John 20:1-3, 11-18
“Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So 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.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” 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, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”
Today marks the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, next to the mother of Jesus the woman most mentioned by name in the gospels, and yet a woman who remains a mystery.
What we do know of Mary is that Jesus cast out seven demons from her. The torment she must have felt shows the strength of her grateful devotion. Mary is one of several women – the other two being Joanna and Susanna— who traveled with Jesus and financed His ministry, so we know that she was a woman of some means. She was most likely from Magdala, a small fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She was present at the crucifixion, and she was the first to the tomb after the resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us that there were women present in the Upper Room at Pentecost, and although the Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name, we can be certain Mary Magdalene was among them.
We picture Mary as very young, but since she was an independently wealthy woman, it is possible she was a widow, perhaps much older than the other disciples, and Jesus himself. There is so much mystery surrounding her that she has inspired curiosity over the centuries.
In 591, Pope Gregory I identified Mary with the unnamed sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair. This was embellished, until Mary was henceforth believed to be a penitent prostitute, a belief that continued until 1969, when Pope Paul VI removed the connection. Since then, she has appeared in modern fiction as the wife of Jesus.
In 1896, the Gospel of Mary, was uncovered in Egypt. Mary is also mentioned in another of the gnostic gospels, that of Thomas.
Not surprisingly, there was even a cult following for Mary, based on a legend that she, Lazarus, and several other Christians had been set adrift in a small boat that eventually found its way to Provence in the south of France. This cult was at its highest point in 1279, when monks in the area claimed to have found her skeleton, and it was popular until it was abolished during the Reformation. To this day, the Basilica of Mary Magdalene in Saint Maximin displays a skull in a golden reliquary. A reliquary in a church in Florence, Italy, claims to hold the bones of one of Mary’s feet, the first feet to enter the tomb of the risen Christ.
And that brings us to today’s lection.
John tells us that Mary was at the tomb before dawn and was panic-stricken to discover that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. She ran to tell two of the disciples, one of whom was Peter, and they returned to the tomb with her to see for themselves. The two men left, but Mary stayed, and saw two angels sitting at the head and feet of where Jesus’ body had been. She did not appear to be alarmed so they must have had the appearance of local people, and when they asked her why she was weeping, she replied that they had taken away the body of her Lord, and she didn’t know where to find Him. She turned to see Jesus, who also asked her why she was weeping. She gave the same reply, and since she thought He was the gardener, she added that she would take the body if he would tell her where it was.
Why did Mary not recognize Jesus? His post-resurrection appearance is given as a possible explanation, yet Jesus appeared to many who did recognize him. If He were somehow radiant, Mary would not have mistaken Him for the gardener, as gardeners do not glow. Most likely, the reason she didn’t recognize Him was because her eyes were filled with tears. Even as He spoke to her, she didn’t recognize His voice, until He uttered just one word: “Mary.” He didn’t tell her who He was. He didn’t say His name. He said her name – just her name — and instantly she knew Him.
Mary saw only what her mind knew to be true. She saw Jesus die, and she knew He was in the tomb. It wasn’t that Mary lacked faith, it was that she was limited by her understanding. He asked her why she was weeping and she didn’t recognize His voice, because she heard with her ears.
We often find ourselves, like Mary, in situations where our vision is so clouded by tears that we don’t see Jesus standing before us. We, too, are limited by our human understanding. We see only what we know to be true. We are caught up in the situation unfolding, and we are so distraught we don’t hear his voice.
John 10:3 is a well-known passage of scripture: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name.” It was when Mary was at her lowest point that Jesus spoke her name, and this time she knew His voice, because she heard with her heart. And that is when He will call us by name, too. If we listen with our hearts, He will cut through our human understanding, and we will hear His voice.