Would you have believed it? If you’d been witness to the devastating torture and agonising death of your Lord and Master and then arrived at the tomb to find the stone had been rolled away wouldn’t you have been driven to the same conclusion as Mary Magdalene? That someone had removed Jesus’ body? After all grave robbing was common in those days and the stone couldn’t be moved from the inside.
Mary Magdalene, most devoted of followers, most faithful of disciples, sees the stone has been moved and immediately runs for her friends to say their Lord’s body has been taken. John’s account doesn’t refer to any other women at the scene though Mary is reported as saying “we do not know where they have laid him.” Notwithstanding all she knew about Jesus, his miracles, his teachings, it seems the thought that he may have risen from the dead is not within her contemplation. Mary appears resigned to the finality of death. In spite of all Jesus’ promises she and the other disciples come to the tomb expecting death.
We’re not told if Mary jumped to the conclusion that the body had been taken simply from seeing that the stone had been moved or if she had briefly glanced inside the tomb first. If she had, wouldn’t she also surely have seen the linen wrappings which remained and which were later to convince the other disciple that Christ had risen. It is the other disciple, not Mary, who John records as being the first to see and believe.
No explanation is given as to why Mary remained at the tomb after Simon Peter and the other disciple had departed but John repeatedly refers to her weeping so we have a picture of a woman utterly consumed by grief. Indeed the word “maudlin” has its origin in her surname.
Imagine the trauma of watching someone you love suffer an agonising death only then to find their body has gone! How often do we read about the distress of relatives of a deceased being compounded by their inability to recover the body? I imagine Mary dazed and confused about all the events of the previous few days and possibly oblivious to the significance of some of the things now happening around her. After all she appears to register no shock or astonishment on seeing the angels in the tomb when she looks in after the departure of her friends. Did she even recognise them as such at the time?
When exactly did those angels appear? Why didn’t the other disciples see them? Why only Mary?
In John’s account the angels don’t appear as messengers bearing good news. Here they don’t offer Mary any reassurance. They merely ask her why she is weeping and she answers them in her distress.
When she turns round she sees Jesus but doesn’t recognise him. This close friend of his thinks he’s simply the gardener. Was Jesus so physically transformed? Were his wounds not evident to her at that time? Or was she so bereft, so overwhelmed by grief, that the reality in front of her just didn’t register? We see that don’t we sometimes? People so caught up in their grief that they’re unable to take in anything else, unaware of what might be right in front of them. Was Mary blinded by her tears perhaps?
Of course she was not expecting to see Jesus. Meeting him again that morning was just not on her radar. She couldn’t see him because she didn’t expect to. Even when Jesus asks her why she is weeping she fails to recognise him, remaining in a state of unbelief. In grief she has lost the ability to see and think clearly, perhaps illustrated by her suggestion that she might somehow be able to take the body away by herself.
Seeing this poor woman in such distress I can’t help but wonder why Jesus doesn’t just put her out of her misery straight away. Why not say immediately “Mary, it’s okay. It’s me, Jesus! I’m here! Stop crying!”
He surely knows why she is crying. Why does he just repeat the question the angels asked of her? Why prolong things? Why not identify himself instantly?
I’m struck by the contrast with John’s earlier account of Jesus’ arrest when he quickly identified himself to the soldiers in the garden. Why doesn’t Jesus identify himself as soon as possible? Why does he let Mary continue to grieve?
Does Mary have to come to the realisation herself? Does she have to discover the truth in her own way? I wonder, in a time of various new church initiatives, whether that might have anything to say to us about our approach to Mission?
Even for this most devoted of disciples it seems the presence of the risen Lord in front her was too much to grasp. It takes Jesus’ familiar calling of her name for Mary to recognise Him and believe He is the risen Christ. His mere presence for her wasn’t enough. Nor his initial question and that first sound of his voice. I suspect she was bowed down in grief not wanting to look in his direction but then perhaps it was the surprise that this stranger knew her name which caused her to turn and look at him more closely and recognise the person in front her. It is then that she encounters her risen Lord and is able to accept the outrageous and glorious reality of the Resurrection. Then she truly learns that Death is not the end. In John’s gospel it is this faithful distraught woman, the one displaying uncontrolled grief, the one who can only weep, who becomes the first witness to the risen Christ.
The rushing male disciples miss Jesus, but the weeping woman, who could not bring herself to leave the graveside again, even when the body had gone, is rewarded by an encounter with Him.
John doesn’t describe Mary’s reaction. He merely hints at it via Jesus’ response “Do not hold on to me”. I wonder if Mary was so utterly exhausted from weeping that the only way she could express her joy was by holding Him. We’re not told of any screams of delight or jubilation, just the hint of an image of her clutching him tight, a lingering embrace with the one she had thought was lost. Perhaps it was peace, rather than ecstasy that she felt in that moment.
Jesus’ words may sound harsh as he cuts short her time with him. She can’t hold on to him. Her relationship with him is changed. Her world will be different now. Whilst of course she will go on to testify to her encounter with the risen Christ that is not the message that Jesus asks her to convey. What he asks her to communicate to the other disciples “his brothers” is his impending ascension to his Father, to her father. They are all family now.
It seems to me that Mary offers all of us reassurance that belief doesn’t always come easily, even to the most faithful of disciples, and that sometimes we can be so preoccupied with our own distress and problems that we fail to see God in our midst.
We can all have difficulty believing/acknowledging that the same incomprehensible power that rolled away the stone from the tomb can remove the stones that blight our lives and can lift us from our despair.
Each Easter offers us the chance to recognise again the risen Christ right in front of us, to remember that we called to be part of His family and to encounter that power which transforms, and makes things new.
Richard Young (Rector)