Bishop Colton Reflects on the Women in the Easter Story in his Easter Sermon 2018

Easter Day, 2018

Sermon preached by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton,

Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

In St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork

on Sunday, 1st April 2018

Some stories are timeless, and their message endures.  They cross boundaries of time and place, of culture and social construct.   Such is the case with Good Friday and Easter, which, together, reveal supremely to us the love of God.    ‘Sacrifice and love often go together. People who sacrifice their lives most often do so because of a greater love’, says Marcus Borg.  To drive home his point, from the 20th Century, he mentions Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, and Oscar Romero. Years ago too, in Auschwitz, Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan, volunteered to take the place of someone who was a total stranger to him – Franciszek Gajowniczek – who had been sentenced to die by starvation.  This week we might think of the selfless sacrifice of the French Gendarme, Arnaud Beltrame. He swapped places with a terrorist gunman in a supermarket siege near Carcassonne. Sacrifice.

These days – Good Friday and Easter – crucifixion and resurrection – are days which speak to us supremely of love and sacrifice, and of transformation, transformation which is both personal and communal.  As St Paul said: ‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2.19-20) This is why Jesus invites us to take up our cross and to follow him (Matthew 16.24)  These days herald the triumph that came out of apparent defeat, evil conquered for good, and large stones – barriers to truth, vision, insight and new beginnings – rolled away and dismantled, and horizons broadened unexpectedly.

The timelessness of these events speak every day, and every Easter, into our own time, situation, human opportunity and predicament. The story is timeless, but do we always see its import in our own time and place?  So it came about that, this year, I found my eye and my mind drawn to the woman in the text of today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene, and through her, to the women around Jesus. Why? You might ask.

Well today is the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, founded as an entity independent from the British army and the Royal Navy.  No country had founded a separate air force before then. I watched a television programme earlier this week tracing this history, and I hadn’t realised that on the very same day 100 years ago, 1st April 1918, the Women’s Royal Air Force was founded. In time, the RAF, became the first branch of the armed forces in which women received equal pay.

This set me thinking about our own four year visual war memorial project here – putting faces on the names – and on how disproportionately few of the images feature women: yes there are some nurses, some family groups, wives, and children.  100 years ago as they gathered here for Easter 1918, March 31st – a day earlier that year – they did not know, what we now know, that there was seven and half months of that hell on earth still to go. I think of how the women suffered too and lived too with the aftermath, for a lifetime, not only of memories, but with the consequences of that war.  

Home Rule had not been the only political issue before the war. ‘A grateful British government surprised by what women could do when asked [in the War], rewarded them with the vote in 1918’ (Vivien Kelly, 1996).  Meeting here that Easter the people knew that The Representation of People Act 1918 had been passed allowing some women, only some, to vote in general elections. It still wasn’t full equality. The requirement that voters own property was removed for men and the age for men was 21.  Women 30 and over could vote but either they themselves had to won property worth £5 or be married to a husband who had property worth £5. Not full equality, but nonetheless, this year is an important centenary for us all, and for women, in particular.  

One hundred years on, women and women’s rights are very much still an issue.  In a news report only yesterday evening there was a call for the women of the Easter Rising of 1916 to be properly recognised.  Since we were here last Easter, in October last year, 2017, the #metoo movement spread virally as a hashtag on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.  More recently, our former President, Mary McAleese, speaking at the Voices of Faith Conference in Rome to mark International Women’s Day, turned the spotlight on the place of women in her own Church; but we would do well not to be complacent in our own church, and to be vigilant about the inclusion of women.  As I listened to her I felt challenged to ask if there are enduring inequalities in our own church. Perhaps we need to look afresh at aspects of our own inclusion of women in the life and decision-making of the Church.  

What of all this, on Easter Day?  The Easter message is for now. It is for all people. Like the news of the birth of the saviour, it is ‘news of great joy for all people…’ (Luke 2.10), not just some of them.  

And why, here and now, is the Church so slow at times to show the transforming love of the risen Christ? If the resurrection of Jesus Christ, if Easter is indeed, about transformation, since it is about a living faith in a living Jesus, we bring it to bear on real contemporary concerns, such as gender equality in society and in the churches, as well as many other issues as well.   

