Easter Tuesday – Gospel

Commentary on John 20:11-18

After going off to tell Peter and the other disciples about the empty tomb, it seems that Mary of Magdala went back there to grieve over her lost friend and master. She sees two angels sitting inside the tomb and asks where her Lord has been taken. When asked why she is weeping, she replies:

They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

Then, as she turns round, there is Jesus standing before her, but she does not recognise him. This is a common experience with those who meet Jesus after the resurrection. He is the same, and yet he is not the same. In this transitional period they have to learn to recognise Jesus in unexpected forms and places and situations. He asks the same question as the angels:

Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?

This is a question we need to ask ourselves constantly. Like Mary, we may say we are looking for Jesus – but which Jesus?

She thinks the person in front of her is the gardener! How often we jump to conclusions about people, about their character and personality and true identity. Maybe this man has taken Jesus away and knows where he is.

It is also another lovely example of Johannine irony. First, that the one she took to be the gardener should know where Jesus was to be found. Second, it is John who tells us that the tomb of Jesus was in a garden (19:41). All the world’s pain and sorrow began with the sin of the Man and the Woman in a garden (Eden) and now new life also finds its beginnings in a garden. Mary was unwittingly right – Jesus is a Gardener, the one who produces life from the earth, and is the Word of his Father, the Gardener of Eden.

Then Jesus speaks: “Mary!” Immediately she recognises his voice, the voice of her Master. It reminds us of the passage about Jesus the Shepherd:

He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice…I know my own, and my own know me… (John 10:3-4,15)

Immediately she turns and says to him in Hebrew, Rabbouni! This is a more formal address than just Rabbi and was often used when speaking to God. In this case, Mary’s exclamation is not unlike that of Thomas in the upper room,

My Lord and my God! (John 20:28)

We should also note that earlier she had already turned to face Jesus, so this turning is different. It is an interior turning from strangeness to recognition, from sadness to joy, from a sense of loss to a close bonding, from doubt to faith.

With a mixture of joy and affection and partly out of fear of losing him again, she clings on to him tightly. But Jesus tells her to let him go, because,

…I have not yet ascended to the Father

Perhaps it is possible that this sentence be better read as a rhetorical question: “Have I not ascended to my Father?”

In John, the glorification of Jesus takes place on the cross at the moment of death. At that moment of triumph, Jesus is raised straight to the glory of the Father. In that sense, it is the glorified Jesus who now speaks with Mary, not the Jesus she knew earlier. This Jesus cannot be clung to. In fact, there is no need. From now on:

I am with you always. (Matt 28:20)

Next, he says:

I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

This phrase echoes a sentence in the Book of Ruth (1:16):

…your people shall be my people
and your God my God.

The Father of Jesus now becomes the Father of his disciples as they are filled with the Spirit that is both in the Father and the Son. Thus they will be re-born (John 3:5) as God’s children and can be called “brothers and sisters” by Jesus.

Mary – and all the others – have to learn that the Risen Jesus is different from the Jesus before the crucifixion. They have to let go of the earlier Jesus and learn to relate to the “new” Jesus in a very different way.

So she is told to do what every Christian is supposed to do: she goes and tells the other disciples that she has seen the Lord and she shares with them what he has said to her. And so:

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.

She is not just passing on a doctrine, but sharing an experience. That is what we are all called to do.

It is significant that it is a woman who is the first person in John’s Gospel to see and to be spoken to by the Risen Jesus. Not only that, if she is the same person mentioned by Luke as one of Jesus’ women followers (Luke 8:2), she was formerly a deeply sinful woman from whom seven demons had been driven out.

Often no one is closer to God than someone who has been converted from a sinful past. We think of people like St Augustine or St Ignatius Loyola. We remember the example of the sinful woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Of her Jesus said:

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven loves little. (Luke 7:47)

So Mary, (who with Mary, Jesus’ Mother, stood by the cross of Jesus to the very end – unlike the men disciples), is now rewarded by being the first to meet him risen and glorified. She is truly a beloved disciple.

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