John 20:1-18 April 17, 2022
The earliest Easter artwork, in the 4th century of Christianity, shows two Roman soldiers keeping watch at the tomb; one is asleep and sees nothing, and the other is awake and staring at the empty tomb. I love the mystery in this artistic portrayal. If you aren’t watchful and awake, you aren’t going to notice anything. You must look, be aware, seek, and be fully present if you want to experience the Risen Christ. These early Christian icons do what great art is supposed to do, help us perceive mystery, and open our imagination. It’s not only about what happened, but what is happening. Are you napping through the resurrected presence of Christ (like soldier one), or did you catch a glimpse of wonder?
In our Gospel reading, Mary Magdalene is awake. She arose before sunrise, the world still dark. The disciples are in bed, fearful and hiding. Were they contemplating how to move on with their lives after defeat and disappointment? Only Mary has gone to the tomb. Why does John have only Mary there to meet the Risen Christ? Why is she so important?
We can glean a few scraps of information from just twelve verses of the Bible that mention Mary Magdalen. (which is more than we have for half the disciples.). There are so many Marys in the New Testament, so she was called Magdalen, being from the vital fishing town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee.
In later Christian history, she was called a prostitute. This was a terrible error. In 591 CE, Pope Gregory I preached and likely conflated the story of the women with the alabaster jar, who washed Jesus’ feet at the end of Luke 7, with Mary Magdalen in the opening of Luke 8. The unnamed woman washing Jesus’s feet was a “sinner.” Somehow that became promiscuity. Medieval Christianity told elaborate tales of Mary Magdalene’s wealth, beauty, and promiscuous downfall. A gentler portrayal made it into Jesus Christ Superstar, a Mary Magdalene sang, “I don’t know how to love him…and I had so many men before, he just one more.”
Gregory’s error wasn’t refuted until 1969 by Pope Paul VI. Pope Francis then elevated Mary’s memory in 2016 (six years ago) to have her feast day in the liturgical calendar. Because Mary Magdalen is the first person in John’s Gospel to proclaim the resurrection, Francis called her “the apostle to the apostles.” (Imagine having your name besmirched 500 years after you die, and it takes 1400 years to reverse the injustice!). Mary Magdalen is the only person in all four Gospels to witness the crucifixion, be present at the empty tomb and be the first to meet the resurrected Jesus. (Imagine, it’s not Peter or Mary, the mother of Jesus, but Mary Magdalen who is to be the apostle to the apostles.)
There are two references in Luke and Mark that say Mary had seven demons cast out. I have no idea what that means. What we might call mental illness, ancient people believed in demonic possession. They didn’t have the DSM-5, but they knew when someone’s life seemed taken over by outside forces that caused great distress. Perhaps saying she had seven demons was a how severe distress was named in Jesus’s time, with one demon for every day of the week. Luke’s Gospel (8:2-3) notes she was with those who traveled with Jesus and supported the ministry “out of her means.” Today we would call her a major donor to the church. She was grateful for being released from her anguish and followed Jesus and supported his work.
This is Mary Magdalen, the most prominent witness of the crucifixion of Jesus and the empty tomb, who is now stumbling in the dawn. The first thing she notices that morning is the stone removed from the grave. Notice she does not say, “Alleluia, He is risen!” She thinks someone stole Jesus’s body. There is no dignity for the dead. It is a sacrilege that dishonors life itself. She is outraged and heartbroken. She rushes to tell Peter and the disciples.
Peter comes carrying the guilt of failure and cowardice after his three denials. He is no hero at the tomb either. He sees the grave clothes neatly folded, but John doesn’t tell us what Peter makes of it all. Then Peter just goes home. He doesn’t look for the body or comfort Mary; he just leaves her in the garden crying. I can imagine Mary thinking, “Why did I even bother to tell this jerk? He is no help again!” She must deal with this by herself. She investigates the tomb for clues, and now there are two angels there who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She is at a grave! The body is stolen! Why do you think she is weeping? I love how she is unimpressed by the two angels. She is single-minded in her quest for the body of her Jesus. She turns to the gardener, “Have you taken the body? Tell me!” The gardener also asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Why is everyone so concerned that I’m still grieving when we should be finding Jesus’s body? Can’t they let her cry?
