St Cuthbert, Philbeach Gardens

29th March 2009 [Passion Sunday]

The Good Friday Letter

Jesus Christ expects his disciples to use their imagination. That’s why He spoke in parables – stories which require us to think about earthly things and then apply them to heavenly ones.

Passion Sunday, which is today, gives us an opportunity to think imaginatively about what happened on Good Friday. On Good Friday itself we think liturgically. The plainness of the Liturgy and the removal of all ornaments from the church are designed to appeal to our feelings. But Passion Sunday encourages us to put ourselves in the place of those who stood at the foot of the Cross.

St John identifies four or five people who stood by Jesus at the foot of the Cross on Calvary. They included His Mother, St Mary Magdalene and St John himself. So here is an imaginary letter – what we would call a Letter of Condolence which might have been written by Mary Magdalene to Jesus’s Mother, the Virgin Mary.

As you listen to this letter, bear in mind two facts. First, the letter itself is fictional; and, secondly as St John tells us, on Good Friday none of Jesus’s followers had ‘understood what rising from the dead might mean’. The fact that you and I know what happened on the Third Day makes it difficult for us to appreciate how devastated they must have been by the catastrophe which befell Jesus only a few days after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. So try and put yourself in the shoes of our Lady and Mary Magdalene on Good Friday evening: you have seen Jesus die on the cross; you’ve gone home; and know nothing about Easter.

This is what Mary Magdalene wrote to Jesus’s Mother:

My dear Mother Mary,

I am writing to express my deep sorrow at the suffering which you must have gone through as we stood together at the foot of the cross this afternoon. It is a tragedy to lose a young son in the prime of his life, but the more so when you know, as we both do, that he was completely innocent of the charges for which he was put to death. It must be like having a whole part of your life suddenly torn out violently leaving a raw and gaping wound which you know will never completely heal.

I feel moved to tell you about how I first met your son, and the wonderful transformation in my life he brought about. Though my grief at his death can never compare with yours, I too have suffered a devastating loss by his death, and sharing this with you will, I hope, make my words of sympathy for you ring more true than such expressions of condolence usually do on such occasions.

I was twelve years old when my parents both died within a few weeks of each other. I was therefore brought up in Bethany by my elder sister Martha and my brother Lazarus who were eighteen and twenty-one respectively.

They were very strict in my upbringing. Martha was very house-proud and Lazarus a serious-minded student. We went to synagogue every Sabbath, and I fear that I was little credit to their dutiful care for me. They took their life very seriously and by the age of sixteen I found myself longing for more excitement. Life to me seemed to be nothing but Do-s and Don’t-s.

My sister used to take students in from the Jerusalem University, to help our finances, and I soon found myself listening with great excitement to their tales about life in the Big City. When they invited me to go out with them I longed to be allowed to do so, but Martha and Lazarus wouldn’t hear of it. They didn’t say why, but the subject of sex was never allowed to be mentioned in our household.

So the inevitable happened. One of the students seduced me, and persuaded me to run away from home with him to the Big City. We found some digs and lived together for a fortnight during which I experienced all the excitement amongst the students which I had been longing for.

Of course Martha and Lazarus were furious and when they found me dragged me straight back home and called in the local elderly Rabbi. He gave me a thorough scolding and threatened me with all sorts of things, but the result was the exact opposite of what he intended. I was all the more determined to go my own way.

So, after a few weeks in Bethany I ran away from home again. The boy who seduced me dumped me immediately. I became a prostitute in Jerusalem and gradually sank lower and lower. and I learnt the hard way that men who exploit women have no respect for them as persons. What I had imagined to be Love proved to be only a costly illusion.

Then one day I met your son. There was a whole crowd of my colleagues whom people called ‘publicans and sinners’ (tax-collectors and prostitutes in reality) who had discovered that this new Teacher called Jesus, so far from despising us, seemed to understand ‘where we were coming from’. He talked about God’s love for his ‘lost sheep’ and ‘lost coins’ and seemed to be inviting us to follow him.

Well, to cut a long story short, something instantly ‘clicked’ in my mind when I went with them to hear him talk. I realized that the Love he was talking about was the kind of love I had been looking for all along. After I had told him who I was and admitted to him what I had done, he asked me if I would like to join the two other women Salome and another Mary who had followed him from Galilee and help to look after him and his apostles on their travels. But first, he took me back home to meet my brother and sister. They were so amazed at the change which had come over me that they readily agreed to my following him too.

Now, alas, he is dead and gone. But during our short acquaintance he taught me that the virtue of chastity enables people like myself to learn far more about Love both for God and our fellow-men than the world at large understands about it.

I just cannot imagine how you and I will be able to cope with life without the support and guidance of your son. But then you, dear Mother Mary, are a saint; I was (and still am!) a sinner.

So when I think about you and your sufferings I call to mind how he answered the woman who exclaimed ‘Blessed is the womb which bore you’. He replied ‘Yes indeed – but blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’.

As I call to mind some of the wonderful things he taught me (and many others, of course) I realise that it was his teaching that has enabled me to become a saint-in-the-making too. I am sure that if I can only remain faithful to his teaching, a way will open up before me of which it will be said ‘this is the Way, walk in it’.

Mother Mary, please pray to our Heavenly Father for me, that the good work which your son began may continue till it becomes in me as perfect as it already is in you.

Your loving admirer

Mary of Magdala

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