In the early hours of the third day, Mary Magdalene went with a group of women to Jesus’ tomb. They carried spices to anoint his shattered, lifeless body. At least, that’s how Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story.
In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb alone and empty-handed. No companions. No spices.
Like his counterparts, John is an accomplished storyteller. The Gospel writers are not detached observers and dispassionate recorders of events. They are fervent believers whose lives have been changed by their personal encounter with the risen Christ.
John aims to do more than provide an objective record of external events. He crafts the plot and molds his characters with the intention of conveying the interior transformation that comes with encountering the risen Jesus.
So, when John places a solitary Mary Magdalene at that tomb with no spices, he’s teaching us something about the state of her soul.
Getting at John’s message requires letting John tell the story his way. If you’re like me, that means you will need to exert some effort to leave aside details that you’ve gleaned from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John has purposely chosen to say nothing about other women and not a word about burial spices.
Without these details, we’re left to ask a question: What is she doing there?
It’s a question that captures the state of Mary Magdalene’s soul. Every fiber of her being is wordlessly muttering, “What am I doing here?”
The center of her universe has disintegrated. Her mind is reeling and her heart throbs with an inconsolable ache.
Just days before she had strode triumphantly into Jerusalem with Jesus, singing and dancing and waving palm fronds. Jesus was God’s healing love in the flesh. She was swept along with hundreds of others in the hope that, in him, the world’s horrors and deprivations would be replaced by God’s peaceable Kingdom.
In Jesus she had found meaning, purpose, direction. Everything was possible. Everything made sense.
And now. Here. Nothing was possible. Nothing made sense.
“What am I doing here? Is this all that there is? Where do I go from here?”
If you’re thinking that she came expecting to find the risen Jesus, you need only reexamine the text. When the Magdalene sees that the tomb is empty, her thoughts turn immediately to grave robbers.
John uses another question to mark a shift in her consciousness. Desolate and weeping, Mary turns from the grave’s entrance and sees what she takes to be a gardener. The man asks, “Whom are you looking for?”
The gardener is Jesus near and yet unrecognized. The gardener’s question—Jesus’ unrecognized presence—makes her aware of a longing in the midst of her grief and confusion. She is looking for something, for someone, to give her life meaning. To move her from this place of death to a place of life.
Initially, she misconstrues the object of her longing. She just wants to find her friend’s corpse. And then, John marks a more significant shift in her soul. Jesus tenderly speaks her name. “Mary,” he says.
The sound of her name, spoken in love, reawakens in her the longing that defined her life with Jesus. Like all of us, Mary yearns to be loved without reserve. In all her unkempt shabbiness and fumbling messiness.
“Rabbouni!” she says. “Oh, Teacher! It’s you.”
Now in Hollywood, this would be the happy ending. Mary knows that she’s loved, and the credits roll.
But this is John’s Gospel, not a film from Tinseltown. You see, encountering Jesus is not a happy ending. It’s a beginning of an infinite and eternal transformation.
Jesus shocks us by telling his friend, “Don’t hold on to me.” In other words, Mary is in for yet another soul stretching. By putting the word “Teacher” on Magdalene’s lips, John shows us that she’s relieved. Comforted by the knowledge that Jesus loves her.
And while it is true that Jesus loves her, this is not the whole truth. Jesus’ love is changing her. She is the Beloved. And the deep truth of being the Beloved is that love is shaping us into the likeness of the one who loves us. We are growing into a person who loves like Jesus loves.
Jesus loves tall and short, rich and poor, wise and foolish. Jesus loves gay and straight, black and white. Jesus loves those who like his company and those who won’t sit at the lunch table with him.
Without realizing it, that’s whom Mary Magdalene was looking for. That Jesus. The Jesus whose love will shape her into love in frail flesh.
John’s account of the resurrection does not end with the last page of the Gospel that bears his name. It continues. It continues in the questions that it has planted in our hearts and minds to be asked again and again.
What are we doing here?
Whom are we looking for?
Where do we go from here?