The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene
Fr. Mac Stewart
The ark of the covenant must have been a marvelous sight to behold. Acacia wood overlayed with pure gold within and without; on its four feet, four rings of gold to hold the poles of gold by which the ark would be carried; on its cover, a mercy seat of pure gold, flanked on either side by two golden cherubim, their faces turned to one another and their wings spread wide to overshadow the empty mercy seat between them. A marvelous sight to behold…but one that was rarely in fact beheld, seen only by the high priest only once a year, and that only after he had covered it in clouds of incense. This was, after all, the place where the LORD God of Israel, the one on whom no one could look and live, had promised to meet and speak with his people, between those two glittering cherubim above the empty mercy seat, in the Holy of Holies.
We’re gathered together today as the Body of Christ to ordain and set apart for the priestly ministry of Christ’s holy catholic Church Caleb Scott Roberts. The ministry to which you’re called today, Caleb, is not unlike the ministry of the priests of old who carried the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of the people of God as they made their pilgrimage through 40 years in the wilderness. You are now to be a steward of the holiest things in the world, the Word and Sacraments of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for a holy people wandering through the wilderness of this world. The chalice and Bible that Bishop Dan is about to hand you are signs of your stewardship, of the hot and holy things that you will preach with your lips and hold in your hands, as dangerous and explosively potent as the Ark itself. You will bear in your hands and on your lips the ministry of reconciliation, the power that has been unleashed in the world by Jesus Christ, the very power that made all things and is now making them all new, bringing peace with God, neighbor, and self by the blood of Christ’s cross. And you will be called upon to wield this power for your people both in the daily and weekly round of ordinary Christian life, and in the most extra-ordinary and intense experiences they’ll ever face: preparing them for baptism, confirmation, and marriage; counseling them through the paralyzing moral dilemma, the persistent sin; praying for them as they walk through the bitter familial battle, the trials of a wayward child, the devastating illness, the untimely death.
One of the things that is most beautiful about pastoral ministry is getting the privilege of stewarding people through these times, the times in their lives when it becomes blatantly obvious to them that they are not in control, that the world is too much for them to handle on their own, that they are creatures and not the Creator, and when all that’s left for them to do is to cling to Jesus. But it’s also more than a little harrowing to be so charged. It’s a tall order to be a shepherd through such treacherous terrain. It’s not for nothing that the exhortation to ordinands in the old Prayer Book did its best to scare the daylights out of them: “Have always printed in your remembrance how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood…And if it shall happen that [any of them] do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.”
Lest, however, you wither in fear at the prospect of this life and work which is before you, the work of stewarding the ark for your people through the wilderness of their lives, consider in these last moments before Bishop Martins puts his hands on your head our gospel reading for today, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,” and as she bent over to look inside the tomb, what did she see? She saw two angels in glittering white flanking an empty slab, upon which the Incarnation of Almighty God himself had rested. She looked in and saw in this cave a new Holy of Holies, the place where the golden cherubim flanked the empty mercy seat where God would come to meet with his people; she saw that the ark of the covenant now is found in the empty tomb. That, brother Caleb, is good news. If you’re about to be made a steward of the Ark, what you are called to carry forth can be summed up in that image of the empty tomb of Jesus Christ.
Both words are important. It’s a tomb. At the center of everything you will do as a priest is a death. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Always carry about in your body the death of Jesus; always hold before your gaze the broken corpse of a beggar who in the eyes of the world was an utter failure. That is the only thing that will sustain your compassion for failures. And you’ll meet a lot of failures as a priest: failed husbands and wives, failed parents, failed students, failed careers, failed dreams. People will even come to you worried that they have failed to be good Christians. And because at the center of our faith is a crucified and buried Lord, you will be able to tell them that the only good Christian is a dead Christian, because it’s only when we’re crucified with Christ that Christ can live within us. Of course you’ll also meet people who don’t seem to care all that much that they’ve failed as Christians, people who almost seem actively to resist the reconciliation with God and with others held out to them in Christ. Often the only reason you will have to love your stubborn sheep is because Christ died for them. But more often than that you will find yourself in the deepest, darkest places in people’s souls and in people’s lives, places that would be too overwhelming for you or anyone else to handle if you didn’t know that Christ was already there before you, joining their suffering to his own. You will never have to worry, Caleb, whether you have what it takes to be a priest, whether your hands are strong enough to carry this ark. Jesus himself is the true priest, who offered himself as the victim, and all you are ever to do as his steward is to make present his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
So with Mary remember that the Holy of Holies now is a tomb. But remember also that it is empty. He is not here, but is risen, as he said. Jesus Christ is alive. That is the only reason to do anything you do as a priest, even as it is the only reason to be a Christian in the first place: if Christ has not been raised we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. And because he is alive, he is the head of the church, the shepherd and bishop of our souls. That’s a great relief to priest and laymen alike: you don’t have to make anything up as you go, because you’re not in charge. Your task is only to be his mouthpiece – like Aaron for Moses – and to speak to his people only what his Holy Spirit gives you to speak. To do that, you yourself must be saturated in his living Spirit. So keep the Offices, make your confession, daily read and weigh the Holy Scriptures, sanctify the lives of you and yours according to the Rule and Doctrine of Christ, and in all of that, seek yourself the living face of the living Christ. Fall in love with Jesus yourself first, and then go and feed his sheep. He will give you what you need to nourish them from the riches of his grace. He will give you the words you are to speak, both when you’re speaking to him on behalf of your people (in psalms and supplications and prayers), and when you’re speaking to your people on behalf of him (in preaching and teaching and pastoral care).
Of course, it may not always be obvious what it means that the tomb is empty. Mary, after all, was weeping outside the tomb. You and the people you serve will both often be weeping there with Mary. There will be times when things are as dark and confused and sad as they were for her in that moment. Think about what had brought her to this point. After a life of shame and sin, lived under the possession of seven demons, she had found in this Rabbi healing, absolution, clarity, wholeness, the peace of a body and soul reconciled to God. Now all signs told her that that new life had all been a fantasy, a naïve dream that the harshness of the world had buried for good. She couldn’t bring herself to hope again that love had conquered sin and death, that her beloved teacher was anything now but a corpse.
You will encounter people like Mary. You yourself will be Mary from time to time. The darkness will appear to swallow all the light, and the weight of sin and sorrow and loneliness and fear, all the demons who prowl around for the ruin of our souls, will feel like too much to bear. When that happens, when you encounter Mary in your pews, in your office, in the confessional, at the graveside of her beloved, or on her own deathbed, tell her to turn around, and to hear the voice of her Lord, her Master, her Teacher, her Rabbouni, saying, “Mary; I have called you by name; you are mine.”
Our Lord Christ now calls you, brother Caleb, to speak these words in his name. Bind up wounds, loosen chains, heal the sick, cast out demons. Tell the people that the tomb is empty, that the Lord is risen indeed, that he has now gone into heaven to prepare a place for us, and that by the Mysteries you will hold in your hands we can now do what Mary so longed to do – touch the transfigured body of our Lord, and thereby ascend to his God and our God, to his Father and our Father; to whom with the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, world without end.