Prelude Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Harley
Opening Words by Alex Brianson
We gather this morning to share a particular kind of community – a community of faith in which each of us is free to quest for our own ways of being spiritual and religious.
We gather this morning to think about how we have done this until now, and how we might do this from now.
We are none of us the same as we were twenty years ago or even last week; we are none of us the same as we shall be in five weeks or ten years.
As the paths of our lives cover new terrain, may we find helpful new thinkers, concepts, and understandings of Spirit, or of the highest good in life, and new ways to interpret those we have loved long and hard.
And may we be open to the voice of wisdom, wherever – and however – we find it.
Chalice Lighting words by Simon Hardy
We light this chalice as a symbol of our movement.
Its flickering light symbolises our questions and our doubts.
Its steady light our tentative personal answers.
Its burning presence our love and fellowship.
Invocation ‘She whom the Saviour made worthy’ by Cliff Reed (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
In the spirit of the true disciple,
we are called to worship.
In the spirit of Mary, whose love
was first to know that life had triumphed.
In the spirit of Mary, whose witness
men spurned and whose life they libelled.
In the spirit of Mary Magdalene,
‘whom the Saviour made worthy’.
In the spirit of the true disciple,
we come to worship.
May it be so.
Readings from the Gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew
There are only a few mentions of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament.
Luke 8:1-3: Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 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.
Matthew 27:56: Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mark 15:47: Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses [James] saw where the body was laid.
Luke 24: 1-11 But on the first day of the week at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen. 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.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James; and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust. Amen
Reading Musings on the Magdalene by Gilly Fraser
He let her see him first, she who had seen him last. Watching to the end as near as she was allowed, being only a woman. Bearing witness, keeping faith until that final desperate cry, the shuddering surrender.
It’s not every man you come across can take away seven demons – more like the opposite in her line of work. All that attention for a start; respect for her, a common little whore – or so the legends have it.
Knowing who she was, accepting her, the way he accepted them all. The poor, the mad, the bottom of the heap.
I hope she made him laugh sometimes, gave him comfort in all the ways she’d learned. For unless he came as a man with the needs of a man – the doubts, the fear, the human longings, what would be the purpose?
You can see I have no grasp of the fine points of theology.
When she told the disciples she had seen him, they would not believe her. What did she know? She was good enough in her way, but only a woman.
You don’t hear much of her after that. Only she knew what she saw.
I hope she held her memories in her heart – told stories to the children, other women, the ordinary folk who wanted to listen, the ones who never learned to read, without the thrones, the pomp, the gory glory, the priests and the promise of celestial cities.
Stories about this true man who had loved her, like he loved all the world. And died for choosing that.
It is enough. More than enough for me, being only a woman.
Prayer The Women by Cliff Reed, from Carnival of Lamps (adapted)
Spirit of Life and Love,
Salome and Susanna, Joanna and Martha,
and all those Marys – the mystic,
the Mother, and the Magdalene,
the wife of Clopas,
the mother of the Sons of Thunder…
These were the women
who walked with Jesus,
who cared for him and comforted him
when the men drove him to distraction,
who were with him when he died,
and knew he could never die.
But they were turned into prostitutes or plaster saints,
they were forgotten or suppressed.
Today we remember them, and lift them up
as the real women that they were.
And we too will walk with Jesus
in humility and love.
May it be so,
Reading Mary Magdalen – Rock Star from Beyond Darkness by Cliff Reed
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember – which you know, but we do not” Gospel of Mary
Mary Magdalen wasn’t a prostitute.
Lascivious, misogynistic churchmen
invented that particular lie
for unpleasant reasons of their own.
Mary Magdalen was a rock star,
who fell in love with Jesus
and blasted out his praises at gigs
from Tiberias to Jerusalem,
at festivals in springtime Galilee.
Mary Magdalen was no tame, submissive doormat either,
with downcast – or upcast – eyes.
Her twelve-strong band got things jumping.
Then we heard the voices of her vocal backing –
Joanna, Martha, and the girl they called “the Virgin”.
It was time.
Mary Magdalen strode on stage and made it hers.
She seized the mike and sang.
God and the angel host came down to listen.
Eyes blazing, her voice soared amid guitar riffs.
She rocked the souls of thousands, come to share
their bread and fish on hillside and lakeshore.
