The resurrection story in the Gospel of Matthew and of John begin some what the same but immediately go in dramatically different directions.
One sentence in, Matthew pours on the pyrotechnics. Suddenly there is a great earthquake and an angel descends from heaven and rolls away the stone before their very eyes of the gathered Marys. The angel’s appearance is like lightning, his clothes glow, the guards are so afraid of this angel that they start shaking and become like dead men. Before their bodies hit the floor, the angel is laying everything out for the Marys—I know you are looking for Jesus, he’s been raised from the dead, look, he is not here—now go tell the disciples he has been raised from the dead. He will meet you all in Galilee. The Mary’s take off running to tell the disciples when suddenly, Jesus appears out of nowhere and says surprise. They recognize him immediately and grab hold of his feet. Jesus repeats the instructions the angel gave them and the Marys are off again. The women in Matthew’s resurrection narrative are passive. They stand back, they watch, they run. The glowing, lightening, earthquake producing, shake inducing angel seems to be at the center of this narrative.
The Easter narrative in the Gospel of John forms around the solitary figure of Mary Magdalene. She has no special powers or abilities—just regular human abilities, like being present and feeling grief. She doesn’t witness the stone being rolled away, like the big reveal at the end of a magic trick. Her first words to Peter and the unnamed disciple is not—“He is risen!” It is, “He is gone.” Matthew’s story is all about power. What we read in the Gospel of John is about being present.
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. John 20:1-18
The focus of the Gospel of John is on one lone distraught woman, so much so that she ignores the requirements of keeping the Sabbath. She didn’t wait until day break to seek out the tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid. Somehow having gotten directions from either Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, it was still dark when she was trying to find her way to the tomb. She didn’t come to anoint Jesus’ body. That wasn’t necessary given the elaborate burial provided by the Joseph and Nicodemus. She came because she was unable to let Jesus go. This was Mary of Magdala.
We know a couple of things about her. Luke names her among the followers and financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry. We are told that she had been freed from the power of seven demons. That seems to indicate an especially aggravated or violent form of possession. Three Gospels name her as a witness to Jesus’ crucifixion and all four Gospels make her a witness to Jesus’ resurrection.
Formalized by Pope Gregory the Great the western church intentionally tarnished her reputation by identifying her as the unnamed anointer and adulteress whose ointment used on Jesus’ feet was once used to scent her marketable body. There is no justification in Scripture for such slander. Jesus called her by name and told her to give the news of his resurrection to the other disciples. There is no evidence that she was anything other than the apostle to the apostles as the Eastern church has revered her. Mary was the first evangelist.
When in the pre dawn darkness she locates the tomb, the stone that covered the entrance had already been removed and it was empty. She makes the sort of assumption you or I might make: Some others had taken Jesus’ body. She ran and found Peter and the unnamed disciple and told them what she had discovered and then followed them as they ran to tomb.
The unnamed disciple got to the tomb first. He looked in but didn’t go in. He observed that the linen wrappings were there but no body. Peter went directly inside. He saw the linen wrappings and noted that the head wrapping was rolled up and sat aside. Then the first of the two went in “and” the narrative says, “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But what did they believe? Both men evidently “believed” Mary. They believed that the body was gone and they did not know where it was. They could, simply, confirm what Mary had said as indeed true. Like Mary, they probably believed that someone had stolen the body of Jesus so that his place of burial could not become a shrine for his followers. “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he (Jesus) must rise again from the dead”. They did not yet believe in the Resurrection. The men went home broken, depressed and defeated.
I wonder about their lack of care for the safety and lack of compassion for this colleague of theirs who, clearly distraught, had awakened them to the changed situation. They leave her there alone, in tears, in the burial grounds, and it was barely dawn.
Standing outside the tomb Mary bent over to look in. Instead of linen burial wrappings she sees an angel on each end of where Jesus’ body would have been laid. They speak. “Woman, why are you weeping?” In answer she said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She doesn’t yet understand what has transpired. She still believes that Jesus’ body has been stolen. She has no expectation that Jesus would be resurrected. For her it was simply insult added to injury.
Angel’s evidently aren’t very bright. They knew Jesus had been resurrected. They can’t understand Mary’s tears in a time, at least for them, of celebration. “Why are you crying lady?” She had come mourning. Tears were already there before she found the tomb empty. Being unable to conceive of a resurrection she was obsessed with the where Jesus’ body had been taken.
She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body wasn’t recognizable to her. He asks her: “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” Still not recognizing him the scripture says that she thought him to be the gardener. “Sir, she asks, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” This is the most profound moment. Here is the beginning of the Resurrection faith. He speaks to her, calling her name. In that moment it was all clear to her. In turn, she responds, “Rabbouni!” First, this expression shows sincere respect. Second, it acknowledges that she was not merely a student but a devoted follower. Her coming to his tomb early in the morning spoke to her commitment. And her tears when she thought his body had been stolen demonstrated her love for her teacher.
For Mary, the unthinkable could now be thought. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. Jesus tells her “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. Jesus is in transition. Later his followers will be able to touch him but not hold him. Holding on to the incarnate Jesus would keep Mary in the past. She had to let go in order to move into the future. The risen Jesus standing before Mary is not a Jesus who will stay forever. Neither she nor we can “hold on” to him. The permanent presence of Christ is through the Spirit whom Jesus and the Father will send after Jesus’ glorification. Jesus’ glorification involves being lifted up into heaven. The ascension is necessary for us to have the same relationship with God the Father as Jesus has with him — a relationship mediated through the Spirit.
The resurrection isn’t the conclusion. For most of Christian history the ascension has been downplayed because it forces us to refocus our understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus. It’s the ascension that brings to fulfillment Jesus’ promise about the future shape of the Kingdom of God.
The resurrected Jesus gives Mary some specific instructions. Listen: But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Jesus uses a term of endearment to those always known before as disciples or followers. He calls them “my brothers.”
Mary Magdalene went and told Jesus’ brothers, “I have seen the Lord” This first of all evangelists doesn’t talk about what she believes. She doesn’t try to convince others of the veracity of what she has to say. Hers’ is a testimony of her experience.
Jesus’ resurrection did not return Mary and Jesus to the past. Rather it opened up a new future. Jesus’ ministry as a human person ended. The scene was set for the ministry of the ever-abiding Christ to begin. Recall how earlier Jesus said: “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”. He said that those who put their trust in him will do even greater works than Jesus did himself, “because I am going to the Father”. Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me”. 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.”
Easter is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future. Mary couldn’t nor can we hold onto the past. Our calling is to walk, comforted and directed by the Holy Spirit, into the future that God has for us.