But Mary [Magdalene] stood outside by the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped down and looked into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. Then they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Now when she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to Him, “Rabboni!” (which is to say, “Great Teacher”). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that He had spoken these things to her.
-- John 20.11-18
There are few things better to do on a Sunday afternoon -- after Liturgy, after the Feast, in the quiet of the sun and the breeze, than to think carefully and quietly on these beautiful words.
They make so much sense. They pull together the bright morning sun, the spring rains, the wind in the new leaves and blossoms, the choir of birdcalls, our own happiness after a long night’s worry and weeping. They settle the meaning of friendship once and for all. They answer the riddle of recognition, the often-hidden presence of God that, at the same time, “is everywhere present and fills all things.”
These verses from John the Evangelist and Theologian say simply, and deeply, what it means to be really human -- born for eternity, alive to become forever brighter, drawn to no other destiny than the beauty of the Trinity: a beauty that is beyond infinite scale.
* * * * * * *
Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary (“the mother of Joses”) were the first to see that the Tomb where Jesus had been buried was now empty. The stone had been rolled away by an angel of the Lord (Matthew 28.2). The stone was rolled away not to “let Jesus out,” because in His Resurrection, He had already left the Tomb. Later on that afternoon on Pascha, the Risen Christ would meet with His disciples in the Upper Room, despite the fact that all the doors and windows were barred shut: if Jesus did not need these doors opened, surely He did not need the stone of the tomb rolled away just so He could get out. The stone was rolled away for one purpose -- and that was to help the friends of Jesus see the emptiness of the grave.
Mary Magdalene ran back to where the apostles were hiding (in fear and despair -- despite the fact that Jesus had told them several times beforehand that He would rise “on the third day”), and she told them about her discovery. It is for this reason that St Augustine and other Fathers called her “the apostle to the apostles” -- she had been sent (which is the meaning of “apostle”) to tell the good news of the Resurrection to the disciples.
Peter and John ran together to the empty tomb. John, in writing this Gospel, adds the personal detail that he outran Peter and stopped just outside the tomb. Peter, coming up from behind, went into the tomb and found the burial linen cloths and the face shroud lying neatly folded and stacked separately. This is actually an important point: if thieves had stolen the body of Christ (an anti-christian rumor that tried to “explain away” the Resurrection -- a rumor very popular in the first years of the Church and can be heard especially nowadays), they would certainly not have stopped to tidy up the place before they left. I have always found this fact a happy, almost comic, sign that God’s revelation of His glory is often very down-to-earth, and reaches out to our simple common sense.
John writes, at this point (in 20.8), that he too entered the tomb: “and he saw, then, and believed.” He adds that “as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He [Christ] must rise again from the dead.” This is the Apostle John confessing the fact that he should have expected the Resurrection, and not have needed these “proofs” of the empty grave and the neatly-folded grave clothes. It would be later -- starting when Jesus taught His disciples for the next forty days until the Ascension -- that the Lord would show how the entire Old Testament had been preparing the human race to understand that the Holy Trinity would overcome sin and death precisely this way, the way of the Incarnation, the Cross, the descent into Hell and its destruction, and the Resurrection. That is why in the Creed we say “And the third day He arose again according to the Scriptures”: this phrase refers to the plain fact that the Old Testament is all about Christ and His work of salvation.
* * * * * * *
At some point while they were in the tomb, Mary Magdalene must have arrived. Peter and John left the scene, but Mary remained, and she wept. It is not hard to understand why. Jesus’ promise of His rising again was far beyond human experience and expectation. Mary, too, had not understood the main lesson of the psalms and the prophets and the Law. She knew about God as a far off mysterious divinity, but did not know about the Trinity, nor did she know that her wise Teacher (Whom she called “Rabboni”) and wonder-working Friend was also God Himself.
So Mary Magdalene looked at the empty tomb and simply assumed that the body of her Lord was taken away. Perhaps it was the work of thieves. Perhaps someone came to bury Jesus somewhere else, to avoid the interference of the Romans and the Jewish authorities.
