Call Us By Our Names

By Rowan Williams

Jesus, we’re told, cast seven devils out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2). It’s difficult, after 2,000 years, to know what exactly people understood by a phrase like that. But the one thing it communicates really powerfully is that Mary Magdalene, when Jesus first met her, was a person whose life was in pieces — at least seven pieces. Mary Magdalene was somebody who, presumably because of acute mental illness, didn’t really know who she was. Somebody who didn’t understand what she was doing, why she was saying what she said. Somebody who didn’t know where her center of gravity was. And Jesus cast the devils out of her. Jesus saved her from being in pieces, and put her together.

Most of us experience something of that sense of being “in pieces” at some time or other in our lives. Most of us know a little bit about that sense of not quite knowing why we’re doing what we’re doing or saying what we’re saying — not quite knowing where our center of gravity is. We find ourselves playing roles, taking on identities without quite meaning to, protecting ourselves by pretending this or that — pretending to be holier than we are, or, for that matter, pretending to be unholier than we are (there’s a competition in pretending to be sinful as well as a competition in pretending to be holy).

It takes a long time to get to the middle of who and what we are. It takes a long time for us to connect with our real selves. And I think we all know that when people give us advice before an interview or a difficult event of some kind to “just be yourself,” it’s the hardest thing in the world. “Just be yourself” — but it takes most of us years to begin to learn how to be ourselves.

So, Mary Magdalene stands at the extreme end of a problem that most of us know a bit about. Those of us who’ve been through the agonies of mental illness and breakdown know more than most about what it’s really like to lose any sense of having a center; any sense of being a “self” that hangs together. And today it’s impossible for us not to think of what mental illness and disorder does in tearing people’s lives apart, sometimes at the cost of life itself.

To think about the life of Mary Magdalene and her encounter with Jesus is to think about somebody who is put together by love, drawn together by grace, and given an identity that, for the first time, makes sense. Jesus seems to have had — and why should this surprise us? — a unique gift in this respect. Do you remember the story at John 4 of his conversation at the well in Samaria, with the Samaritan woman? She goes back, and she says to her friends: “I’ve met a man who told me everything I ever did.” I’ve met somebody who saw me whole, who saw everything about me, and somehow showed me how I could really come home to myself, to the center of who I am.

And surely that is why, in the story of the resurrection as we’ve heard it proclaimed this morning, Mary recognizes Jesus when he simply says her name, “Mary.” It takes no more than that. He doesn’t have to say, “I’m Jesus, and I’ve risen from the dead.” He just says, “Mary,” as if to say “Remember? You were in pieces, and you didn’t know who you were. And I called you by your name. You are mine.” We sang the words just a few minutes ago: “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine” (Isa. 43:1).

“Faith” means looking to Jesus in the hope and the confidence that he will call us by our names. That he will see us whole, everything about us — the good, the bad, the clear, the muddled — and simply speak our name, and say “It’s all right. I’ve called you by your name. You belong to me.” Like other bishops, I find it very moving indeed to conduct confirmation services. And in our modern confirmation service, the form that we use echoes those words. “Mary, John; God has called you, and made you his own,” we say to the person being confirmed — like Jesus saying that simple word, “Mary.”

When we confirm somebody into the life of Christ’s family, the life of Christ’s community of friends, we echo Jesus, saying: I know who you are. I can hold your life together. I can make sense of you. I’m not going to ask you to hide bits of yourself. I’m not going to ask you to pretend to be better or worse than you are. I am not going to ask you, says Jesus, to cut off parts of yourself that you’re too embarrassed to face. I can see it all. I love it all. I can work with it all. He said to her: “Mary.” The seven devils disappear. The fragmentation of our lives can be healed and taken away. We can get in touch with what is deepest in us: God calling each one of us into existence, in our glorious difference, speaking our names.

As Christians, when we proclaim the power and splendor of Jesus’ resurrection, let us never forget that this is not simply looking back to a great spectacular event 2,000 years ago. Jesus rose from the dead and went to heaven, isn’t that wonderful? Well, yes it is. But the important thing is that this is a Jesus who continues to call each one of us by name, a Jesus who does, now, exactly what he did with Mary, exactly what he did with the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of St John’s Gospel. He is, today, here and now, the person who looks at each one of us and says: I call you by your name. You are mine. It’s possible for your life to hang together, it’s possible to be healed, it’s possible to grow into what God really wants for you. And all you have to do is stay in my company. That’s the mystery — the miracle — of the resurrection. Not a miracle in the past, but a miracle in the present: the miracle that the man who said these things to particular people in Galilee, 2,000 years ago, is alive to say them to you and me this morning.

In a way, and don’t misunderstand me, it’s a pity there are so many of us here in church. I mean that, even with the best memory in the world, nobody is going to be able to go along the Communion rail and address each one of you by name — though I have seen it done in little congregations, and it’s very moving. But as you come to Holy Communion this morning, I hope you will at least be able to imagine a Christ who, as the bread and the wine are put into your hands, says to you your name, your personal name, perhaps even your nickname. Because he is the one who puts your life together; who connects you with the center of your reality.

And because we take his life, his love and his energy into ourselves, that of course is what we take out into our world. For us to proclaim the resurrection, remember, is not just to talk about something in the past. We are now to do what Jesus did. We are to go and call people by their names. We are to go and proclaim to people whose lives are in pieces: it’s possible for it to come together. You don’t have to live in fragmentation. You don’t have to live with your life in little heaps of rubbish all over the floor. You have a name. You have — let’s use the bold, old word — you have a soul. You have an integrity in God’s eyes, and we will respect you in that. We will treat you as a unique person and we will love you for what you are.

God loves us for what we are: his creation, his children. It doesn’t mean, of course, that he then just sits back — he loves us into changing; He loves us into growing. And of course, as with Mary Magdalene and so many others in the New Testament, he loves us into repenting, into turning our lives around. But the important thing is that he loves us, and that he begins with that simple word: our own name, the one thing that’s unique about us. He goes right to the center and He works from there. He tells us that, as we are, God thinks we are infinitely precious, infinitely important. Can we speak that good news of the resurrection to people around us?

So often, people think that coming to faith, or coming into the Church, is a matter of trying to squeeze into a tiny, cramped space. As if to take on the responsibilities of Christian faith, or to join the Christian Church, meant contorting yourself mentally, and even physically, into strange positions. Because, after all, we do get into strange positions in the Church sometimes, squeezing ourselves into something smaller than we really are. And that’s a very sad reflection on how the Church appears sometimes. The Church ought to be like this amazing building, somewhere where we come in and breathe more deeply, where we look around and say: I have room to be myself before God, and all the people who are here around with me are here to help me be myself before God, as I am here to help others be themselves before God.

So is that a gospel of the resurrection, a story of good news we can truly share? It will be if that’s what we’re hearing ourselves, if that’s the good news we are taking into our own hearts, hearing our names spoken. Putting our lives together is a lifelong job. It’s not simple. But what Jesus gives us is not a set of quick answers, but the hope of his faithfulness, his promise to be with us all through. Whispering into our ear, you might say, our true name, whispering into our ears what we might be, whispering the words of friendship and welcome and acceptance.

As we celebrate Mary Magdalene, as we celebrate the first great witness of Jesus’ resurrection, we must remember what it will be for us to be witnesses to the resurrection in our own way and in our own generation. Telling the story of the earth‑shaking miracle of Easter morning, but above all, making that miracle real as we understand that we are loved and held together and given the grace to grow, and as we give one another that grace of growing and knowing that we’re loved and held by the risen Jesus forever.

The Rt. Rev. Rowan Williams has served as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12) and 35th Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge (2013-20).


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