​“Why Mary Magdalene?”

​​In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb while it is still dark. Why? She is not there to anoint the body – that’s already been done …excessively, by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes; and symbolically, by Mary of Bethany, before Jesus even entered Jerusalem for the last time.[1]

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

​John 20:1-18

April 17, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright ​In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb while it is still dark. Why? She is not there to anoint the body – that’s already been done … excessively, by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes; and symbolically, by Mary of Bethany, before Jesus even entered Jerusalem for the last time.[1] She’s not there out of some naïve fantasy that he is still alive. She was there at the cross. She saw him die. She is under no illusion. No, she’s there, I suspect, for some pretty universal human reasons: to grieve; to be close to him again; to talk to him one more time. She’s there because death came too soon, before she was ready; because there is still unfinished business; and because she needs healing. That’s why we go to the grave sites or special spots of friends and loved ones, too. Of course, for the gospel writer, she’s there because the story isn’t over yet. Death doesn’t have the final word.

 

But I still have questions. I get that John has a point to make and so one of Jesus’ disciples must take the stage to grieve. Someone must extend the narrative arc. Someone must witness the resurrection, but why does it have to be Mary Magdalene? Why does he give her so much attention? Better yet, why does the risen Christ appear to her first in this gospel? Why not Peter, who arrives at the tomb panting and sees the linen wrappings abandoned and folded. Why didn’t Jesus appear for him? After all, he has been the most vocal leader of the group. And for all his thick-headedness and impulsiveness, he was the one who first called Jesus the Messiah! Sure, he denied Jesus three times, but Jesus will forgive him and make him shepherd over the flock. So why not appear to him first? Or, if not Peter, why not the Beloved Disciple? As recently as the last supper, they had leaned into each other like best friends. While dying on the cross, Jesus had entrusted the care of his mother to him. Wouldn’t you think Jesus would want to let him know that he had risen? Why Mary Magdalene?

 

John seems to be saying that they had their chance … and walked away. They were grieving, just as she was. They were bewildered and hurting, with their spirits crushed and their hopes in a cast, too. Stewing on their roles and what might have gone differently, if only they had … So, as the sun rose, they saw the empty tomb just like she did; saw the remaining evidence; and struggled to square what they saw with the predictions they had all heard: that he’d be arrested, killed, and rise again. They might have comforted each other. Instead, Peter and the Beloved Disciple went home. And Mary Magdalene stayed.

 

Maybe the reason Jesus appeared to her alone has something to do with that. Debie Thomas asserts, “In our Gospel story, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus first because she chooses to remain in the darkness. Peter and the beloved disciple leave, but Mary stays, bewildered and bereft.”[2] And then she says this: “In my own life, clarity, hope, and healing come when I am willing to linger in hard and barren places, places where the usual platitudes fall flat, and all easy answers prove inadequate. Jesus comes in the darkness, and sometimes it takes a long time to recognize him. He doesn’t look the way I expect him to look. He doesn’t let me cling to my old ideas. He disappears again just as I grab hold of him. But he comes, he calls my name, and in that instant, I recognize both myself and him.” Has that been true in your life? When you’ve spent a season in the wilderness of grief or doubt, of fear or loneliness; when all the pat answers have failed to satisfy, has Jesus appeared to comfort you? John seems to be saying that he will. God will appear in the darkness for you, just as God did for Mary Magdalene, because God is at work there. God is growing crops while the farmer is still in bed. God is healing wounds before the clinic opens for the day.[3] God is answering prayers before the words are fully formed. I think John choses Mary Magdalene as the focus of his resurrection story when he could have picked Peter or the Beloved Disciple because we have stood in her shoes: lingering in the dark, desperately hoping for God to show up. We may not see him right away. We may weep an ocean of tears and ask a million questions, but if her story is any guide, then then one who appeared and called her by name will not leave us in the dark forever. The light of the world will come … and we will see him! Amen

[1] See John 19:38-42 and 12:1-8 [2] From “I have seen the Lord” by Debie Thomas, 4/21/19 [3] Phrasing from Receiving the Day by Dorothy Bass, quoted by Benjamin Stewart in the Christian Century, 3/19/13
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