Archdeacon of Southwark - The Venerable Dr Jane Steen
Romans 12:1-12; John 20:11-23
May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer
So, what were you doing twenty-five years ago? Some of you were here. Some of you perhaps can’t remember. I was curled up with a pile of revision cards, for I was in the middle of the undergraduate exams which, twenty-five years on, would result in my standing here today preaching because of something which happened twenty-five years ago. And as I realised that, so I was drawn to two words in today’s gospel reading: she turned.
The word, of course, speak of Mary who stood weeping outside the tomb after the disciples had gone. Looking into the tomb, she saw two angels who asked her why she wept. With commendable self-possession, since most of us are not addressed by two angels every day, she told the truth: They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him’ – and she turned around.
This is remarkable. Would you simply turn away from two angels? I am not sure that I would. Two messengers, if you prefer the less mystical translation? Perhaps. But it seems to me that what Mary really turns from is an empty life, a way that has come to an end, a hope dashed. She turns around in an act of courage and restraint, for what she had found has, without any shadow of doubt, been lost.
We who come here today do so because other women and men turned around. They looked on the church they loved and yet realised that things could be different. They saw, if not emptiness, certainly un-fullness. In a sermon preached here on the occasion of women’s priesting twenty-five years ago, Bishop Wilfred Wood said that
‘the cultural sub-ordination of women, which has crippled the church for so many centuries, however substantial, however widespread, and however traditional, could not withstand forever the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit’
And so it was with Mary. She could not withstand the pull from death to life, despair to hope, end to beginning, and as she turned away from the empty tomb, she saw Jesus.
Or at least, she sort of saw him, looking without seeing. And that too is important. Mary did not turn from desolation to delight in one easy move. She turned away into nothingness, into one of those moments of silent stillness which seem to endure for eternity.
We have all been there. We know that times of grief, times of love, times of decision and times of joy can be met with endless moment moments and long, long days in which there is silence, or at least quiet. Times of great profundity in prayer can also be times of quiescence, times of darkness as well as times of peace and fulfilment. So, Mary’s turning is not a hasty matter, not an inconsequential act – but neither is it a completion.
One of the delights of the encounter between Mary and her risen Lord, which today’s gospel gives us, is, of course, its double turning. Those words with which I began, ‘she turned’ appear first when Mary turned around, away from the tomb and the angels – and then again after Jesus, like the angels, has asked her why she is weeping. Mary, who has looked but not seen Jesus, thinks he is the gardener and asks if he knows where Jesus’ body has been laid. And then, Jesus said to her, Mary – and again, she turned and said to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni. Mary turned away from the emptiness of what she had lost – but only now, when she hears her name called, does she turn to the fullness of the life which Jesus offers.
Well, many of us here have been there too. In one way or another, whether as an explicit utterance or in the depths of our hearts, we have heard the Lord calling our name. It may have taken us twice to turn, slowly, unseeingly, until we finally faced the right way. The Lord may have called us to ministry – to ordination, to Reader ministry for women have been Readers for fifty years this year. He may have called us to teaching, to homemaking, to banking, baking, stacking shelves or market stalls, to cleaning, cooking or caring. His call may be one whose fulfilment is by no means clear – as must have been so for Mary, was for many women first called to ordination, and is for many people still. It may be a call which, for all the joy and the rightness, leads to hardship – and there is precedent there too. But, always, the Lord calls us. Sometimes we hear that loud and clear; sometimes we do not; and sometimes, having heard it before, we must realise that he is calling us again, calling us on, calling us to another turning, another life, another walk with him.
Twenty-five years ago, in this and our other cathedrals around the land, the turning of many men and women came to fruition. In twenty-five years, much has changed: the apartheid regime in South Africa has ended; the smart phone has been invented. Other things have not changed. Arab and Israeli are no more agreed than they were then. We have a long way to go before the world is at peace.
Yet as we come here today we come in great thanksgiving for all that has been and with joy in our hearts to say Yes to all that God’s will shall be. If we take one thing away from today, let us resolve that we will never stop turning. As we come to the altar to receive Christ to ourselves once more, let us ask for his grace always to be prepared to turn and like Mary, to turn again. Let us pray that we will hear Jesus’ voice, calling us at times and in places we least expect and when we are least prepared to recognise him. And let us give thanks for all the women and men whose faithful exercise of their calling in this place across the centuries has brought us here today with joyful hearts and minds knowing that the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.