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Mary Magdalen and the Tears of Renewal and Reformation
This is part three of a mini-series focusing on the stories of women in the Gospel of John. In case you missed them, see part one regarding the woman of John 8, and part two regarding the Samaritan woman of John 4. Today the focus is on Mary Magdalen in John 20.
Reading, re-reading, and yet more re-reading of the Fourth Gospel has led me to increasingly symbolic readings of texts like John 20:1:
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
Mary is every Christian, man and woman. She is a model for all who must, like her, “witness emptiness…[and] to testify to fulness. Both must be witnessed to, for both darkness and light are prayer.”1
At the same time, women in the church today know the experience of Mary and the absence of Christ much more acutely than men. We are hearing the voices of women today. There is no going back to the days before #MeToo and #ChurchToo.
Mary’s second testimony to the fulness and light of the risen Jesus can easily overpower the equally necessary witness to the empty tomb and the absence of the Messiah. Three times John has Mary repeat the unknown location of the Lord’s body:
So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:2)
They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20:13)
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20:15)
If John 20 was mainly and only about the spectacularly joyous miracle of Jesus rising from the dead, surely John would have instead emphasized and repeated Mary’s simple message “I have seen the Lord” (20:18). Not to pit these against each other. There is a fulness and depth, a bottomless well, to this Gospel, and each time, season and culture will need different droughts drawn from those deeps.
Today, on October 31, 2023, the day when Protestants celebrate the Reformation, I believe the message we most need to hear is already being preached by women who are saying “I don’t see the body of the Lord.”
For what else is a woman saying who bravely reports her spiritual and sexual abuse by her pastor? She is, in the words of female mystic Adrienne von Speyr, witnessing to emptiness. Absence. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves? Because I haven’t found him where I was led to believe he would be” (Song 3:3).
Speaking of Mary Magdalen and the other women who visited the tomb in the synoptic gospels, von Speyr writes,
What they are going through is a very original form of the Dark Night of the Soul.2
This dark night of the soul is, because of John’s symbolic narration, a collective experience. Jocelyn McWhirter is helpful here:
For John’s original author and audience, [Mary Magdalen’s] exemplary role may be reinforced by a representative one. They might have recognized her as the conventional woman who represents the people of God or as the bride who symbolizes the faithful community. They might even have transferred to her the representative value of the Song’s bride.3
I believe that is how John is intended to be heard, read and understood. And yet, the unique representative value and potential in the voice of a woman is what the church so often ignores.
It seems significant that John does not include the disciples’ reaction to the women recounted by Luke:
 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles,  but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them (Luke 24:10-11).
Why that omission, especially if John had access to the Synoptics or the traditions behind them? Could John be signaling, however obliquely, to the possibility that men are not deterministic misogynists, robots doomed to doubt feminine testimony? He doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Mary Magdalene. However, John explicitly narrates Thomas’ skeptical response to the testimony of the other disciples. So the absence of any mention about the disciples reacting to Mary’s testimony stands out. John doesn’t say they believed her, but he also doesn’t say they didn’t believe her. That suggests, to me at least, that John intentionally avoided portraying any disrepute about Mary’s message.
And what was her message?
Through Mary Magdalen and the bride of the Song, God has spoken to his people. In Revelation the bride and wife of the Lamb joins the Spirit in voicing the ecstatic invitation to the eternal wedding supper. That invitation is repeated for all generations of the people of God, and it is invitation that presupposes awareness of the message of darkness.
Before the message of fulness comes the message of emptiness, absence, and darkness: where is the body of Christ to be found today? Will Christ be found where he has been expected to be? Will we have eyes to see that he is and has been absent in profound ways, painful ways, traumatic ways? Will we see women’s tears as prophetic tears calling the church to repentance, recognizing the absence of Christ from so much of modern Christianity? Will we, like Jesus with the water of Cana, allow the tears of women to be transformed into the new wine of renewal?
Women are testifying and providing answers to those questions, and if we want reformation and renewal, it is imperative that we listen. That we attend with compassion and, like God’s angelic messengers and like Jesus himself, ask, “Women, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”
Special Thanks to Female Teachers
I owe this week’s reflection toand her comments on this post which connected me to an immensely important source for John’s Gospel, entirely unknown to me. That source is the Song of Songs.’s The Sexual Reformation has also been incredibly helpful. As Anderson was the first to show this to me, here is her comment from a few weeks ago (regarding my post on the typological symbol of darkness in John):
The comfort you find (and give to us) in John's gospel is also in Song of Songs. Two night scenes (chapters 3 and 5). In the night, like Mary Magdalene in John 20, his Beloved longs; she rises; she seeks. In Song of Songs 3, again like Mary, she finds him and clings to him. In Song of Songs 5, she does not find him, but rather is found, beaten, and bruised by the nightwatchmen of the walls, who rob her glory, her veil. When she is questioned by the daughters of Jerusalem why she endures this for him, “What is your beloved more than another beloved?” [Song 5:9], she is able to give an extended poem in praise of his beauty, her beloved and friend, leading them to search with her. Suddenly night appears gone. Light has come, and she hears his voice praising her, “my dove, my perfect one.” Abuse in the night can come because we seek him, and yet far from deterring us, it carries us toward the forever dawn. It gives us an opportunity to extol to others his beauty to our souls. It stirs in us longing for the spiced mountains where the lamp of the Lamb never fails and the night, with its watchmen and walls, are gone.
Wow. A woman abused by those charged to protect her while searching for her beloved. I don’t know if there’s a more fitting image in scripture to represent the pervasive experience of women in the church throughout history. If you are interested in some additional exegesis and biblical theology helping make these connections to spiritual abuse in John’s Gospel, you can read more here.
Quotes from Alicia Britt Chole
“Denial—however polite or well-intended—has no regenerative power.”4
“Losing an illusion opens the way to gaining a reality. Removing false ideas clears a path to finding truer ideas. The soul-deep sadness of disillusionment challenges and then refines and purifies our beliefs with the fire of Truth.”
“The loss of illusions is a positive thing; it is evidence that we are growing.”5
Is proclamation of the gospel, traditionally conceived, sufficient for renewal and reformation? Or is there a precondition for us in the 21st century, as with Luther in the 16th century (and so many other examples), to listen to the voices of the spiritually oppressed, controlled and abused? Would the Protestant reformation have happened if Luther’s message hadn’t resonated with the pervasive discontent of the people at large with their church system and leaders? Where would we be today if the voices of women during the reformation like Argula von Grumbach had not been silenced, if women for the last 500 years were given greater voice like the bride of the Song of Songs? I believe those questions are not just historical but answerable. The answers can be found by listening to women today — their voice, experience, testimony, wisdom, knowledge and insight — and seeing how the Spirit speaks through them to the churches.
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Adrienne von Speyr, Three Women and the Lord, p. 51.
Adrienne von Speyr, Three Women and the Lord, p. 42.
Jocelyn McWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah and the People of God, p 134.
Alicia Britt Cole, Night is Normal: A Guide through Spiritual Pain, p. 5-6.
Night is Normal, p. 17, emphasis original.