Then she paused. Smiled lovingly at someone
in the crowd – and Jesus stepped up to join her…
Is all this true?
Maybe not, but it’s better than the lie the Church
has been telling for two thousand years.
Time of Stillness and Reflection A Person Is a Puzzle by Mark Mosher DeWolfe
A person is a puzzle. Sometimes from the inside, it feels like some pieces are missing.
Perhaps one we love is no longer with us. Perhaps one talent we desire eludes us. Perhaps a moment that required grace found us clumsy. Sometimes, from the inside, it feels like some pieces are missing.
A person is a puzzle. We are puzzles not only to ourselves but to each other.
A puzzle is a mystery we seek to solve — and the mystery is that we are whole even with our missing pieces. Our missing pieces are empty spaces we might long to fill, empty spaces that make us who we are. The mystery is that we are only what we are — and that what we are is enough.
In the stillness of this place, into the accepting peace of a still sky, let us offer our failings, our inadequacies, into the silence. And let us know that we are accepted, by God and by this company, exactly as we are. Accepted — missing pieces, and all.
So may it be.
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Harley
Address Mary Magdalene
Yesterday, 22nd July, was the feast day of Mary Magdalene. Which gave me the theme for this service. I have long admired her – I saw the Franco Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth when I was a teenager and was much moved by the way she was portrayed in it. At first, she cannot believe that Jesus would be bothered by someone like her (she appears in her traditional role as a whore, for which there is no evidence at all). Then she grows to love him, witnesses his crucifixion and is the first to see him after the resurrection. She made me feel that I could give love and be worthy of love too.
Nearly two decades ago, the film based on Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, became a box office hit. If you remember, it alleged that Jesus had married Mary Magdalene and had children by her, whose descendants still lived. Today, I’d like to explore what is known about this enigmatic woman; have a look at the Dan Brown story; and then think about how we as Unitarians might react to it.
So what do we know about Mary Magdalene? From the Gospels in the Christian Bible, we learn that Jesus had exorcised seven demons from her; that she became his follower or disciple; that she witnessed the crucifixion and saw where his body was laid; and that when she and some other women went to anoint the body of Jesus on the third day, they found the tomb empty and were told that he had risen from the dead. We also know that the disciples did not believe her when the women went to tell their news.
But the Gospels in the Christian Bible are not the only sources of (almost) contemporary information about her. The so-called Gnostic Gospels, which were found in 1945 in the Egyptian desert, and are now referred to as the Nag Hammadi Library, include information about her. It is believed that this cache of documents was hidden in a jar and buried in the desert at the end of the 4th century CE, when Gnostic writings and pagan ones were being burned by the official church.
Among these was the Gospel of Philip. This has two direct references to Mary Magdalene. The first one reads, “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.” The second is incomplete, due to damage to the original manuscript, but it appears to describe Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene and using a parable to explain to the disciples why he loved her more than he loved them.
Then there is the Gospel of Mary Magdalene was found in the Akhmim Codex, a Gnostic text of the New Testament apocrypha acquired by Dr Rheinhardt in Cairo in 1896. However, it was not published until after the Nag Hammadi Library in the 1950s. It is the only known copy of the text, and pages 1-6 and 11-14 are missing. A Wikipaedia article describes the content of what is left.
“In the fragmentary text, the disciples ask questions of the risen Saviour and are answered.
Then they grieve, saying, “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If even he was not spared, how shall we be spared?” And Mary bids them take heart, “Let us rather praise his greatness, for he prepared us and made us into men.” She then delivers a vision of the Saviour that she has had and reports her discourse with him.
Her vision does not meet with universal approval: “But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, ‘Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.” And “Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Saviour. ‘Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?’”
I find these Gnostic gospel accounts of Mary Magdalene very interesting – the Gnostics seem to have believed that she played a far more prominent role in the early Church than is portrayed in the Canonical gospels. Fairly predictably, the men don’t like it when a mere woman seems to have the Saviour’s ear. Her place in the Gnostic scheme of things may have been to represent the important figure of Sophia, the female syzygy of Christ. Gnostics believed that a syzygy was a divine active-passive, male-female pairing, complementary to one another rather than oppositional; characterising aspects of the unknowable Gnostic God. This inclusion of a female aspect of the divine is similar to that seen in Hinduism, for example Vishnu, the preserver and his consort Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and good fortune, or Shiva, creator, preserver and destroyer and Parvati, the gentle.
