Mary Magdalene

 

MagdaleneSIL

Mary Magdalene. Apostle to the Apostles. Passionate friend & follower of Jesus. Much maligned & misunderstood, both in her lifetime, & certainly down the centuries since. 

 

She stayed. How could she leave? She had watched every excruciating moment of his stumbling journey through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, staggering under the weight of his cross. The lashes across his back, freshly open & bleeding. Had stood & felt every blow of the hammer striking his flesh. She did not look away when they raised the cross and left him hanging in agony that went far beyond the physical. She could not reach him with her hands, but her eyes were locked on his face as he struggled to breathe, to speak. This man who had set her free, was held by cruel nails to rough hewn wood. Held by love that kept him there more than any rusty iron. She was helpless to ease his suffering, and that tore her apart, splintered her soul into jagged shards. He had given her back her life and now he was gone. Her mind was blank with grief, her limbs heavy with heartbreak. She had helped his mother wrap that beloved body in clean linen, flesh of her flesh, blood of her blood. Their tears had washed the blood and sweat from his too still, face. His extraordinary eyes dull and closed forever. Eyes that had looked deep into her being with recognition and acceptance such as she had never known. Eyes that had sparkled with laughter and wept with compassion, now dull.

 

Joseph and Nicodemus had carried his body between them to the nearby garden and tomb, hewn deep into the rock of the hill of death. Between them they laid him gently in that place of forever rest. Of quiet dark. Wrapped the grave clothes around his head and backed out on their knees. The men rolled the stone in front of the yawning dark that enfolded his broken body. It was finished.

 

They hurried away into the lengthening shadows of evening, but she stayed on. Keeping vigil. Watching as the darkness fell around her feet and heart. Waiting even as her world tilted and all hope extinguished. Remembering. Turning over in her mind the memories of being brought to life with grace and soul-lifting mercy, that had breathed new life into her beaten down being. This extraordinary man had changed her life forever beyond recognition, and now he was gone  -violently ripped away from them by jealousy and fear. She could do nothing more for him, but she could watch, keep vigil through the long cold hours.

 

She returned early on the first day of the week. Her feet finding their own way in the darkness to the grave. She would pour out her love for him one last time. With no mocking words or sneering faces to watch, she would tenderly anoint his beloved body with precious perfumed oils. Her last gift.

Stopped in her tracks by the grave’s yawning emptiness, her heart plummeted at this fresh assault – they had stolen even this last goodbye. Removed/ desecrated? His body dumped somewhere? She daren’t begin to imagine. Fast flight with heart hammering, to Peter and to John, bearer of fresh agony that burned and seared. They ran too – looked and left. Unable to deal with themselves, and unable to deal with her.

She stayed. Rooted by grief, anger and confusion, she could not leave. Seeking the comfort of at least holding his grave clothes, she leant over to look into the emptiness of the open cave. Two men were sitting at where his head and feet had laid and her stupefied mind couldn’t take in who they might be, or why they were there.

They asked her a stupid and intensely irritating question. “Why are you crying?”

As if it wasn’t blindingly obvious! What else do you do at a grave?

She wanted to scream her anger at them –“ they have taken him away- they have taken away my hope, my life- my reason for being!”

 

There was a sound nearby, the sound of footsteps. She spun around conscious of another person approaching, and saw the figure of a man outlined in the radiance of the rising sun. Her tear filled eyes made no sense of what she saw.

“Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” The same question, but this time it didn’t make her want to scream. The questions found their way into the depths of her heartbreak, and somewhere in that deep and broken darkness there was the faintest shimmer of light.

Thinking him to be the gardener she stammered

“If you know where he is, if you have moved his body –please tell me!”

There was the faintest whisper of hope that she might find him after all. He didn’t answer, and she still couldn’t see his face through her tears. His expression obscured by the brightness of the dawn. Silence. A pregnant pause in which she breathed in hope despite herself.

 

“Mary”

 

No one else said it like that. No one else had ever put such unconditional love into the simple saying of her name. That beloved voice called her a second time out of a nightmare of darkness, bringing her back to life. It couldn’t possibly be – and yet it was. She had been looking for a corpse, and she had found a living Lord, who knew her, and called her by name. “Rabbouni!” was all she had breath to say. She fell at his feet. The feet she had anointed with her tears; the feet she had seen hammered to the rough wood of the cross. Reaching out to hold them – she wanted to stay in this moment forever. Be sure it was real. That he was real. That her teetering mind hadn’t tipped finally, over the edge.

Gentle hands lifted her up. His smile was as wide as the sea, and the eyes she thought had closed for ever, twinkled with life and laughter. A name, a smile. A smile that reached out and found all the shattered pieces of her heart, and drew them together again, into a new whole.

 

Now go– and tell my brothers who you have seen” he asked of her.

Be the one to tell them I am alive. Be the Hope Bearer. Turn their lives upside down, as yours has been”

 

She didn’t hesitate. No need to stay.

Carrying the Gospel – the good news- she ran with joy, in the glory of the rising sun, that was lighting up the world.

Leaning into darkness

 

River

It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.

