When the space race was at its height in the 60s, NASA used a group of women to check the figures in the science of space flight: the speeds, and trajectories needed to leave and return to earth – and later the moon. A little later they had an IBM main frame computer. These women were also called ‘computers’ (this title pre-dated the invention of the computer). They were black women; and the most talented of all these women was Katherine G. Johnson, who was a mathematical prodigy – a genius. We didn’t find out about this until quite recently; and a film – ‘Hidden Figures’ – was made about them in 2016. One reason we didn’t find out was that people in the 50s and 60s wouldn’t believe that women, and certainly not black women, could have done this. We were wrong.
This ‘hiddenness’ seems to have happened to Mary Magdalen. For centuries she was seen as a reformed prostitute, and confused with two other Marys. This was church doctrine, only dropped by the Vatican in 1978!
There are two versions of the name ‘Mary’ in the Greek NT: ‘Maria’, as in Latin and ‘Mariam’, as in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. In the fourth century Sinaiticus Manuscript (codex) in the British Library her name is ‘Mariam’ not ‘Maria’, unlike many other MSS we have. This name is the same name used in the Greek OT for Moses’ and Aaron’s sister, Miriam. It might be worth going back for a few moments, since this could be relevant.
You remember the story, how Miriam guarded her younger brother, Moses, hidden in a basket on the river, during the pogrom of Israelite boys; and when Pharaoh’s daughter found him, she decided to keep him. Bravely, Miriam came out of hiding and offered to find the princess a wet nurse to care for the baby. She agreed, and Miriam went to get their mother, who was paid to care for her own child, hidden in plain sight in Pharaoh’s palace. But in the story Miriam is never actually named!
When the Israelites eventually escape across the Red Sea in safety, Miriam leads the women with drums and dancing to sing a victory song, which Exodus calls ‘the song of Moses’, but it’s really Miriam’s song. Later, she’s called a ‘prophet’ (Exod 15:20). In Mic 6:4, She is listed with her brothers, Moses and Aaron, as a leader of Israel. She seems to have been ‘hidden’ like the NASA women ‘computers’.
Back to Mary Magdalen, or rather, beyond her to ‘the Gospel of Mary’, written around the same time as John’s gospel (late first, early second century). There she is challenged by Peter, who questions that Jesus loved her so much, that is, more than him.
In later gospels the conflict will intensify; and it seems that it’s women’s leadership that’s the main problem; though they are accused of all sorts of heresy and sexual practises. But in the Gospel of Mary, she has an intimate relationship with the risen Jesus, but accepts Peter’s leadership.
A similar kind of ‘competition’, though much more subtle, seems to be going on in our gospel. In the verses left out of our gospel reading, there is that schoolboy competition between Peter and the beloved disciple, as to who is ‘first’; and they both seem to win – though the latter ‘believed’. What did he believe? The message of Mary? Or something much more profound – ‘believe’ is a very loaded word in John.
But it is to Mary that the risen Jesus first reveals himself.
Mary is weeping, and has come to the garden tomb, in the dark: both literally and figuratively. In John, the arrest, crucifixion and burial of Jesus all take place in gardens: just like in Genesis with Adam & Eve. Seeing the stone rolled back Mary runs back to tell Peter. A little later she returns to the tomb and looks in this time, and sees two angels where Jesus had been, looking just like the cherubim at the Mercy Seat, over the ark of the Covenant in the Temple. She weeps because she doesn’t know where they’ve put Jesus’ body. She seems to be obsessed with where his body is. Not unlike the experience of many bereaved people; unsurprisingly, still ‘attached’ to the body of their loved one.
She turns around and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognise him – she thinks he’s the gardener! Like Adam? Like God? – the gardeners in Eden. Again, she’s asked why she’s weeping. Only when Jesus calls her name in Aramaic, ‘Mariam’, does she recognise him: ‘Rabbouni,’ (‘teacher’) she replies, also in their native language. This must be one of the most intimate moments in the Bible [no wonder people misinterpret it for a sexual intimacy]. The intimacy is mutual. But she must let go of his body, as must all of us who are bereaved. He is going to his Father – perhaps he has already gone. He’s half way between earth and heaven.
Jesus ‘sends her,’ ‘apostles her’, ‘commissions her’ to go to his ‘brothers’. In Greek the words for ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ are the same, but with a masculine or feminine ending; but there is only one plural, ‘brothers:’ which is inclusive, as it used to be in English. So that includes Mary: one of Jesus’ brothers – sisters.
I leave you with Mary Magdalen, not just a saint, but a follower, a disciple, a ‘sister’, an apostle of Jesus. Perhaps, like her Old Testament namesake, Miriam, a leader and a prophet. And, unlike many other disciples, true to the bitter end.