Mary Magdalene

Whom Do You Seek? John 20:1-18

Fries Memorial, Easter 2010

Introduction: The Lord is Risen! The Lord is Risen Indeed! With that proclamation, we have said all that really needs to be said on this Easter morning. For the past week, we have gathered each night to listen to Jesus’ words and to walk with him from the Temple to Golgotha. Each evening we have joined the disciples whose courage failed in the time of trial. Each evening we’ve looked at the wounds of Jesus and the agony of Jesus and have bowed our heads in shame and fear. But today we rejoice in the Good News that death and suffering do not have the final word; that God is life.

I know that many of you went through the city playing your horns to announce to all the sleepers that Great Sabbath is over. This is a day to celebrate and make merry even though we are sleepy and tired. Those of us who were able rose before dawn to gather on God’s Acre to proclaim that the one who was crucified is alive and will die no more. The one who tasted the bitterness of death is our living Savior. The one who conquered death and the grave is our Lord. As we faced the rising sun, we sang our praises to the Son of God, and we shouted to the four winds that we belong to him. The gates of Hades have been thrown down, and the time of mourning is past. We can enter into the joy of our Lord, rejoicing that God has given us a new future, a new horizon. We rejoice because we go forward with Jesus to a far, green country where fears are banished and love reigns.

Resurrection stories The Lord is Risen! There is no doubt this has been the central message of Christianity from the earliest days of the church. The earliest writings in the New Testament, the letters of Paul, begin with the assurance that Jesus has risen from the dead. Everyone who was baptized in the early church claimed with one voice that the Lord is alive. Early Christians disagreed about many things, but they all professed their faith that Jesus is alive and he is Lord of the church.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, when we open our Holy Week Readings to the Easter readings and see that there are so many different accounts of the resurrection in the gospels. Each of the gospels tells a different story of Easter, but they all agree that Mary Magdalene was one of the first to go to the tomb of Jesus after the Sabbath. According to three of the gospels, Mary Magdalene was accompanied by several women, but in John she is at the tomb alone. It appears that John knew about the other women, but he likes to focus on individuals in his gospel. It is only in John’s Gospel that Jesus appears privately to Mary Magdalene and they have a conversation.

Magdalene We don’t know much about Mary Magadalene, but her name indicates that she was from the town of Magdala, near Capernaum in Galilee. Thus, she probably had followed Jesus all the way from Capernaum to Jerusalem, just like Peter and Andrew and John. There is no doubt that she was a disciple of Jesus even though she was not counted among the Twelve. Apparently she did not have a husband or children for she is called by her own name. Luke says that Jesus had healed her of seven demons, which meant that she had suffered from several severe maladies before meeting Jesus. This explains why she was so devoted to Jesus.

Later tradition confused Mary Magdalene with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke’s gospel; therefore pictures of Magdalene in Western art show her as a redeemed temptress, but there is no evidence in Scripture to support that idea. The biblical portrait of Magdalene is that she was a disciple of Jesus who remained devoted to him even when the men fled. She stayed with him throughout the crucifixion when others fled. She was there with Joseph of Arimathea when took the body and laid it in the tomb. She remained faithful to Jesus even as her world was shattered by the cruelty of the empire and the derision of the crowds. She endured that awful Sabbath with the others who mourned.

And she rose before dawn after the Sabbath to go to the tomb. I imagine that she had not slept all night but keep the vigil of grief. John does not tell us why Magdalene went. The other gospels say that the women went to anoint the body. Primarily, of course, she went to tomb mourn just as we go to the grave of a loved one. Earlier in John’s gospel we saw a crowd of mourners at the tomb of Lazarus four days after his death. One rabbi in the 2nd century claimed that mourning is at its height on the third day (Brown, II:982), and many of you can attest to that. There is no reason to doubt that Magdalene and other female disciples went to the tomb of their teacher to weep and gnash their teeth in the outer darkness before the dawn.

