The gospels provide us with slight variants in the narrative of the discovery of Jesus’ resurrection. A great deal of time could be spent considering the burial rituals of the time and culture, the precise reasons that Jesus’ body may or may not have already been anointed and wrapped, and the considerations regarding the Sabbath and how following the law may have prevented the burial rituals from happening until the following morning. But the resurrection day account found in the book of John is almost as much about the reactions and interactions of Mary Magdalene and the disciples as it is about Jesus!
Mary is on the scene first, even before the sun rises, but not before the son rises. Perhaps there is notable reason to speculate she has come to complete the burial ritual, but there is something odd about this prospect if she expects the tomb to be sealed with no way of rolling the stone away on her own. No, on John’s account, Mary’s early morning visit might be more akin to any pilgrimage made to the grave of a dearly departed loved one. If you have not experienced this yet, you will. I have spent plenty of time sitting on graves. My grandpa took a lawn chair out to the cemetery where my grandma was buried, every day for a year, and just sat there all day long. I have seen countless pictures of children playing on graves, widows lying prostrate on the graves of their spouses, and families even having picnics while taking care of the gravestone… and the grass… and the flowers. As humans, this is a natural ritual. It is a thing we do. We know the dead are not really there. We know it is “just” a body. But somehow there is some sense of comfort in drawing near. We do, indeed, expect the body to be there when we go. Oh, Mary… what a shock!
Upon realizing that the stone has been removed and Jesus’ body is missing, Mary does something really smart. She runs to get witnesses. This is particularly important, because if you also take into account the words of the Gospel of Matthew, you know that there was some concern that the disciples would steal Jesus’ body and create the greatest ruse of all, a lie of resurrection, a deception worse than the first.[i] Guards had been posted to avoid such a scenario, and undoubtedly their reputations were on the line this first Easter Sunday morning. It might seem laughable that they would blame this distraught female follower of Jesus for the disappearance of his body, but even if the possibility was less than plausible, any story… even a story of Mary dragging Jesus’ body away in the middle of the night… was probably better than whatever consequences the guards might now face. I feel as if I can imagine her running to the disciples while shouting, “Peter and John, come back me up!” And they do come. And they also run. In fact, they run something of a race! They come and they see and they believe, finally realizing what Jesus’ words about being raised from the dead actually meant – that he would be raised from the dead![ii] And then these disciples, Jesus’ closest friends, do the strangest thing. They go home. What? Mary, on the other hand, remains riveted to the idea that they cannot seem to find Jesus’ dead body, and I find that strange, as well, considering the disciples seem to have accepted his resurrection. You would think one of them would go looking for Jesus’ live body!
It’s all strange until we stop to consider the very real and multifaceted complexities of grief. None of it makes any logical sense. Mary, Peter, and John have all experienced not only death, but traumatic death, over the past few days. They are all three running… literally running… around the graveyard, trying to find something to ground them. We are resurrection people! We wake up on Easter Sunday morning and shout, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” But we have had more than two millennia to read the story and adjust to the reality. These closest friends of Jesus have hardly had two minutes!
So, Peter and John go home, and having reconsidered what they have been through in recent days, I think that is a very appropriate and acceptable response. Mary stands at the opening of the tomb and weeps, and having considered what she has been through in recent days, I think that is a very appropriate and acceptable response, as well. Grieving people are allowed to retreat in silence or to let raw emotion publicly wash over them in the midst of impossible circumstances. We need to get this right, as the Church. There is not only one appropriate way to grieve.
But wait. There’s more. It’s Easter! Isn’t this supposed to be when the grieving stops?
Perhaps Mary is so consumed by her grief that she does not recognize him for who he is. Perhaps the tears are blurring her vision. Perhaps his new body looks different. At any rate, Mary has conversations with angels and with Jesus, himself, during which everyone asks her why she’s crying, and not only does she remain fixated on the idea of finding Jesus’ body, but now she actually does offer to just take his body away, herself, if only someone will point her in the right direction (which makes me think those guards could have gotten away with pinning the whole thing on her).
It is not until Jesus says her name that Mary recognizes him for who he is, and there is something beautiful on the other side of that, because it is this moment in which it is clear that Jesus also recognizes Mary for who she is.
I think verse 17 is the hardest part of this entire passage. I have always felt this way, but it is, perhaps, especially difficult after a year (plus) of so little human touch. Mary Magdalene might be our first example of what it is to grieve deeply without the connection we crave, to suffer even the loss of loss in a time in which we are distanced and often unable to recognize one another’s faces. Paraphrased, Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me. Rather, go! And also, I’m going, too, but somewhere else.” I reiterate. That is so hard – maybe too hard.
But Mary is strong. Weeping, distraught Mary, drowning in a puddle of tears with no one to wrap their arms around her mourning body is really strong. We know this, because even in the midst of her pain, she does exactly what Jesus asks her to do. She goes. She announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and thus becomes the very first to preach the gospel of the risen Christ![iii] Well picked, Jesus. Well done, Mary.
He is risen! He is risen, indeed! May we be forever thankful for a love that conquers death, and may we be forever honest about the grief that sometimes brings us to the point of revelation that allows us to share the ways in which we see Jesus, as well.
[i] See Matthew 27:64
[ii] This is often the ways of the disciples, not fully realizing that Jesus tended to mean what he said, but in their defense, Jesus also had a bent toward parables and metaphors!
[iii] John 20:17