Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

16th April 2017 (Easter Day)

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Mary Magdalene at the SepulchreJohn 20:1‑18

1Early 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.

Text © The New Revised Standard Version (English version), alt, used with permission.

Over the years there has been debate about whether Jesus was married or not. Some argue that there is no mention in the Bible about Jesus having a wife, while others say that the only disciple whose marital status was mentioned was Peter, whose mother-in-law was healed by Jesus, and if, at 30, He didn’t have a wife it would have been so unusual that it would have been mentioned. I wasn’t there either, so I don’t have any better insights than the scholars who have looked carefully at contemporary literature and the various fragments of scripture we now have, but we have some tantalising snippets.

Luke’s gospel is the only one not to specifically name Mary Magdalene as one of the women at the foot of the cross, but does include her in the list of women who went with the body of Jesus to the tomb, and who returned on the Sunday morning with the intention of embalming His body. In all cases Mary Magdalene is mentioned first, even before Christ’s own mother. It was the responsibility of the next of kin to attend to the burial needs of a deceased person. Contrary to Roman Catholic teaching there is no evidence in scripture, or contemporary literature, to suggest that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, and Jesus did frequently, indeed almost constantly, associate with sinners, forgiving them their sins and challenging them to lead a better life, so was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene, and, if so, why has the Church spent hundreds of years trying to defame her? Many of the images I considered to go with this page had Mary in “prostitute” red, or Jesus attired in such a way that she wouldn’t have mistaken Him for the gardener.

To the Jews the Sabbath began at sunset on our Friday and extended to sunset on our Saturday. The first day of the week was equivalent to our Sunday. The Sabbath was a time when the people were not supposed to work, including treating a dead person, so embalming a body had to wait until after the Sabbath had ended. Hence our gospel story begins with something which many calendar makers these days like to ignore: Sunday is the first day of the week, not the last, though if we start a week on Monday the Seventh Day Adventists would be celebrating on Sunday with us. Who should arrive to treat Christ’s body but Mary Magdalene, according to other gospel writers along with other women bringing spices for the process. Seeing that the stone, which had been set to keep the tomb shut, had been removed Mary ran to Peter and “the beloved disciple”, whom most scholars believe was John, to tell them that the body had been taken away. It was still dark, so who even had the authority to move the body? In biblical times a woman’s testimony meant nothing – only a man’s testimony could be taken as evidence, so this hysterical woman tells two of the men, and they actually listened to her evidence and so ran to the tomb. Once they had seen the bandages wrapped up in the tomb, and remembered what Jesus had said about His rising from the dead, they went home, leaving Mary weeping outside the tomb. A bit of pastoral care might have been useful! Why didn’t they go and tell any of the other disciples?

Mary’s first encounter after Peter and John have left is with two “angels”. No, angels do not have to be dressed in dazzling white and with wings: an angel is someone who turns up unexpectedly, but at the very moment you need help, and disappears without trace once that need has been met ‑ and its highly likely that you have encoutered at least one in your life without realising it. With the knowledge of what has happened to Jesus, these two angels ask the grieving Mary why she is weeping. Shrouded in tears, and deeply mourning the loss of someone dear to her, whether or not the suggestion of marriage was true, Mary cannot, at first, recognise Jesus, but assumes, from his presence in the garden at this time of the day, that he is the gardener. It’s not the only time that followers of Jesus did not recognise Him immediately when encountering Him. The road to Emmaus was another example, but we shouldn’t be harsh on these people. If we had seen a dear friend or member of our family die would we believe that the person we met some days later was, in fact, the very person whose death we had witnessed? Of course we wouldn’t. Mary, traumatised by what she had seen on Friday afternoon would have had great difficulty seeing the man in front of her as the same one who had died less than 48 hours before. It was not His appearance but a single word He said, which changed her experience. How did He say “Mary”? What emotion was included? What chemistry was sparked by the word? However we answer those questions, Mary was transformed on the spot.

Again, as a woman, her evidence would not normally be acceptable to the men in the community, but Jesus tells her to go “to my brothers” and tell them that He is ascending to His Father and ours. To Jesus, His brothers were not just his siblings but all those who had been followers through the period of ministry. This Mary, who earlier had been weeping her heart out because of the death of Jesus and the disappearance of His body, now goes to the disciples and blurts forth that she has seen the Lord after his resurrection. Did they believe her? Did they pick up on the transformation which had affected Mary then, in advance of their own transformations, which were to happen on what we celebrate as Pentecost?

Many people have had “near death” experiences; some have been declared, by medical staff, to be dead, only to start breathing again, sit up and talk to people as if they had only been asleep. A recent news item reported that a jockey had returned to winning rides after reading his own obituary. How do we relate to those experiences? Would we believe the witness of one or two who had been present? With this Easter season, are we transformed, as Mary was, by our own experiences of the risen Christ. I have a strong affinity with the centurion who commented, on Christ’s death, “truly this was the Son of God”, and so the resurrection is a personal experience for me each year. If we live as if these stories are our own, and in our own time, not relegating them to history, then we, too, can experience the transformation, and be ready to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the Good News.

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