It is very early on the first day of the week when Mary Magdala comes to the tomb. In fact, it is still dark. She does not come with any particular task to accomplish—there is no anointing of Jesus’ body needed or other preparations. Those have all been completed by Joseph of Arimathea and, of all people, Nicodemus. No, Mary Magdala comes to this place more to be close to old memories, like when you return to the old country place you knew as a kid, now all fallen down and grown up with vines. Mary comes in the dark to get as close to the past as she can on this first day. But even that intention is blocked by the open tomb door she discovers and by the absence of the remains of her Lord. Mary’s need to be near some old memories has just been replaced by her fear of the unknown in this present darkness.
Mary turns and dashes back to where Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple are
hiding. “They have taken the Lord from the tomb,” she announces, “and we don’t know where they have put him.” What an amazing statement! On one hand, Mary identifies herself with some group or other who is in the know about the absence of Jesus from the tomb. Other women,…unnamed disciples?…we aren’t told. But then Mary expresses her dread—some people, some “they”—have taken the body and its whereabouts are unknown. Indeed, Mary has every right to suspect such a thing. In her age and in ours, there are places where people just disappear—especially the ones who are a danger to the state or those in power or to some group of terrorists or other. Just now, people disappear in Russia and nobody knows where “they” have put them. The same was true with the Argentinean death squads during that dictatorship. People just disappeared. So it is reasonable for Mary to suspect some anonymous agents of power as taking Jesus’ body
from its resting place. In such a case, we might never know where they put him.
Peter and the other disciple hear the news and run to the tomb. This is sometimes
spoken of as a “race,” but it may disclose some further darkness among Jesus’ followers. They do not run together, helping each other and giving mutual support. No, they just take off, each one for himself. The other disciple arrives at the tomb first, but pauses at its entrance, looking in. Peter, though, is the tortoise that catches up and keeps going right on into the tomb. What he sees is that Mary was right. The Lord’s body is gone. He also sees the burial clothes there, but notices that the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was not piled up with the other clothes, but in a different place, rolled up neatly by itself. Here is a revelation about the work of the Father in raising the Son and of the risen Son already beginning to order this new creation. But to Peter’s eyes, this revelation remains hidden; the face cloth’s ordered appearance simply a mystery. “Then,” the Gospel continues, “the other disciple also went in,…, and he saw and believed.” However, exactly what he believed is rather confused, because on one hand, we are told
that neither disciple yet understood the scripture that Jesus “had to rise from the dead.”
On the other hand, these two disciples responded to the empty tomb and the grave cloths and the rolled up face cloth by, of all things, simply returning home. No Easter proclamation, no joining others in jubilation. They just returned home. So what did they believe anyway? Maybe they only now believed poor Mary’s theory about Jesus’ body being taken from its place. In fact, we could say that they now believed Mary’s witness—that some people have indeed intruded into this sacred place and removed the body of the Lord. It may no longer be dark on this first day morning, but it seems that everyone at the tomb has remained in darkness.
(The Easter Day Gospel lection in the Roman Catholic Lectionary concludes with the ninth verse of the chapter, providing more a Markan sense of a “short ending” rather than the full witness of this Johannine narrative. But such a short ending leaves everyone—including Peter, Mary, and the other disciple--in a state of ambiguity. Mary weeps at the empty tomb and the other two have not yet believed the scriptures and have just returned home (literally, “to themselves”).
If no canon of the church is violated, the story and the homily must continue until there is light rather than darkness on Easter Day.)
Now Mary had obviously come back to the tomb following the two disciples and
remained there after they went home. Now, she stands outside the tomb weeping in her loss and uncertainty. Still weeping, she bent over to look in the tomb and saw “two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been.” A very different scene from what greeted the two disciples when they entered the tomb. Now comes that question for the ages—“Woman, why are you weeping?” It is a question Christ’s people hear every Easter morning, whether we remain in darkness or dwell in the light. Mary’s response is to run the same script about some unnamed group who have taken the body of her Lord. But Mary now speaks as the one solitary follower of Jesus remaining at the tomb--she does not know where they have put him. There is not
even a hint of the community left in her lament. Even the appearance of two angels seems not enough to snap Mary out of her fixation on this “earthly” issue of the whereabouts of the body of the deceased Jesus. She then turns away from
them—amazing in itself and revealing a grief that refuses to have any interest even in a pair of angels! As she turns, she sees Jesus there, but does not know it is her Lord. In fact, she assumes that he is a gardener. Again, she is asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?”…this time by the “gardener.” The stranger also asks, “Whom are you looking for?” Mary pleads with this gardener to tell her if he has taken Jesus away. If so, she will take him.
Mary is still in the dark. Her issue, and that of the others, remains the question of a dead body and who has control over it. Perhaps we need a judge to settle this matter! Hers is the stance of a church that lives three days before Easter—just operating in a “caretaking” mode. Taking care of the building, the dwindling
parishioners, the endowment. Taking care of Jesus as if he remained among the dead.
What a pity for Christ’s own to remain in such darkness.
It is at this point that morning comes, daybreak on the first day of the week. The risen Lord speaks her name. “Mary,” he says. She turns and recognizes her living Lord. “Rabbouni,” she exclaims. “Teacher,” she says. One of the sheep has recognized the voice of its Shepherd as it is called by name. “Mary.” (Other names of those in the assembly may be added here as well.) And named by our risen Lord, we exclaim with Mary our Easter joy. Oh, Mary does try to cling to her Teacher, but the moment cannot be protracted. It is time for her to go and tell the good news of Easter that Christ is going “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” And so she runs and announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” The apostle to the apostles runs in the light of this new day. She is filled with good news and she proclaims it with joy.
Now Peter and the other disciple and all of us can join in our “alleluias.” “Christ is risen,” Mary proclaims. And we answer with great joy, “He is risen indeed!”