Do you have a hard time with all this weeping? I get teary-eyed when other people cry, and I don’t like to cry. I’m the one who is supposed to hold it together. I’m not supposed to cry; there is no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks would say. But some things can’t be held together. Sometimes hot tears need to flow down our cheeks as our anger burns against the injustice of death, the killing of innocent people, against cruel and senseless violence. We need a good cry, the kind that soaks a box of tissues as we wipe away all the snot from our noses and taste the salt on our lips. Sometimes we really should not be holding it together.
Falling apart and having a good cry can be grounding. What if Mary’s weeping is a sign of true discipleship? She is not the silly woman crying when she should be rejoicing at the resurrection. She is the one who has had the strength to be fully present for the complete catastrophe of evil and injustice.
Who else should be the first to see Jesus on the other side of death and share the news that Christ has arisen? I believe John’s well-crafted Gospel is trying to tell us this truth. The weeping woman is the disciple who has the strength to stay present. She has borne witness, not flinching at any cruelty. The courage to allow our hearts to break is one of the ways we see the Risen Christ in our midst.
The point of this question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” is not to rush past the grief but acknowledge it. I know Easter is the grand celebration of our faith. Alleluia, the strife is over. So many alleluias. But it is empty if we have not taken the time to name and acknowledge our grief. If fact, it may even short circuit the healing process. This is why we have Lent first.
Ed Jong, a writer with The Atlantic, has had profound incite over the last two years of COVID. His most recent piece comes from dozens of interviews of people who have lost family members due to the pandemic. Jong puts the loss in perspective, noting that 1 million deaths are almost four times as many people as American soldiers killed in Vietnam. The death toll is approaching all the combined military deaths in the history of the United States since the Revolutionary War. People interviewed for the article revealed the unique challenges of grief from COVID deaths. Many were not able to be present to comfort or say goodbye as people died. They wondered if they were responsible for transmitting the disease.
But how society is responding is even more painful. When someone hears your family member died of COVID, the first response isn’t to console but to ask questions like “Were they vaccinated? Did they have a pre-existing condition?” If someone grieves, does it matter that we know these answers? Grievers also said the attitude that COVID is over, or the whole thing is a fake, and don’t bother with masks or vaccinations was further isolating them in grief. If we blame people for their death or cover it up, the weight of grief intensifies.
It is so profound to have weeping Mary Magdalen at the center of Easter discovery. Mary, the woman who had survived a demon for every day of the week, becomes the apostle to the apostles.
What breaks through Mary Magdalen’s grief, which runs deep enough she cannot recognize Jesus at first glance? Jesus speaks her name. “Mary.” Nothing else, just Mary. This is the moment of unveiling, the recognition that Christ is present. I think John intends for us to remember Jesus saying, “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” “I am the good shepherd, and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I know my own, and they know me.” Mary hears her name and realizes Christ is already there. The body is not stolen because she knows his voice.
And then this strange ending when Jesus tells her not to hold on to him. Just as they are re-united, he is going away again? She must let go, even in joy. Even for Mary Magdalen, the resurrection isn’t a miracle cure that makes everything OK. But Mary is called by name by a living Christ, the Good Shepherd.
We all have things we hold that we are learning to let go of. We bear many griefs that pass only in their own time. The newspapers are just as bad today as yesterday. But it is Easter, and you are called by name. It’s Easter, and new life is possible. Christ is Risen; may he rise in you. Alleluia and Amen!
You open with a mention of early Christian art. What is your source for the artwork? Thanks!
I went to look for the reference, and realized I don’t have the book on my shelf. We recently moved, so it is likely in storage for a few more months. Anyway, the photo was in John Dominic Crossan’s book called “Resurrecting Easter.” Its a remarkable book on discovering how the early church and the Orthodox Church portrayed Easter and how art shifted over time. I especially liked the two soldiers, one asleep and one awake, as a call to us all to be the one who is awake. Thanks for the comment, Todd