For example, why did it, in fact, take people so long to give votes to women?  Eleven years after women were given a vote in general elections, in 1929, the Standing Committee of the Church of Ireland announced that it was so divided about whether or not women should be allowed to be members of diocesan synods or General Synod that it could not make a decision.  That didn’t happen until 1952. And it took until 1990 to ordain women as priests. Why were Christians not to the fore in changing things sooner?’ I ask myself. And the same could be said of many issues in their day? Why did it take so long to abolish slavery? And so on. The answer lies in part, in the fact that religious books, including the Bible, without interpretation, are a blunt instrument.  And we sometimes fail to read it all, as surely we must, through the prism, of Jesus, his life and his teaching, for it is he who is ‘the Word’ of God. ‘The word became flesh and lived for awhile among us.’ (John 1.14)

So, reading the timeless Easter story again in this centenary year of votes for women, I found myself drawn, this time especially, to the name of Mary Magdalene and her experience of Jesus. The Communion Motet by Giovanni Bassano, which the choir will sing later, picks up this curiosity (not by arrangement with the Director of Music, but by coincidence): Dic nobis Maria quid vidista in via? ‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?’

As is so often the case with the biblical witness on great issues, as I say, without scrutiny, and interpretation, there appear to be mixed messages.  Jesus himself, as a Jewish boy and man, was brought up, as many of us were too, to see that God created woman as ‘a helper’ for the man. And, at that, she was the one who gave him the forbidden fruit and led him astray.  It was a patriarchal world. Women were the property of men. They belonged to their fathers until they were married, at which point they belonged to their husbands. Even in the ten commandments, women were included in a list of property: You shall not covet your neighbour’s, house, you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife; or male or female slave; or ox; or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.’  This is the world in which Jesus grew up. Flavius Josephus, the Romano-Jewish historian summed it all up when he said ‘According to the Torah, the woman is inferior to the man in everything.’ (Contra Apion II) And much of this, in a patriarchal Christendom was passed down through the ages. Thomas Aquinas, for example, in the 13th Century said ‘As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten,…’  It is the worldview of far too many still.

But what of Jesus, the living Word, who lived for awhile among us, what about him and women?  In today’s Gospel we read: ‘Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.’ (John 20.1) John has her going alone.  The other Gospel writers have other women with her. But it was the women – the women – who are there.

Seeing the empty tomb Mary Magdalene does not understand it, and her instinct is to go to the men and to tell them.  Peter came and looked. We are not told what his reaction was. It was the other disciple who ‘saw and believed.’ But it was Mary who was first to encounter the risen Christ.

During Holy Week I’ve been reading the very popular book, now available in many languages, by the Spanish theologian, José Pagola, called ‘Jesus: an historical approximation.’  He points out that during the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, ‘the women around Jesus generally belonged to the lowest sector of society, and Jesus healed many of them, including Mary of Magdala.’ Most of those women around Jesus had ‘no male protector: defenceless widows, repudiated wives and other single women without resources, without respect and of ill repute… Jesus accepted them all.’ (Pagola, 212)  ‘The presence of women at the table with Jesus was part of the scandal’.

We cannot go in to all the examples here this morning, but suffice to say, as Pagola does, that women see in Jesus a different attitude.  In simple natural ways Jesus defines the significance of women (Pagola, 214). He exposes the double standards of society’s attitudes towards women..  ‘Jesus sees women in a different way, and they can tell.’ (Pagola, 216). Women are presented as models of faith; ‘women followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, and did not abandon him at the moment of his execution.’ (Pagola, 224)  They stayed. It’s no wonder, before Mary Magdalene had met Jesus she had been a ‘ … a broken woman, … finding Jesus meant starting to live.’ (Pagola, 228)

And this strong bond, this very natural and transformative revolution in attitudes and approach is the background to the intimate encounter in the garden that first Easter morning.  She was crying in the garden: ‘’They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ (John 20.13) She turns and sees a man there. It must be the gardener. No! It is not.  He calls her ‘Mary!’ ‘Teacher’ she responds. And so it was that ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.’

This, and every Easter, every day even, as we take up our cross and follow the risen Christ in response to his invitation, we ask ourselves ‘what does this timeless story mean for us, here and now, in our time?’  That question gives us more than enough to think about, and to work through, as we try to be faithful to Jesus, the Word of God, in our day; lots of food for thought and challenge before we meet here again next Easter to hear this timeless story again.

 

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