She was weeping because she thought the dead body of her Lord was all she had left, the only thing remaining of His friendship with her and all the disciples. You can understand her pain and regret. It is what we all experience at funeral homes. It is the very same grief.
In this understandable -- and very familiar -- grief, Mary “stooped down and looked into the tomb.” She saw two angels in white, seated at the head and foot of the grave where Jesus’ body had lain. St John Chysostom said that she knew they were angels because of their brightness: here is a hint of the same glorious “uncreated light” that was seen at the Transfiguration and the Bethlehem Star, and the angelic choir that sang “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.” Angels are committed completely to the adoration of the Holy Trinity -- and in that adoration, they are committed completely to the service of humanity. What more important service is there than the message of salvation, the Gospel of the Cross and the Resurrection? After all, “angel” means just that: “messenger.”
“Woman, why are you weeping?” the angels asked. The address “woman,” at that time, was an address of deep respect. In John 2, at the Wedding of Cana, Jesus said to His mother, “Woman, what is this to Me and you?” Again, that address was not disrespectful, but one of reverence and honor.
That the angels showed Mary Magdalene such respect is important for two reasons. The first is that despite their glory and spiritual nature, they show graciousness to humans that goes beyond courtesy. It is as though they put themselves entirely at the service of the humans they greet.
The second reason is that Mary Magdalene’s life before her meeting with Christ was not respectful at all. She had been called a “woman of the city” -- an obvious euphemism for prostitution. Both Luke and Mark report that Jesus had driven seven demons out of her. So relieved she was of this deliverance and so thankful for her new beautiful life, that when Jesus was dining with Simon the Pharisee, Mary Magdalene came to Jesus, knelt down before Him, bathed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed His feet with a costly, fragrant ointment.
Jesus said of her then: “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Luke 7.47).
So now she is here in the empty tomb, with angels calling her, with deep courtesy, “Woman,” and they are asking her “Why are you weeping?” She, a former “woman of the city” who had been possessed by seven demons, who was set free and healed by her Lord, met by angels and the missing body of her Lord, Whom she loved so much.
She answered the angels: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” So still, Mary Magdalene could not think of any possibility that went beyond human expectations. The empty grave could only mean a missing body that must be found somewhere, and was still very dead. Even though He saved her and led her into the beauty of holy life, and even though she loved Him much, Jesus ended up the way all things end up: dead, sad, inescapably real and unsurprising. Like everyone else, Mary believed -- because it was so hard to believe otherwise -- that the stories of history all had sad endings and bad.
* * * * * * *
“She turned around and saw Jesus standing there …”
Can you believe this little sentence is in the Bible?
God surprised Mary, as He always does, for all of us.
While Mary Magdalene was weeping and talking with the angels, and while she was focused on the place of death, outside the grave in the broad daylight the Risen Lord Jesus, Son of God, stood there, waiting for the grieving Mary just to turn around.
But her grief remained.
She did not recognize Him.
This is the oddest, most peculiar part of the story. Mary did not recognize the Risen Christ.
“Woman, why are you weeping,” Jesus, hidden from recognition, asked, just like the angels did, “Who are you looking for?”
Mary Magdalene thought that Jesus must have been the gardener who cared for the graves in the cemetery. There is some irony here: if anyone is a gardener, it is Jesus Who planted the Garden of Eden in the first place, and created the seen and unseen worlds as a thing of matchless beauty. In fact, this very story is like a repetition of the Eden story -- but this time, instead of a Fall, there is a Rising.
Here is where Mary’s courage shines: “Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”
And I will take Him away.
Just consider these words. How much she loved Him, in complete self-sacrifice. How much she had taken up her own cross of self-donation, of breaking out of her self-centeredness and her ego, and setting her heart upon Christ instead of herself. How much she had fought against her own passions which had rotted her heart in sin, passion, and then demonic-possession.
So now, instead of anointing the feet of Christ that had brought such Good News, now she wanted to anoint His body for burial.
And I will take Him away.
She loved much.
But Christ loved even more. Infinitely more.