John tells us that Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she was naturally frightened. Rather than enter the cave herself, she ran to Peter and the Beloved Disciple with the shocking news that the grave had been disturbed. Magdalene may have thought that the authorities removed the body in order to erase Jesus’ memory from the earth or to prevent his tomb from becoming a sacred shrine. Perhaps someone wanted to use the body in magical potions since Jesus had performed miracles. We don’t know why someone would take a body, but Mary probably feared that the humiliation and abuse of Jesus had not ended with death. She ran for help.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple According to John, Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb to investigate. The other disciple is identified simply as the one Jesus loved. This was the disciple who sat closest to Jesus at the Last Supper. This was the disciple who took Jesus’ mother into his own home and cared for her. This Beloved Disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first, but then he stepped aside so Peter could enter the tomb. When Peter crawled into the tomb all he saw were the linen wrappings and the cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The body was gone, but the shroud remained. It was unlikely that grave robbers would have left the clothes behind, and through the centuries commentators have pondered this detail about the burial shroud. We don’t know for sure, but John was probably contrasting the resurrection of Jesus and Lazarus. Lazarus emerged from the tomb still bound by his shroud. He was still marked by death, but Jesus had defeated death and was freed from mortality. He was the new Adam.

But Peter did not yet realize the significance of what he had seen. All he saw were cloths in a cave. It is extraordinary that the gospels record that the chief of the disciples did not believe at first that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Each of the gospels report confusion and doubt on the part of the disciples, and we can certainly understand that. Many people still face Easter with doubt and confusion, not daring to believe in the possibility of redemption and restoration.

Why Are You Weeping? John tells us that the men returned home, but Magdalene stayed by the empty tomb. I think this is one of the most beautiful scenes in Scripture. A devoted follower of Jesus stays by the tomb grieving, fearing that his body has been desecrated. Her tears remind all who mourn that tears shed in love are sacred to God. She looked in the terrible emptiness of the tomb to confirm her fears, but this time she saw angels where previously there had only been discarded grave clothes. Unlike most people who are awed and frightened by the sight of angels, Mary was still overwhelmed with grief. The sight of angels dressed in shining clothes cannot distract her from her desire to be near the body of her teacher and Lord.

She repeats her words to the disciples. She tells the angels that someone has taken the body away and she doesn’t know where they’ve laid him. For a brief, horrible moment Mary stands before the abyss of loss bereft of all comfort. Even the light of the angels cannot penetrate the night of her soul. They have taken him away and I do not know where they have laid him. Mary is not consoled, but she turns away from the tomb and looks toward the sun that is rising in the East. She turns away from the darkness of the burial cave toward the open vista that is tinged rose and orange. But her eyes are still blurred by tears and despair. She turned away from the angels, and then she saw Jesus.

We expect this to be a moment like we see in the movies. Music swells as she realizes that the Lord is not dead, but the Gospel of John is more realistic than a movie. Mary turns and sees Jesus, but she does not recognize him. She mistakes him for the gardener. The idea that Jesus could be standing before her instead of lying in a grave was too extraordinary to believe. It must be the gardener. Keep in mind that revelation comes at unexpected times from unexpected people.

Jesus asks Mary why she is weeping. It is a simple question that a gardener might ask any mourner. Who are you weeping for? This is a question that binds all humans together despite the differences of race or culture or language or age. We see someone in the cemetery weeping and we know why they are there. Who are you weeping for, we should ask. It is a gentle question that invites us to tell the story of one we loved who has left us for that country where we cannot follow. It is a question that honors life and love and loss. Who are you weeping for? It is the question that unites us because all of us have someone to weep for. It is our tears of grief that mark as truly human. The question is the same for all of us, but each of our answers is different.

For the third time Mary says that someone has carried the body away. We can feel her panic growing. She no longer has the one for whom she weeps, but she at least wants his body. She wants something to see and hold. She wants to show him respect and love. She wants to bring Jesus back to the tomb where she can touch him one last time. Mary’s desires here are so universal, so understandable. Think of how families long to have the bodies of their loved ones returned from Iraq or Vietnam. Think of how we gather among the graves of our family members each Easter. We want a marker, a physical reminder of someone we loved. All Mary is looking for is something to hold on to while the universe spins out of control. Peter was no help. The angels were no help. So she turns to a stranger and pleads for the body. We can see her sobbing at the entrance to the cold tomb, desolate in grief, desperate for comfort, isolated in her misery.

