March 17, 2005
Mary Magdalene first appears in the last gospel at the cross. The first three gospel writers show us Mary standing in the distance. John moves Mary to the foot of the cross. The direction is theological. Lifted up, Jesus is already drawing his scattered disciples into the new family born in the blood of the cross. Although John never mentions Mary Magdalene as following Jesus before this moment, he now shows her as refusing to leave him.
All the gospels report Mary’s visit to the tomb. Memories crowd their accounts. Details differ as their pens rush to report the Resurrection. It is John who tells us the most about Mary’s Sunday morning visit (Jn 20:1-18). Though he writes after Mark, Matthew and Luke, he passes on to us the best historical tradition of the event.
Last at the cross, she is first at the tomb. Jesus is dead. Her hope extinguished. Yet love remains. The male disciples have disappeared. No future, no presence. Yet Mary lingers. Mark tells us she watched the burial. She kept observing (Mk 15:47:
etheōroun, the imperfect of the Greek verb). She could not remove her eyes any more than she could withdraw her love from Jesus. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus entomb Jesus. Mary is already planning to return to anoint the body with spices once the Sabbath is ended. Evening begins to fall. The darkness thickens within. She returns home for the night.
Early on the first day of the week, she returns. Love never rests. It is still dark. But the Light is already scattering the darkness. Rabbinic tradition held that mourning for the dead was at its greatest on the third day. Mary’s grief is intense. Like most of us recently bereaved of a loved one, she visits the cemetery. Closeness to the grave somehow eases the separation. Through her tears, she sees the stone has been rolled away. The empty tomb has robbed her of her last farewell. Disappointment hastens her steps to tell the others.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. Mary has told the truth. The tomb is empty. No time to waste at a hollow grave. They return home. She remains. Weeping. Her tears cannot wash away the horror. The body has been stolen. Love’s final farewell denied. She peers into the open rock carved in the side of the hill. Where the body had been, two angels sit, one at the head and the other at the foot. Angels hovered over the cradle where love was born. Angels keep guard over the sepulcher where death is destroyed. Mary still weeps. No angel can fill the emptiness of her heart. The empty tomb does not give rise to Easter faith. Even in its stillness, it speaks of death. Only the appearances of the Risen Lord move the disciples from despair to faith.
Like all the others, Mary does not understand what Jesus had taught. Three times he had spoken of his impending death. And always with the promise of his resurrection (Mk 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Now the pain of his death has washed away even the memory of his words. Mary is looking for a corpse. Hope has died. But love remains. Mary still searches. How often like Mary, we misread events. What is pregnant with light, we see as dark. What seems to be an end is truly the beginning.
In the days before Easter, we do well to linger in the early morning with Mary at the tomb. Her tears teach a truth about our Christian life today. And it is this: grief at the death of Jesus is part of authentic Christian spirituality. When Paul passed on one of the earliest proclamation of the Christian creed, he said, “Well, then, in the first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scripture; that he was buried…”(1 Cor 15:3-4).
Christ died for our sins. The cross and its pain are real.
He was buried. The tomb and its separation are real. And they remain part of our own lives. There are moments in our lives where sin has its way and where we are less than God intends. It is our willingness to acknowledge our emptiness and recognize our sins that prepares us to receive the gift of the Risen Savior.
Mary went to the tomb. We go to the empty places in our lives—spiritual, emotional, physical—where sin has destroyed hope. Our faith does not give us an escape from the world in which we live. God sent His Son into this world with all its human suffering and failure “not to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved” (John 3:17). Only Christ can fill the longings of our heart. With Mary, we wait in darkness “until the dawn comes and the morning star rises…”(2 Pt 1:19).