By Lorraine Cuddeback
Before I set out on my academic path to a Ph.D., I was training as a lay ecclesial minister in a M.Div. program. Part of this training meant I took three classes in preaching, where each week my classmates and I sought the answer to one key question: where’s the good news?
It’s a deceptively simple question. Preaching, I discovered, is the art of finding hope in a dark world. We had to find Good News in ascetic Lenten readings, in funerals, or even in the simple ordinary time readings when our community was mourning a sudden, tragic death. I’ve been thinking of this challenge a lot as I begin to weave the starting threads of my dissertation. My time learning to preach bears a heavy influence on my theology. I write for a word of hope, for light in darkness — I am looking for the Good News.
But the struggle to find it is still there, and the world feels very dark these days. I need not list the countless acts of violence we are mourning for and praying about. Selfishly, I will admit that these weigh on my writing far less than my own inner fears and anxieties. How am I to write about hope when I hold none of my own?
In preaching class, I would think of Mary Magdalene as my patron. Mary Magdalene, the first to preach the resurrection, the first to bear forth the Good News that defines our faith: “I have seen the Lord.” These days, when I stare at a blank computer screen and a blinking cursor, I return to her who brought to us a word of hope in our greatest darkness.
Despite a long history of her misrespresentation as a repentant prostitute, the Mary of Magdala we know in the Gospels is, first and foremost, a preacher and disciple. Mark names her in the group of women who followed Jesus, using the term diakon to describe the group’s ministry (Mk 15:40-41), which for Mark meant service particular to discipleship and a commitment to following Christ. In Mark, Matthew, and John’s gospel (it is John’s resurrection account we read today for her feast), Mary is witness to both the cross and the resurrection.
I have often thought of Mary in her grief on Holy Saturday. I imagine her restlessness. Grief feels like endless waiting, waiting for nothing and everything all at once. Forced to rest through the Sabbath — doing nothing but think of his death — perhaps she simply needed to do something, anything that morning.
So she went to the tomb. Alone, in the dark. Alone, she discovered the empty tomb, the stone rolled away. Now grief is compounded by anger: What have they done to the body?
I imagine her running back to the city, pushing through pre-dawn merchants setting up their wares, moving through twists and alleyways and squeezing in between buildings. She finds his other friends — also grieving, also seeking comfort. But they do not believe her, not at first. What, they ask? What about the stone?
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”
I imagine how long these moments must have felt, returning to the empty tomb with Peter and John, uncovering only burial clothes in the place where they laid their friend, teacher, lord. It is fascinating that in John’s account, although the ‘beloved disciple’ believes, there is no indication that Mary or Peter do. They can make no sense of the evidence before them.
Mary’s hopelessness is almost palatable. The angels that appear — those who so helpfully explain the meaning of the empty tomb in Mark, Matthew, and Luke — cannot draw Mary’s attention in this narrative. Her weeping overwhelms her sight, her senses, and she offers no reaction to the two men suddenly sitting where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Instead, she only reiterates the problem: “I don’t know where they laid him.” Mary is lost in her grief until Jesus himself calls her name:
She turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. (Jn 20:14-16)
Read the passage carefully, and you’ll see that she turns twice — she turns towards Jesus when she first sees him, but does not know him. Then, despite supposedly looking at him to ask her question, she turns again when he calls her name. This doubled turning is described by theologian Shelly Rambo in her book Spirit and Trauma as a physical sign of recognition, of a change in Mary (pp. 85-87). The second turn is Mary’s transformation from grief-stricken friend, to witness. But this is a witness “through darkness, through her tears, and through her inability to see, hear, and name Jesus face-to-face” (90).
Rambo suggests that Mary’s witness to the resurrection reveals the complexity of life and death. Surely, that Jesus is risen is a joyful thing — but it is a strange thing, too. Rambo writes, “[Mary] points to a different kind of presence, whose form cannot be readily identified….He is there but not there; he is present in a way that she has not known before” (91). Herein lies the difficulty of her witness, of preaching: to put in words an event, a joy, a hope that surfaces only because of the death and darkness that precede and surround it. Mary preached the resurrection, she preached the words that told us death is no longer the final answer — but this does not mean death went away. “Death persists,” Rambo reminds us, “Life is not victorious. There is no life after the storm, but only life reconceived through the storm” (109).
The hope that Mary Magdalene brings to us is not a hope that ignores the violence around us. It is a hope that knows and shares our despair and grief. After the violence and deaths we may experience, it is a hope that remains.
“I have seen the Lord.”
Lorraine Cuddeback is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Notre Dame in moral theology and ethics. She is very grateful for Mary Magdalene’s intercessions over the years in her writing and preaching.