11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:11-18 NIV)
Mary had returned to the tomb with the male disciples, but she did not leave like them. She lingered at the tomb, weeping and mourning. So deep was her grief that even the appearance of two angels couldn’t shake her out of her distraught state.
Angels in the biblical tradition are like neon signs saying, “God is at work here.” They always presage or proclaim something is about to happen or has happened. I like to call them God’s FedEx messengers. They do their job quickly and just as quickly disappear. In this case we have two angels, one at the head of the slab, one at the foot, as holy bookends signaling where the body had been. There was now a void between them, but it was not devoid of meaning. There may be two because in the Jewish tradition the truth of anything needed to be confirmed by at least two witnesses.
The angels ask Mary a question that seems totally unnecessary—“Woman, why are you crying?” But surely they know. Mary simply reiterates what she had said to the male disciples, “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” If we put ourselves in her place for a moment, we need to remember that she had come to the tomb to perform her own memorial acts—with anointing oil and fresh linens. To her it must have seemed liked the final straw, the last possible degradation of someone whom she had followed and revered, that she was to be deprived of even being able to perform last rites for Jesus, or as we might say, to put one last wreath on the grave and say good-bye. This was the unkindest cut of all, the ultimate indignity and denigration of his memory. So she is naturally distraught.
Sensing someone approaching from outside the tomb, she turns away from the scene of where he had been laid and sees someone that in a moment she will assume is the gardener. Strangely, he asks her the very same thing the angels did—“Woman, why are you crying?” But then there is an additional question about a who, not a what (i.e., a corpse). “Who is it you are looking for?”
Her response doesn’t mention Jesus by name, but she assumes the gardener will know who she’s talking about: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” It is only at this juncture that we have the magical moment. Jesus calls Mary by name—“Miryam.” Surely her heart leapt, recognizing finally the sound of his voice, and she responds, “Rabboni,” which means “my master” or “teacher” in Aramaic. We are doubtless meant to remember what Jesus had said in the Good Shepherd discourse, “I know my sheep and they know the sound of my voice, and I call each one by name.”
At this point, in her euphoria, Mary seizes Jesus, and he has to respond, “Don’t cling to me,” which is important because Jesus doesn’t want her to think that she could just continue the relationship of the past with her rabboni. She must not cling to the Jesus of the past, as he is going to be with his Father, and not bodily present in a few more days. Instead Jesus commissions her to be the apostle to the apostles. He tells her to go tell the male disciples that he is ascending to his Father and their Father, his God and their God. And so Mary went on her way proclaiming, “I have seen the [risen] Lord,”—the very first Easter witness. It ought to be said that if Jesus can commission a woman to proclaim to the male apostles the first Easter message, there can’t be anything wrong with having women preachers! She also told them what he asked her to tell them as well.
It probably doesn’t need to be said, but this text makes clear that we are not (à la The Da Vinci Code) talking about the joyful reunion of husband and wife here. Mary does not say, “Husband, I’m so glad you’re back; let’s jump-start our marriage by reading a marriage renewal book!” Of course not. Mary was just Jesus’ disciple, and she addresses him as her teacher.
Questions for Reflection
What do you make of the angels in the tomb?
Why would Mary have been so distraught to find an empty tomb?
How do you feel about Jesus commissioning Mary to proclaim the first Easter message to the Twelve (or in this case the eleven, plus other male disciples like the Beloved Disciple)?
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