Mary Magdalene bears witness to the risen Christ.
In one way or another in all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is presented as an icon of
devotion to Jesus. In every gospel, she is the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus,
whether individually or collectively with other women.
In the following passage from the Gospel of John, we find Mary at the entrance to
the tomb, which might have looked like the two photos. At the left is the entry
to a first-century tomb still accessible in the Holy Land. Note the large circular stone
on the right side of the entry that slides back and forth to seal the tomb. Below right
is the view one gets after stepping through the entry inside the tomb, where the bodies are then placed into individual slots.
After Mary discovers that the corpse of Jesus is missing from the tomb, we pick up
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me. For I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her (John 20:1-2, 11-18).
The first part of this passage depicts Mary weeping uncontrollably, grieving the
death of Jesus.
• She is so distraught and blinded by grief that she does not recognize the risen
Christ when he engages her, mistaking him for the gardener (though this might
be an ironic rather than mistaken identification, since John seems to place the site
of Jesus’ tomb in some kind of new “garden” of Eden).
• Mary is searching for the physical body of Jesus she once knew, that is now
• This part of the story prepares us for accepting a new mode of Christ’s risen
presence, rather than through the physical body of the earthly Jesus.
The second part of the passage focuses on Mary’s “turning” to Jesus, which happens
• First, Mary turns physically to face Jesus after he asks her what she is looking for.
• Then, she “turns” a second time when Jesus calls her by name (“Mary”). As a
member of the flock of the “good shepherd,” she knows his voice and responds
to his call, referring back to the passage at John 10:3-5, 14.
• This is not a second physical turning toward Jesus, since she is already facing
him, but a spiritual conversion which marks a change in her perspective.
• She has begun to adjust to his living presence in a form that bears no resemblance
to his earlier physical appearance.
The third part of this passage tells us how Mary becomes the first person to
encounter the risen Christ and bear witness to his resurrection, although she has to
let go of the ways in which she once knew Jesus in his earthly life in order to receive
him anew as risen Lord.
• At first, Mary tries to touch Jesus, as if he is still present in the form of his
resuscitated human body.
• Jesus tells her not to hold on to his physical form; after all, the nature of their
relationship has now changed with his resurrection.
• His question to her (which we have translated: “have I not yet ascended?”)
pointedly suggests that he is no longer physically present on earth as before.
• In fact, Jesus tells her to go to his brothers and sisters to tell them that he is
ascending to their Father.
• From this moment forward, Mary and the other disciples will encounter the risen
Christ in their midst in a different form – one that is in some ways physical
(though not always immediately recognizable), and in other ways an
embodiment that seems more spiritual than physical (able to appear and
disappear at will and pass through the walls of locked rooms).
Questions for reflection
• Do you have certain expectations or pre-set conditions for encountering the risen
Jesus in your life that you might need to give up in order to recognize and
receive him as he actually comes to you today?
• In what ways do you bear witness to others about the resurrection of Jesus as
you have experienced it in your own life?
Risen Lord Christ, you were glorified on the cross and raised to new resurrection
life: help me to let go of my preconceived ideas about how I encounter you in the
world today; open my eyes to your abiding presence in my life; and strengthen me
to proclaim your resurrection to anyone who will listen. Amen.