I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25): A Guest Post by Penelope Swithinbank

I can remember how it felt – that walking across the Square, arms stretched long with shopping bags.
I can remember how it felt  – that looking at our church, heart stretched hard and cold with unbelief.
I can remember: before coming to that church the years of losing everything – the business I had started, homes and cars and income, all lost; the worldly stuff I had held so dearly, gone.  Taken by God, vindictively it seemed.But then came this church.  Its large draughty  Victorian Rectory. My life turned upside down and not in the way I wanted. For I had enjoyed my status: 20th century vicar’s wives did not usually head up their own nationwide company. Gone. All gone.
I was tired, so tired of it all.
* * *
But then I remember: that clergy wives’ conference, days after crossing the Square. The reluctant going, the fear of being thought an abject failure, the hesitancy in case someone uncovered my unbelief. A speaker – who was she? And what did she have to say? Lost in time. But then, oh then, another speaker, who spoke creatively, humourously, and who then asked us to stand so the Lord could minister to us.
STAND? My hesitation – what was this about? My desire to melt away and not be part of this. And then finding myself standing, pulled by the Unseen Presence. His Light, flooding the room. His Warmth enveloping me in ways I could not comprehend. His Voice, unheard, speaking into my poor stretched heart: I am here, I am true, I am your strength.  I AM.
Their prayers for me, surrounding me. My tears falling.  Shaking with the overwhelming sense of His being with me. One stood back, pondered, allowed Him to speak through her voice.
“I wonder,” she said, “if this verse might be for you? Somewhere in the Old Testament I think. Words from the Lord.  I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.”
They prayed some more. He took those words deep into that cold stretched heart. He promised restoration, things that would replace what was lost, devoured and devastated. A swarm of things new and above what was lost.
So I clung to that verse over the years that were to come. Years with ups and downs, but years of fruitful ministry just as He had promised. A book was published, an international speaking gift confirmed, a ministry ordained. The years lost through unbelief were more than made up for. Always I remembered that verse. He had restored the years the locusts had eaten – and more.
* * *
And then.
Seventeen months ago, my mother died. Swept away. One moment she was there, a feisty ninety-year-young who cared ceaselessly for others, drove old ladies to church, talked non-stop on the phone to her friends and family whenever she could.  Prayed for us all, every day.
And the next she was gone, swept away under the wheels of an out-of-control car.
And I stood there, frozen, helpless. Stunned from having been hit by the same car just a few moments before. Deafened by the shouts and screams and sirens. Deafened by the silent scream inside. And my tears turned to ice and my scream frozen deep within.
She was gone.
I stood at her feet and I tried to pray for her, aloud.  Tried to thank God for all she was and had been to me and others; tried to ask Him to take her to Himself; committed her to the One who loved her the best. And the paramedic had tears in her eyes.  “I’ve never heard anyone pray out loud before,” she said.  “Would you like her teeth? And her watch?”
I took the watch and turned to thank the paramedics and the police and the passersby.  People were so kind; so very kind.
But I was frozen.
For seventeen month now, I have been frozen. Unable to work or to play, to read or to write. Lost, barren, devoured by locusts.
But now. A slow greening of tiny shoots again.
A decision to be grateful in the brokenness.*
A monthly Happiness Project.+
And confirmation from He whom my soul loves, that what has yet again been devoured by locusts will be restored to me.
The verse remembered.
That decision to have a monthly project – for March, to write again.
He promised.  And there was the verse, my verse: on Anita’s tweet. Her invitation on February 29 to write a guest blog.  And on March 1st an offer of a freelance writing project – very small but it’s writing and it’s paid! Unsought, it brought with it His Voice of Promise: I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.
Confirmation that my ministry years are not over, as I had feared.
He who has promised is faithful and He will do it. Again and again, whenever it is needed:
“I will restore to you the years the locusts have eaten.” Joel 2:25
*  One Thousand Gifts. Ann Voskamp. Zondervan ( Editor’s note: This book is wonderful, and well worth a look at – link through title)
+ A Happiness Project. Gretchen Rubin. Harper
*******
Penelope Swithinbank
The Revd Penelope Swithinbank is a widely recognized international conference speaker, both for Alpha and for retreats and pilgrimages.   Author of “Women By Design,” she has been involved in ministry for over 30 years, as pastor’s wife, volunteer, and now as a member of the ordained Anglican clergy.  As a young mother she started her own business, “Bumpsadaisy” which she developed into a successful national franchise across the UK, hiring out designer maternity wear.  Later, whilst working virtually full time as a volunteer in the church, she ran a flourishing Bed & Breakfast business to help pay the bills! She has three children and six grandchildren.Penelope  and her husband lived in the USA for six years.  Whilst there, Penelope was firstly Director of C2 Ministries (Community & Connections) at The Falls Church in northern Virginia, and then Interim Rector of The Church of Our Saviour, Johns Island in South Carolina. Now based in London, she runs “Ministries by Design” and leads Retreats and Pilgrimages regularly, and is an Ignatian Spiritual Director, and mentor to younger women clergy.Penelope has a Master of Theology from St Andrews University Scotland, and degrees in both Education and Pastoral Theology from Cambridge University, England. Find full details on the website or follow her on twitter:www.ministriesbydesign.org
@minstriesbydsgnDreaming beneath the Spires
This is a reblog of a guest post on http://dreamingbeneaththespires.blogspot.com/  an excellent blog worth following on twitter or elsewhere. @AnitaMathias1 is a wonderful collector of resources and links as well as being another writer worth reading.