However, it is a long way from being a leading disciple of Jesus to being his wife and mother of his child, as Dan Brown suggests in his book The Da Vinci Code. I’ve read it a couple of times, and found it a totally gripping page-turner, with some fascinating ideas, but nonetheless a work of fiction, in the same way that books about Merlin and King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table are fiction or at best myth. However much we may wish them to be true.
You may remember that most of the ideas in The Da Vinci Code had already received an airing in the early eighties, when the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail was published. I can remember the controversy over that; but it was nothing in comparison to the furor in 2006, when the film came out. I am sure many of you are familiar with the story: Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, fled to France after the resurrection, and bore him a child, whose bloodline, the sang real, (which literally translates as blood royal) is still going today.
According to Brown, the identity of the bloodline had been hidden since the 11th century by the mysterious Priory of Sion. The plot of the book follows the symbologist Robert Langdon and French cryptographer Sophie Neveu, along a treasure trail of clues, during which they (and the reader) learn that the secret of the Holy Grail was not a chalice containing the blood of Christ, but a woman containing the bloodline of Christ. There’s an awful lot more to it than that, but that is the central idea.
It’s a fascinating story; I remember looking at a copy of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper shortly after reading it for the first time, and thinking, “Oh my goodness! The figure on Christ’s right is a woman. I wonder why I’ve never noticed before?” The cunning thing about Dan Brown’s story is that it is so plausible if you don’t dig too deeply.
But. My real issue with it is how he has blended fact with fiction in a way that it will all be accepted as fact. Although the back of the title page includes the usual disclaimer (in very small print) that “In this work of fiction, the characters, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or they are used entirely fictitiously”, the first thing the average reader will read is a page headed “FACT”. I’d like to share it with you:
“The Priory of Sion – a European secret society founded in 1099 – is a real organisation. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory of Sion, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sandro Botticelli, Victor Hugo and Leonardo da Vinci.
The Vatican prelature known as Opus Dei is a deeply devout Catholic sect that has been the topic of recent controversy due to reports of brainwashing, coercion and a dangerous practice known as ‘corporal mortification.’ Opus Dei has just completed construction of a $47 million National Headquarters at 243 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”
This blending of fact and fiction sits uneasily with me, as it can easily lead to people believing falsehoods, especially in these days of ubiquitous social media. Many people are intellectually lazy and will generally accept as truth something that they are told unequivocally is fact. Questioning is something we tend to learn later in life, if at all. And our Unitarian faith can help us with this.
When I read The Da Vinci Code for the first time, I realised that the central thesis about Mary Magdalene was fiction – fascinating, but fiction. And I was uneasy about the portrayal of Opus Dei. I still don’t know enough about it (Opus Dei I mean) to make a final judgement – the internet is full of widely contradictory information about it. But at least I was wide awake enough to question the truth of Dan Brown’s portrayal.
The Da Vinci Code is only as “real” as Cliff Reed’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a rock star, which we heard earlier. I believe we need to heed Dennis Crompton’s warning, which appeared in The Inquirer when all the hoo-haa about the film was going on. He wrote, “Anything that distorts truth and undermines religious beliefs for financial gain deserves to have its progress scrutinised, especially by Unitarians, whose guiding principles include respect for the religion of others and the exercise of reason in the search for truth and meaning.”
Perhaps in the end, we can only say, with Mark Mosher DeWolfe, that, “A person is a puzzle. We are puzzles not only to ourselves but to each other.”
Nevertheless, as Unitarians, as guardians of reason and of respect for the faith of others, it is our duty to investigate whatever is set before us, rather than believing it without question. And to take what we believe and enact it in our lives. Whoever Mary Magdalene was, she is portrayed as a woman who loved well and was loyal to those she loved. Which are good lessons to learn.
Spirit of Life and Love,
open our hearts and minds
so that we question what we
hear and read, and do not
accept anything blindly, without question.
May we use our reason to decide what is true
for us, then take what we learn and enact
it in our daily lives.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
may we share the love we feel,
may we look out for each other,
and may we keep up our hearts,
now and in the days to come.
Postlude Lady of Lewesdon Hill by Elizabeth Harley