Other than the risen Christ, the centre of our Easter story, Mary Magdalene is the only follower mentioned by name in all four Gospels. In our reading this Sunday from John chapter 20 she comes, probably with other women, to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been buried, and finds the stone rolled away and no corpse. Naturally, she jumps to the conclusion that Jesus’ body has been taken; perhaps by one or other of the authorities wishing to heap further indignities on Jesus or to prevent the grave becoming a focal point for his followers.
Mary is distraught – she has lost her beloved Teacher to death on the cross and even before she has time to come to terms with that loss, she has lost him again, his body apparently stolen from the tomb. After she has run to tell the disciples, the two who come to see for themselves just abandon her there by the tomb, still seeking answers.
It perhaps seems odd that Mary is not more struck or moved by the presence of angels in the tomb – why, after all, would anyone expect to find a couple of strangers sitting in this tomb, let alone angels? But in her shock and distress, Mary is more anxious to have her desperate question answered and her search resolved than to look at details.
I wonder when, faced with inconsolable pain and trauma of another, do we head off back to our comfort zone, rather than remaining alongside, being there, and simply inviting the person to express themself?
I wonder when, as we are desperately looking for help and answers, do we fail to see the signs or accept the support that God puts before us because we are too caught up in the distress of the moment and the search for what we want the answer to be?
In this distressed state Mary does not recognise Jesus when he asks her why she is weeping and for whom she is looking. Then, in one of the most gently touching moments of the gospel, Jesus responds to Mary’s frantic appeal by calling her by name – and she is floored by recognition, relief, love and delight. But even here in the midst of this new joy, once more she seems to be losing him: just as she reaches out to him, Jesus says, “don’t cling to me … go … tell my brothers, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (v17)
Why did Jesus refuse Mary the comfort of holding him then, and instead charge her with carrying his message to the disciples? Perhaps she needed to be trusted with this task to help her move on and to give her time to digest what he had said.
I wonder when do we try to cling to a Jesus who fits our expectations and desires, rather than responding to the challenge that Christ gives us?
As we look forward through the confusion and pain of Holy Week and of our own lives towards the astonishing new life and new hope of Easter morning, let’s prepare ourselves to see that empty tomb as a doorway, and to let go of the past and accept again the invitation to step through into a new beginning with Christ.
Image: extract from Titian: Noli me tangere (National Gallery)