New Bishop of Ely’s first Easter sermon tells of a ‘lived reality’

Bishop Conway’s first Easter Day sermon as Bishop of Ely

Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Did you know that St Mary Magdalene was really French, at least by adoption? I was told this with great insistence by several helpful French people when I visited pilgrim sites associated with her name. Although her relics are no longer there, the basilica at Vezelay in Burgundy is said to have been her resting place. I have also visited Saint-Maximim-le-Sainte-Baume in eastern Provence, where the legends of her were codified.

She was supposed to have arrived by boat as an exile after persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, becoming an active missionary and preacher before retiring to a cave in the Alpes-Maritime to live the remainder of her life as a hermit.

Her skull is preserved in a reliquary there; but it is her revered memory which is so telling. . It was less than a century after this codification that Donatello carved a statue of her in polychrome wood. He casts her as an ascetic hermit, gaunt and old but still on her front foot and full of energy.

Much of the picture of Mary as the penitent courtesan is a renaissance phenomenon, fuelled by generations of art. The earlier stories are of her as a passionate witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Like many of the saints, she proclaimed the New Creation both by preaching and by a life of reparation in her cave.

The important burden of the stories about her is that they match in character what we know about her from the New Testament, namely that she is given an apostolic role as the first witness to the resurrection. It was not at all convenient that the first witnesses to Christ’s bursting from the tomb should be a woman whose public testimony was not given legal credence.

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This is not embroidery but a fact to assert to an astonished male world. She receives the confirmatory visitation of angels which Simon and John were not. Mary’s ministry looks decidedly episcopal to me. Her witness and her prayers have always been vital to me in my ministry, and most particularly since becoming a bishop.

Yet, if Donatello’s instinct was right to have her on her front foot marching forward with energy as a witness to the reality of Christ’s new life, this is not how she is when we first encounter her in the garden by the tomb of Jesus.

Even if the predictions of the resurrection are in Jesus’ own words, the truth is that in the aftermath of the horror of the Crucifixion, none of his followers, male or female, believed what he had told them.

We see Mary’s very human reaction to the horrific death of her friend and teacher. She had been drawn to the tomb by her terrible grief. After going to tell the disciples about the missing body, she returns to the scene. Picture her stumbling back to the tomb sobbing, her vision blurred by her tears. She still thought that someone had taken away the body, and she didn’t know where to find it. No wonder the angels asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She was asked the same question by Jesus, whom she at first took to be the gardener. She did not recognize Jesus, the very one she was looking for, because her mind was fixed on finding a dead body.

She was not ready for life. Somehow, the beginning of decay like at the open tomb of Lazarus would have been more welcome and re-assuring than angels and neatly folded grave clothes.

Not until Jesus spoke to her, called her by name, did she know him. At last she had found her Lord. She had come to the tomb with grief in her heart, but her weeping had been turned into joy. We receive many sorts of letter through the post in our lifetime. Many are just addressed to ‘whom it may concern’ or ‘the occupier’; but the very best are addressed as ‘dearest Stephen’ or ‘Beloved’.

Mary is addressed by Jesus who looks so different in his glorified body but whose tone of voice carries its all so familiar and wonderful caress. As she hears her name, she is free of the grief which she expected to define the rest of her life and she begins to experience the joy and can inhabit the truth of the predictions after all.

And now here we are, nearly 2,000 years later. We come to church today to celebrate the Resurrection. Our reactions are very like Mary’s. We have been taught the theology, we have sung the hymns, be believe the creeds.

Yet some years at least, there can be a large gap somehow between our faithful living of the Christian life and a deep sense of freedom in resurrection life. It can be not so much ‘Alleluia. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed’ as ‘Alright. Alleluia anyway.’ The poet, Stevie Smith, who struggled with faith and depression herself, summed up how many feel.

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

We can carry around a lifetime of grief inside There is persistent bereavement; the frustrations and disappointments we have suffered in our lives; the wounds of pain inflicted by others and our physical ailments, too. Not least, we bear the weight of our own sins, the bad choices we have made in our lives.

Yes, we believe that Christ is risen. We know we have cause for great joy this Easter Day. But the grief is there, too. Today, we rejoice that we, like Mary, have a friend who understands because he has experienced the desolation of the Cross and has yet not been defeated by it. Christ is a friend who calls us both from the depths and the heights and always by name. Today the reality of forgiveness is no longer solely an intellectual discipline but a lived reality.

Today, as we celebrate the Resurrection, we can put down our grief at the feet of Jesus, and when he calls our name, we can answer, “Rabbouni! Teacher!” This does mean that all burdens will lift as if by magic; but our burdens will be differently distributed, the weight borne by Him.

We are told in the gospel that Mary was specifically sent by the Risen Christ to give his message to the disciples. She went and announced to them, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. Like her, we are witnesses to the new life which Jesus promises to all those who turn to him. With Christians in places like Vezelay who rejoice in the life of Mary Magdalene, we are en f�te. God shows us again that he loves us with an everlasting love and has continued his faithfulness to us.

So, we are exhorted even by the so-called miserable prophet, Jeremiah, to take up our tambourines and to go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.

When I read of the tambourines, I immediately pictured in my mind’s eye Salvationists in traditional bonnets leading worship on a street corner, as people go about their business. Since then, I spent a couples of hours on Good Friday night with the Cambridge Street Pastors, not with tambourines but with bottles of water for the de-hydrated and flipflops for people who have fallen off their heals, even a few dog biscuits for the pets of the street homeless. Young people were out to have fun.

There was lots of laughter and dancing; but also those for whom the drink just brings out terrible sadness and degradation. The street pastors are Christian people living the reality of cross and resurrection, in the babble of noise on the street seeking to be a different voice and the safest, tenderest touch so that those who are staggering and not dancing might hear words of assurance and love.

I am no dancer myself, but it is a happy discovery that Easter hymns, like Christmas carols, are meant to be danced. This is the origin of Carpenter’s hymn, The Lord of the Dance. Like Mary Magdalene and the other disciples, we are called to go out and join with everyone who will dance the steps which Jesus teaches us in the Resurrection. Like Donatello’s Magdalene, we are on the front foot, ready to set out to proclaim that the New Creation we celebrate today puts us in step with the Father forever. offAlleluia. Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia! Amen.

Bishop Stephen

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