We think of Easter as a joyful time as we read of the women finding the tomb empty and announcing it to the disciples. We imagine that all the men and women who had known and loved and followed and learned from Jesus would be joyful on that Day of Resurrection? Mary Magdalene fully expected Jesus’ body to be in that tomb. When she discovered it otherwise it wasn’t joy that she expressed, she was devastated. Her statement is one of horror, loss, confusion. Why was Mary in tears?
John 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and 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. 13They 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.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
To get a handle on what John wishes us to know of the Easter event we really have to begin late on the evening of Friday, after Jesus’ death on the cross and after his body had been released by the authorities to Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. These two secret followers of Jesus entomb Jesus’ body. Maybe John just didn’t think it important to mention but in his story there were no women present when they sealed the tomb. It crosses my mind that Mary Magdalene, who plays such an important role in his rendition, would not have been able to have found the tomb owned by Joseph’s family had she not already been there. The narratives of the other Gospels tell their own story of the entombment. Luke tells us that unnamed women were present and Mary Magdalene is specifically named in Matthew and in Mark.
When we come to the Easter morning narratives Luke is consistent and doesn’t mention by name any of those who went to the tomb on that early morning. Mark identifies two other women, James’ mother, Mary and Salome who accompany Mary Magdalene. Matthew’s story is unique. His recollection was that it was toward the dawn and another unspecified Mary accompanied Mary Magdalene to the sepulcher and then he includes his novel explanation of how the tomb was found to be open. There was an earthquake and a heaven descended angel rolled the stone away. But in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, before the break of day. On finding it empty she runs back to the place where Jesus’ followers were staying and then returns again this time in the company of Peter and another disciple. Mary Magdalene ran a marathon that morning.
So John’s Easter story actually begins before Easter Sunday. That may leave some of us confused. The description in the text goes: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark… For Jews, (and, of course, Jesus and all of his first followers were Jewish) a day is reckoned from evening to morning, and not from morning to evening as we do it today. Since it was still dark when Mary went to the tomb, it was not yet morning, not yet Sunday, not yet the first day of the week, not yet the Day of Resurrection. Mary’s great desire to touch Jesus, at least one last time, overcame her fear of violating the Sabbath. After finding the slab of stone that sealed the tomb moved away and discovering Jesus’ body missing she immediately ran back to where she knew the disciples to be and made this report “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”
We think of Easter as a joyful time as we read of the women finding the tomb empty and announcing it to the disciples. We imagine that all the men and women who had known and loved and followed and learned from Jesus would be joyful on that Day of Resurrection? Mary Magdalene fully expected Jesus’ body to be in that tomb. When she discovered it otherwise it wasn’t joy that she expressed, she was devastated. Her statement is one of horror, loss, confusion. Why was Mary in tears? Isn’t she supposed to be full of hope? Despite Jesus speaking during his earthly life about his impending murder and subsequent resurrection it hadn’t occurred to Mary that Jesus would have risen from the dead. For Mary Magdalene Easter didn’t begin as a joyful celebration. In the missing body of her deceased Lord something very precious had been taken from her – the grave of one she dearly loved had evidently been desecrated, the body she desperately wanted to touch at least one more time had been taken away and she knew neither the persons responsible nor where or how they may have dealt with his body. I’m reminded of a young woman whose first child was delivered unexpectedly stillborn. I remember being with her in the hospital as she cradled the body of that infant in her arms. She was allowed to hold onto that tiny form until she was ready to give him up. It seems that Mary Magdalene wanted to hold on to her special relationship with Jesus for a long as she could.
After the two disciples leave, evidently satisfied in their own minds by the condition in which they found the linen grave wrappings, we find her outside the tomb in tears, still in shock and dismay. She stands there weeping all the more and through her tears John tells us that she actually saw two angels and not recognizing them as such repeats her horror, loss and confusion to them. Then she sees Jesus – but does not recognize him but takes him to be the cemetery caretaker. He asks her why she was weeping. And once again she shares her tale of woe. He turns her sorrow into joy by speaking her name. Hearing his voice saying her name convinces her that she is in the presence of her Lord.
