Sermon to mark the 10th anniversary of the ordination of women
Sunday 16th May 2004A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in Canterbury Cathedral.
'Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her'
'Tell them', he said to me. He didn't say whether they'd listen, but I can make a guess. Why should they, after all? When have they ever?
So what's he doing, asking me to tell them? There'll be some of them who won't want to hear. They know what's written and they want to be obedient: women don't give evidence; end of story. I can sort of cope with that, because it isn't personal, they're not just talking about me. But it seems to belong in a world where things stay the same, where God has settled what he wants to say and left it there for us, carefully wrapped up. And I worry that that's a world where this morning doesn't happen, it just doesn't happen, where bodies stay wrapped up...What would make the difference, I wonder? Perhaps if God himself walked with them on a hot afternoon and presented his credentials in full and explained personally to them that it was all really exactly what anyone might have been expecting all along. He'd walk with them and tell them that everything was according to the Scriptures; and then maybe they'd see...And they'd see that all that had been obvious was a sort of shrunken version of what really is. It would be like a burn, I guess, like a sudden streak of pain across the flesh and the heart.
But it's harder with the ones who know me better, the ones who knew him better. They remember who I was, they remember the seven devils. When they listen to me, they think, 'Yes, she lived in a world of terror and fantasy and pain all those years, she's had a life that's been so damaged, you can't really be surprised if she's still only half in touch with normality.'
They'll say that and mean it kindly, of course. It's true; I lived with devils, I was being eaten alive from the inside for years. Normality? I don't know what it means really. But which of us does? I think most people are being eaten alive most of the time, but they don't notice it. I just didn't have the defences, didn't have the language or whatever. I just gave in, and let my mind fill up with strangers, with voices accusing me and screaming at me. Perhaps it's what most people only know when they have nightmares, the feeling of being completely helpless, completely despised and hated. Only I had it all day and every day.
I lived with devils. I thought I was infectious, dangerous for everyone. They remember that. So do I. Sometimes it comes back for a moment and I'm not sure of anything. Last Friday I thought it would come back for good. I looked at him, as he was dying and thought, 'I did that', I made him suffer and die. I thought all he'd said to me would just melt away and I'd be left with nothing except the voices telling me I was dangerous and poisonous and I'd better kill myself quickly.
It wasn't quite like that, it turned out. I woke up on Saturday feeling nothing at all; didn't even feel enough energy to kill myself and went through the day half-awake. And I suppose I was still half-awake this morning when we started out.
Well, I'm awake now.
So what happens if he tells you to tell them and all they can see is someone who's bound up in their minds with devils and poison and infection? Bad enough being a woman to start with – they'll know exactly what you can and can't do, they'll know that you're the kind of human creature that changes and varies with the seasons, so that you don't know when you might be polluted if you touch them. But worse to be a woman whose life has come apart and been put together again very slowly, very precariously. And they all know and are sympathetic and serious and kind...
I used to listen hard to him, you see. I found it was when I listened that I knew I could come together again, because it didn't depend on me but on him. He spoke to me, all of me, as if I were one person, with a heart and spirit, with a future and a task to do, one person who could hear and see and who could make others happy and angry and human and holy. His words made me all over again, created me all over again.
Not everyone knows what that's like. So not everyone knows the real secret about him. I didn't dare say it to them; but I knew that when I heard him, I heard God, nothing less, God making the world out of nothing. I've been listening in at creation; I can hear the echoes of the first moment of all things, the whistling at the edge of the universe coming to me like a shepherd whistling for the sheepdog.
'Tell them', he said.
Tell them that this morning he was there, doing what he'd done for me and all the others so many times. He said my name, and I existed; he called me out of my grave, like Lazarus, just by saying my name. I knew I was there again, and it hurt because I had to see all the terror and the guilt again; but I saw it with his eyes, as all coming together to make a person, to make a gift to be given to the world. I asked Lazarus what he felt –stupid question, no-one else would have been so tactless, I suppose. He just said, 'Worse than you can imagine. More than you can imagine', and that was all. This morning I thought for a moment I knew what he meant.
He's told me to give him to them by my words, by my heart and flesh and actions. He's said, 'You are real enough and true enough to carry me to them; you can be me for them, you can give my gifts'. As if I could tell them and then say, 'This is him, this is his flesh and blood given for you.'
All because he's created me over again, called me by name out of death. He's been down there in the land where death reigns and he's stepped out of it as if he were stepping up out of the Jordan river, with darkness and pain streaming off his body like water and drying in the sun. And I walk back to the city now, with the sun growing hotter on my face and the tears drying, carrying in my hands, in my mind, in these words something so precious that I can't quite bear to think of it. The new beginning. The new creation.
I can't make them listen, I can't make them believe. They'll only see when they too have heard the echo of creation, when they have been brought out of death and understood who it is that is there with them, with his torn hands and feet. And what I have to do somehow is to make them see him, not me. After all, it isn't me who is alive now, but him, and me only in him and because of him. Perhaps someone with better credentials than me will have to find the words for that some day, and then they'll see it.
When Peter and John pushed past me to run to the tomb, at first I was hurt. As usual, they want to forget about me, they haven't got the time to stay and hear how I feel at the thought that even his body has gone. I walked back after them, slowly, by the other road; the others were too wrapped up in their own terrors to notice I'd left. And when I got back to the tomb, there was no-one at first. I wondered vaguely what the two men had found that had sent them off back so fast. But in a way they were right; they couldn't just have taken my word, they had to be willing to see for themselves.
Perhaps that's what I should say: just see for yourselves. If you don't believe me, just go to that empty place that's full of indescribable life and wait until you hear your name called. What else can I say? What else have I got to give? Nothing but the news that he is alive and that his voice calls you all. I can't say, 'Listen because I deserve to be heard'. I know better than all of you why it might not make sense to listen to me. I can't say, 'Listen because I have the same expertise as you, the same skills, the same memories'. I know that doesn't change anything. I can only say, 'Listen to him. This is his presence, his body, that I carry. Nothing else matters. The only reason I can speak to you at all is that I know I am new-made by him. But don't take my word. Go where he is and see.'
In a moment I shall be climbing the stairs again to the locked doors. I'm not a young woman any more and my steps are slowing down and my breath is short after all that has happened this morning. I shall knock on the door. And if they let me in I shall tell them what he said, I shall tell them what he has done, I shall tell them who he has made me. And perhaps they will believe. And if they don't, he is there still; no door is forever locked to him now.
© Rowan Williams 2004