Mary of Magdelene’s Story, and Ours

By Joshua Paetkau

She walked to the tombstone, alone, and who can say what her heart held.

Sorrow, to be sure, there must have been sorrow and fear.

She had seen him die, and no woman should see such cruelty, and no man should suffer it.

She walked to tomb, in the early light, and she must have been afraid. She came under the cover of darkness, for to be seen at this tomb was dangerous. Her lover was no ordinary man, he had been cast off by the leaders of his people, despised and rejected and made to endure cruelty at the hands of a foreign power.

His own followers had abandoned him. Peter, once bold and impulsive, had become afraid to be known even to be from the same region as this man, who had become a criminal in the eyes of the state. All his followers had locked themselves inside hidden rooms, seeking the scant sanctuary that four walls offer.

All of his followers, save this one.

This one, this woman, whose love pushed her to confront her fear. “Upon my bed at night, I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not.” Early 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.

I sought him, but I found him not.

The scene that the Gospel of John sets for us has a breathtaking depth of emotion. Even if we have read the story before, many times, it is almost impossible for our hearts not to break with Mary’s, for her tears not to become our own. There is power in this story.

At first she is aware only of his absence, only of how much it hurts. The first message that she brings to Peter and John is this: “They have taken the Lord out the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him. They have taken the Lord.”

The empty tomb did not yet signal the resurrection to Mary, but a further indignity, a further injustice. “They” have taken him. Without the clear sight of faith, it is easy to fall into vain and superstitious thinking, and this is what happens to many of us. We look for someone to blame our problems on. It is their fault. They have caused me this anguish. We see this attitude of conspiracy at work everywhere, from the personal inner conflict to global political struggle. They, whoever they are, are always out there waiting to take something else away from us. “They have taken my Lord’s body, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And Mary weeps, and her tears are moving and heartbreaking. And yet, though they are heartbreaking, they are also wrong. She is wrong about Jesus’ body. Mary has misinterpreted the evidence. She is crying over someone who is not dead. They have not taken her Lord’s body. There is no they, and there is no dead body.

Jesus had already shattered the chains of death, Jesus had already risen from the grave and rolled the tombstone away. The signs of resurrection and new life were there, but without belief they made no sense. Without faith they could only point to the shadows of conspiracy. St. Augustine said, “I believe in order to understand.” Actually, he said, Credo ut intelligam, but what he meant was “I believe in order to understand. “Understanding is the reward of faith; therefore, do not seek to understand in order to believe, but believe that thou mayest understand.”

This statement reflects what the Church has always taught about the relationship between faith and reason, and it reflects what we find in the Scriptures. It is when Mary believes, when she is granted that gift of faith, that her understanding is transformed. Suddenly, in an instant, all the things that had formerly been signs of death and dishonor became emblems of an entirely new reality. What she had feared as the worst thing of all — as insult to injury — the disappearance of her Lord’s body, was in fact the best thing of all.

The new creation has begun.

In the Song of Songs, the beloved goes in search of her lover. She passes by the sentinels, the ones who are always watching, who are supposed to see everything and yet do not see him. “Scarcely had I passed them,” she says, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go.”

This is the scene we see repeated with Mary Magdalene at the tomb. She turns from the sentinels, the angels who guarded the tomb, and she finally sees him. The incarnate, living, risen, breathing Lord.

Still, she does not recognize him. She just sees a human, a gardener. She is still blinded to the divinity, to the presence of God. She even charges him with involvement in the conspiracy: “Tell me where you have laid him.” More than that, she places herself within the framework of the conspiracy of shuffling dead bodies around. “Tell me where you have laid him, so that I may take him away.” Mary’s desire for the body of Jesus, although it seems pious and is motivated by a certain type of love, is a false desire.

She wants to possess Jesus’ body, as if it were some kind of prize to be won, an object to be treasured. She does not yet have a living faith, for she is obsessed and consumed by death and by loss. She knows Christ, at this point, only in a human way, and to know him only in a human way is to know only that he is dead. To know only in a human way is to know only death, and to cling to objects of death because they remind us of the living. Mary’s grief is mistaken, in the way that grief is always mistaken.

We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and because of that sin we are blind to the glory of God that is all around us, in front of us, and within us. Sin, in this case, is a kind of blind devotion to disbelief. If only she would believe, she would understand. But she resists the grace of God. She clings to what she knows, when it is what she does not know that will set her free. She clings to what she knows, searching desperately for it, but what she knows is false.

She has seen angels, but angels do not convince her, so steadfast is her devotion to doubt. And this is a common affliction, for many of us. Things have always been this way, and they will never change, we tell ourselves, and we are good at convincing ourselves — so good that we can even turn gardeners into omens of how the universe conspires to deprive us when, in fact, the presence of God is so near to us. If only our eyes could be opened, that we might see with faith.

“Mary,” he said, and in that moment he gave her the gift of faith. In that moment she began to understand, to see things differently. “Do not hold on to me,” he tells her, but this time there is no sadness in their parting. She came to the tomb in sorrow, under cover of night, solitary and alone, but she leaves as an apostle, as one with a message that will create a community, a common fellowship of the worship of God and love of her fellow man. She had seen him die, but now she saw him live, and knew that the new creation had begun.

This is the gift of God, the gift of grace, a message of love conveyed in a name.

God calls to us, by name, that we might turn away from the world of death and, through the gift of faith, see the empty tomb for what it actually is: a symbol of new life. When anyone is in Christ, here is a new creation. And the lover of our souls calls to us: “Arise, my beloved and come away.” And at the end of the Song of Songs, the lover speaks to the beloved, asking to hear the sound of her voice: “You who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice, let me hear it.” And she replies, urging him to ascend the mountain so that the whole world might know his strength: “Swiftly, my lover, be like a young stag or a gazelle upon the mountain of spices.”

No longer is there any fear in her voice, only joy that he has risen, that he has vanquished death, and she no longer longs to cling to his memory, but to share the love that he has awoken inside her with the world.

The Rev. Joshua Paetkau is rector of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in New Carlisle, Quebec, Canada.


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