But now hear Christ’s words to her: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father”. If we take the picture John gives us in a literal way what we have would have been absolutely scandalous to John’s readers; un-chaperoned, a man and a woman are in a secluded place physically embracing. No, that would never be what John intended. If not that was Jesus telling Mary: “Don’t hold me. Don’t confine me. I have more work that needs to be done.” “I need to appear to the other disciples, to give the Holy Spirit and send out the disciples, to appear to Thomas, and ascend to the Father.”
She was overjoyed to discover that everything she had experienced of his suffering and death was for her like a bad dream – here he was again. Holding on to him was to hold onto her special relationship with Jesus.
In one of John Wayne’s westerns a young woman stops a suitor from kissing her and her reason was that for the first time in her young life she was in love and she said: “I’ve never felt this way before and I don’t want it to end”. In Blue Like Jazz Don Miller writes of his spiritual experience: “some of the magic I was feeling” he wrote “began to fade. Early on” he shares “I made the mistake of wanting spiritual feelings to endure and remain romantic. Like a new couple expecting to always feel in love, I operated my faith thinking God and I were going to walk around smelling flowers. When this didn’t happen”, he writes, “I became confused.”
Jesus said to Mary, “Don’t hang on to me.” I’m going to suggest that she had to let go of the temporary and temporal relationship she had had with the now deceased Jesus in order for that relationship to grow into something far greater and far more satisfying. The risen Jesus standing before Mary is not the Jesus who will stay forever. Neither she nor we can “hold on” to him. The permanent presence of Christ will be through the Holy Spirit and will come after Jesus’ ascension. The ascension is necessary for us to have the same relationship with God as Jesus has with God — a relationship mediated through the Christ’s Spirit.
Fred Craddock in his Preaching through the Christian Year, writes: “…even for disciples like Mary, Easter does not return her and Jesus to the past; Easter opens up a new future. The earthly ministry is over; now the ministry of the exalted, glorified, ever-abiding Christ begins. “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (16:7). Therefore, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me” (v. 17). Rather, she is to go and announce his resurrection and his ascension to the presence of God, from whose presence the Holy Spirit will come to lead, comfort, and empower the church.”
Resurrection is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future. Neither Mary Magdalene nor we can hold on to the past after resurrection. We look to the even greater future that God has in store for us through the power of the Holy Spirit. But Count it all joy, brothers and sisters. For Mary, and for Peter and John, and for the rest of the disciples, and for later Christians including you and me, the empty tomb is the cause of our great rejoicing. Because the body of the Lord has not been stolen (cf. Mt 27:64; 28:13-15). They have not taken away our Lord. He is present with us, Emmanuel, and behold, he is even present with us to the end of the ages (Mt 1:23; 28:20).
What do our gospel texts tell us happened to the body? Nothing. The canonical Gospels explain nothing: not biologically, not visually, not audibly. This Resurrection is not to be explained scientifically or chemically. Jesus’ body has of its own simply vanished, right out of the windings of the linen burial cloth. An empty tomb proves nothing. Only later does Jesus appear, and only later does he express his affection and tenderness and hunger and even, yes, he permits Thomas to probe his wounds. The Resurrected Jesus is not a ghost. He remains a person, recognizable to his friends, but not immediately so. The wounds of his murder remain in and on his body even after his resurrection. Just as Mary Magdalene discovered, he is the same, but different.
Jesus’ resurrection says more than a dead man lives again. It is categorically different from his raising of Lazarus, who was destined to die even after Jesus’ raised him up from death. Resurrection is more than dead men walking: it points to the breaking in of God’s rule over all that alienates creation from its creator. Paul writes of this in Romans 6: Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4) And so, the resurrected Jesus responds to our doubts about his presence among us every day of our lives with this question: Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen! (Lk 24:5).