from the Rector - May 2019
Easter on Facebook and by the Empty Tomb!
The Facebook post of a vicar friend of mine a couple of Easters ago read: ‘Tonight's heresy out of the blue from Lent group participant, “we don't believe that Jesus really died, do we?”
Me, trying not to fall off my chair, “Er, yes, I think we do.”’ Sometimes we find the incredible truth of the Easter story too much to believe. But then, if it weren’t too good to be true, it wouldn’t be worth believing in!
For me, Mary Magdalene is the one who brings me the truth, truth that comforts, truth that challenges, truth that sets us free. Much of what we think we know of her is false, but we do know that she was demon possessed, indeed as possessed as one could imagine, with seven demons, the Jewish symbolic number for a complete set. Jesus had exorcised them from her, and she had gone from being an outcast to being his follower.
Mary Magdalen’s story is remarkable, firstly because early Jewish teachers did not have female disciples, and they certainly didn’t have female disciples who had been dabbling with the dark arts or the Devil. And, secondly, she was not just a female disciple, she was a travelling women disciple. And this is remarkable because Jewish men were not supposed be seen in public with women at all!
Despite all of this, she becomes the apostle to the apostles, for it was Mary Magdalene who was first at the empty tomb, the first to see the risen Jesus and hear his voice, and the first to proclaim ‘He is risen!’ to the other apostles.
But though the Easter truth she brings should set us free, that doesn’t make it easy. For all of us there are times of doubt and darkness and vulnerability; and that means that for all of us we need to learn the lesson of a young painter in 17th century Holland.
He stumbled through life, surrounding himself with wine, women, and song. And if you look at Rembrandt’s early self-portraits, you will find that they are the face of an indulgent young man. But things change – he married, but he and his wife lost three of their four children quite young. And then his wife died too, and Rembrandt’s self-portraits, of which he did many, became full of dark depression. And then, in his later years, Rembrandt started to paint scenes from the New Testament. Look at them and you will see a life being transformed, for he began accept Jesus and his Easter message.
Rembrandt gives us a painting of Mary Magdalene, contemplating her sin, but with a glowing light shining behind her – the light of forgiveness. And a painting of Peter tortured by his denials but lifted up by the light from Jesus’ face. And a painting of Paul, where the one who had once persecuted believers now sits writing his grand epistles - and there is a warm light shining around his face.
Rembrandt coming to Christ, then, gives us paintings that send the same central message as Mary Magdalene’s whole life – that the light shines in darkness and the darkness cannot put it out. All our lives are tinged, not just with the light of Christ, but also with the darkness of the cross. So, we believe that in Christ all manner of things are possible, but only if we stop in the darkness, with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, and hear Jesus’ caring, challenging voice of truth.