Poor Mary Magdalene. For centuries she has been portrayed as something of a scarlet woman, but these days folks don’t much like that portrayal. The revisionists like her much better as a powerful woman, a woman who would have been in charge, except all those other misogynist apostles, especially that pushy Simon Peter, just shut her out. But, hey!, who needs history. All you have to do is rewrite it as you want it. One creative novelist, without any historical basis at all, portrayed her as Jesus’ wife. Others simply settle for a little behind the scenes affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
In the Bible, however, she’s far more like the female counterpart to the Apostle Paul. “Once I was lost, but now I’m found.” Paul the former terrorist, becomes the great apostle to the Gentiles after his meeting with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
So Mary Magdalene, from whom St. Luke tells us Jesus exorcised 7 demons… (and I doubt that a woman possessed by seven demons would be the solid pillar of the community that the revisionists want to make her)…this St. Mary, once Jesus stepped in, she too, like Paul, is lifted from her once-destructive life to become an apostle, in fact, the apostle to the apostles, as we heard it in the Reading today.
Now if the Lord Jesus had changed your life as much as He changed Mary Magdalene’s, you might begin to understand the love and the gratitude she felt for Him. While St. Mary Magdalene wrote no epistles, like St. Paul, telling of her gratitude, her love for Jesus and His grace toward her, it certainly must have been equally as profound as Paul’s.
Mary Magdalene came to the garden alone, while the dew was still on the roses. She came early in the morning, after the Sabbath was over and while it was yet dark. She came to visit Jesus’ grave, as many a grieving person has done.
While the other Gospel accounts refer to Mary Magdalene along with the other women coming to anoint Jesus’ dead body, St. John focuses only on Mary Magdalene at the tomb.
When she arrives she finds that the stone covering the entrance of the tomb has been rolled away. Obviously distraught that the tomb is open when it should not be, Mary goes to tell Peter and John that the tomb is empty. But an empty tomb is not yet the full good news.
The two men come running. John, the beloved disciple, being much younger, gets there before Peter. But soon enough Peter comes barreling up, dashes headlong past the younger John right into the tomb. Like John he quickly sees that it’s empty. Then Peter sees the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face. It was folded up neatly, and lay separately, by itself.
Many explanations have been attempted concerning that neatly folded napkin. Some persuasive, many very fanciful. The simplest thing is that it was clear that whoever unwrapped Jesus’ body…it was not grave robbers. Grave robbers would not have taken the time to be so tidy. The two men see and go back home.
They go back home because for St. John, it is significant that Jesus does not appear either to Peter or to himself, John. Jesus appears first to her who had stood by the cross with His mother. To her, who had first discovered the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene is to be the first eye witness to the resurrected Jesus.
Why? It doesn’t say. But women do play pivotal roles in the telling of Jesus’ story in John’s Gospel—His mother at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery whom Jesus pardons, the sisters Mary and Martha, the three Marys who stood at the cross, the Virgin Mary, her sister Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene…and now here, Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Each is significant.
Mary couldn’t bring herself to leave, nor could she stop crying. Finally, she has to see for herself what Peter and John had seen. And so she stoops and looks in the tomb. But now…at either end of the shelf where Jesus’ body had lain sat an angel, one at the head and one at the foot. It’s St. John’s way of tying the Old Testament into the New. This scene is reminiscent of the mercy seat, the gold covering of the Ark of the Covenant, which sat in the temple behind the curtain, in the Holy of Holies.
The top of the Ark had two gold cherubim, facing each other, at either end. The space between them was called the mercy seat. It was there at the mercy seat that the high priest, who entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, would sprinkle sacrificial blood to atone for the sin of all the people.
By this allusion to Yom Kippur, St. John declares that the Risen Christ is now the mercy seat of God. The Jerusalem temple has served its purpose. The Risen Jesus is the new Holy of Holies, the tabernacle, where God meets mankind with His love and mercy and forgiveness. The sacrificial blood of Jesus has been sprinkled there and atoned for the sin of the whole world! The temple of Jesus’ body has been destroyed, but, as He said, after three days, He has raised it up again!
But Mary Magdalene…she doesn’t know any of that. The two angels prepare the way for mercy, asking her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” But she’s thinking that someone stole the body.
Then, outside the tomb, she sees Jesus Himself. But still she doesn’t recognize Him. He too asks very mercifully, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Now Mary can no longer restrain herself. “Why does everyone keep calling me ‘woman’ and ask why I’m weeping? Isn’t it obvious?! His body is gone! Where is it?”
It’s only when Jesus calls her by name that His lamb finally hears her Shepherd’s voice. “Mary,” He says. “Teacher!” she exclaims. Overjoyed, Mary wants to grab hold of Him and not let go ever again. It’s as if Mary wants to freeze the moment like Peter did on the Mount of Transfiguration, like Mary and Martha did at Bethany when their brother Lazarus was raised. Mary Magdalene wants to hold on to the Risen Jesus. But it’s not to be!
That’s not what happens with Easter. Easter is not a treasure to have and to hold. Easter is a gift to be given away…a gift that must be given away, lest it perish. The Risen Jesus sends Mary to do just that…give it away to the others. She is now the first apostle sent to the other apostles with the news. No longer that the tomb is empty; but now she tells them, “I’ve seen Him!”
And now you know…you know that Christ’s tomb is empty and Jesus lives. You know because you have heard, the Word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation has struck your ears: “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! So now, you have work to do. Easter sends you to your brothers and sisters, to your friends and your neighbors, to all the weeping people who cannot see, who cannot hear that there is any good that has not been stolen out of this world.
Someone you know is as grief-stricken as Mary Magdalene. Someone you know has had their life paralyzed by grief at the death of a loved one, or by the loss of something they valued as much as life itself. Someone you know has no clue as to what Jesus’ resurrection means, what it means that He calls each of us by name. Someone you know does not understand how anything can become new because of Easter. Someone you know…perhaps even you.
Easter makes you an apostle. Whether by word or by deed we approach those who are weeping, literal tears or only figurative tears. And those weeping folks may react kindly to such mercy or more like Mary Magdalene erupting in her grief. But either way Easter now manifests itself in how you live, and in how you talk about this life, this world, and all the daily messes with which we must all contend.
Easter has now made you an apostle, because you too have heard: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!