Whom Do You Seek? But Jesus asked Mary another question. Not just for whom are you weeping, but for whom do you seek? Who is it that you are looking for? This is the fundamental question of John’s Gospel. This is the reason that there is a gospel to begin with. Who are you looking for? This is the question that we should ponder this beautiful Easter morning in the year 2010. Who are you seeking for? We Americans tend to ask questions like “What is it you want?” Or “what can I do for you?” But Jesus asks a more important question: who are you looking for?

Are you looking for the one who loves you with an infinite, passionate, suffering love? Are you looking for the one who died for you and went to hell for you? Are you looking for the one who pronounced forgiveness with his dying breath and who calls you into a deeper, richer life?? Are you looking for the one who blesses you with his life, sufferings, death, and resurrection? Whom do you seek when you enter the doors of this church? It is the question Jesus asks of each of us who would be his disciples.

Rabbouni! But then she hears a single word: “Mary.” Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes his voice. The parable of the Good Shepherd is acted out here. “My sheep hear my voice and I know their name.” This is the theme of the Moravian hymn “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” It was not the physical body of Jesus that Mary recognized, it was the sound of his voice. It was the realization that she was known even when she did not recognize her Lord. She heard a single word and her world was transformed. The Word made flesh was now the Word resurrected. Mary! He knew her name. He called to her and she responded. He called her away from the terrors of the night and brought her back to the land of the living. This was the one she was seeking: the one who knows her by name and calls her to follow him.

Mary called to Jesus by one of his many names: Rabboni! She does not call him King or Messiah or even master. Rabboni is an Aramaic word that a student uses for a beloved teacher. It is an intimate form of the word Rabbi. John translates the word just so his Greek readers get the point. In the resurrection Jesus remains the Rabbi, Teacher. When Mary hears his voice she knows that he is the same man she had followed for so many miles. He was the same man who had healed her and given her a new future. Rabboni!

Do not touch! We do not know if Mary fell at Jesus’ feet or embraced him, but Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. The Greek is translated in various ways. In Latin it became Noli tangere – “Do not touch me” and is the subject of many paintings and sermons. People have interpreted Jesus’ words in widely different ways. Some have claimed that Mary was forbidden to touch Jesus because she was a sinful woman, but that defies the whole meaning of the gospel. Others have speculated that she could not touch Jesus because the resurrection was still in process; he had not yet assumed full corporeal form. But that sees far too speculative. I think that Raymond Brown’s translation of the phrase as “Do not cling to me” is better than “Don’t touch me.” We could say, “Do not hold on to me.”

Mary had been looking for the dead body of Jesus to hold on to. Now she had the living Lord, but she still wanted to keep him close to her. Her reaction is like Peter wanting to build tabernacles when Jesus was transfigured. It is the reaction we have when we meet Jesus. We want to hold on to him, cling to him, keep him close to us, and call him our personal Lord and Savior, but we are forbidden to keep his as our idol, our possession. Jesus called Mary by name, but he was not hers to keep. She still had to let him go because the work of redemption is still not complete.

Jesus told her: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus came from the Father so that we might be united to the Father. We are sons and daughters of God because the resurrected Christ is our Lord, our Teacher, our Friend. By letting Jesus go, Mary was able to be united with him more fully. By letting go, Mary was free to go out into the world filled with new life and hope. Mary Magdalene was the first apostle sent to proclaim the good news that the Lord is Risen!

Conclusion: Who are you seeking this Easter? Turn toward the rising sun and listen. You may hear him call your name. But be prepared. You may be asked to embrace life and go out into the world as a messenger of hope, like Mary.

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  • Azrael  On July 6, 2012 at 4:40 am

    I may have something new (from 18 th century, that is) to show you. A stone witness of Mary Madalen…not only in the Baptism of Christ, but also in the “Pentecostes”…and the Annunciation.

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