In infinite love He created Mary Magdalene, and had always had her in His Mind for eternity before she was born in Palestine. He has always thought of you, too, and me. He “brought us from non-existence into being,” as we pray in the Divine Liturgy, in the Anaphora Prayer. He created us in love. He made us in His delight. He pre-destined all of us, every human being, to enjoy eternity with Him, in constant, unbroken growth into glorious theosis, when at every moment we will shine more wondrously as we learn and love Him more. This is the “abundant life” that Jesus said He has come to give: “The thief does not come except to steal and kill and destroy. But I have come that they might have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10.10).
I do not think we take sin seriously enough. We do not appreciate the horrible problem it really is. Death is the consequence of sin -- and death is much worse than just not breathing anymore, or the heart not beating anymore, or you not “being” anymore, where you just stop and fade to black. No. You and I will live forever no matter who we choose -- the loving God, or the hating spiritual death that lasts and lasts and lasts in a horrible undead sort of existence.
The only way to think of sin in a way that comes closest to God’s view of sin is to be a father, or a mother, and think of your child endangering himself with a deadly poison that will disfigure him and cause unending, tortured pain. You would do anything to save your child.
And God did just that.
* * * * * * *
The Son of God would have always descended toward us and taken upon Himself human nature. Even if humanity would not have fallen, Christ would have become incarnate, because it is by communion with Him in spirit and in flesh that God is able to make us like Himself: “God became man,” St Athanasios the Great said, “so that we might become god.”
However, because we sinned and fell, and willfully infected ourselves with the toxin of sin and addiction to death, Jesus Christ not only became incarnate, but He renewed our human nature and succeeded at perfect obedience to the design of human life made by God the Father. Where the first Adam failed, St Paul said in Romans, the second Adam -- Christ -- succeeded.
But because of sin and death, Christ added to His free obedience and not only gave Himself in the Incarnation, but now He suffered and died on the Cross in a peaceful sacrifice (to end all violence and domination) to overcome sin. And He entered Hell and destroyed its power and authority to overcome death.
He revealed His divinity to the joy of Adam and Eve and all the saints held captive there. On the other hand, this revelation did not work out so well for the devil and the whole culture of death. It was, so to speak, a crushing blow. This “harrowing of hell” is what you see depicted on the Resurrection icon. This is when the “trampling of death” happened. When Jesus left the grave, the triumph had already been achieved.
This is the extent -- the infinite, unimaginable extent -- of how God loves us much.
Love is never cheap.
Love always costs too much.
The price of love is the gift of self, like pouring out your soul like water on the sand.
Love crosses every distance, traverses every interval of time and space, like a shepherd looking for a solitary lost lamb in the existential storm.
No matter how far love has to go, it goes that far.
Love crosses the distance we thought was uncrossable … even, and especially, the horrible distance of death.
Jesus Christ, Whose highest Name is Love itself, went so far.
And all Mary (and the human race) had to do was to turn around.
* * * * * * *
The simple (but very deep) reason why Mary did not recognize her Lord at first was precisely because of how far Jesus had come. Remember, she (and you and I) thought that death was too, too far for anyone to come back from. The certainty of human hopelessness after the Fall clouded her soul from News that seemed too good to be true.
So to uncloud her soul, Jesus the Risen Shepherd did what good shepherds do: He called her by name:
She collapsed before Him in overwhelming joy, once again bathing His feet with her tears. “Rabboni,” said she, now and forever.
Isn’t it the most beautiful thing that the single evidence of the Resurrection for Mary, the only proof she needed that her Friend was here and now and forever, was His gentle voice calling her own name?
* * * * * * *
Listen. In the quiet Sunday afternoon in the sun and the breeze, in the new green leaves and the citron hint of daffodils.
In the quiet you can figure out the riddle of divine mystery, why Jesus told everyone to keep His miracles a secret, why He spoke in parables so the unbelieving authorities could not define Him, why Luke and Cleopas did not know Him until He explained the Old Testament and gave thanks for the Bread.
Listen. Breathe and think. Right now, risen from the dead, He is doing the same.
He is calling you by name.