We are studying, actually, three texts for Sunday, February 14 (Valentine’s Day!): John 20:10-18, but also Luke 8:1-3 and Mark 15:40. I am perplexed about the omission of Mark 15:41. The focus of the selections is Mary Magdalene, and what we learn about her participation in the early Jesus movement from these scriptural references. [Some questions on the texts are here.] Most of the notes below are on the John text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Once again, we have been given a set of short texts, in this case drawn from three of the four gospels. We could have had a few verses from Matthew, too – why not? Matthew 27:55-61, for instance, or Matthew 28:1. Or Luke 24:1-12. But the way John tells the story of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning there is a more direct instruction from Jesus to Mary about taking a message to Jesus’s “brothers,” and that direct assignment seems to be the point of our lesson this week.
We might note in passing that this selection of texts takes us out into the deep waters of the multiple gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances. We don’t have to stay out here, but we probably ought to be aware that the waters can get deep indeed, and very fast. Some may wish to have their apologetical life jackets on hand.
[An aside: I am even less comfortable being out in these waters than I usually am, because I have been reading E. Bruce Brooks, Jesus and After: The First Eighty Years. In that book, Brooks presents a detailed reconstruction of the chronology of the New Testament texts, along with a reconstruction of the story of the early religious community and community dynamics that gave rise to them, based on his philological analysis. People who don’t want to think about what these narratives “are,” whether “eye-witness accounts” of specific events, or theological interpretations of such accounts, or some as-yet-unspecified alternative, should not read that book. I’m glad I’m reading it myself, but I’m still digesting it, and it is definitely interfering with thinking about John 20 from the usual pious Christian perspective.]
Alternatively, we could just narrow our focus to those nine verses in John.
If we do that, we can focus on how this part of the story works in the context of John’s gospel, and build a little on what we looked at last week. We’ll remember that time of day and the symbolism of light and dark plays a role in John. We might want to think about the similarities and differences between that long conversation between Jesus and an unnamed woman at a well last week, and this much shorter conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
John 20:10-18 is a familiar text. It’s the lectionary gospel reading for Easter Sunday, every year. Even the people who only go to church once a year are likely to have heard this one, more than once.
At a minimum, we should note that this chapter of John begins, on the first day of the week following the Sabbath, with Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb, alone, while it was still dark, and seeing that the stone covering the tomb has been removed. That first revelation sets in motion all the subsequent events of the chapter. Our text comes after Mary Magdalene has already run to tell Simon Peter and another disciple (Greek mathētēs) about her discovery, and after they have run to the tomb to check out this astonishing or disturbing news, and after they have investigated the empty tomb, and then gone back to wherever they came from.
Once again, Mary Magdalene is at the tomb, alone. She will not be alone for long.
CLOSER READING: Despite the title of the lesson in our printed curriculum (“a faithful disciple”), and despite my personal preferences, I think we should be aware that Mary Magdalene is never explicitly referred to as a mathētēs, or whatever that would be in a feminine form. In fact, the way John tells this story, he distinguishes Mary Magdalene from the group of disciples. The mathētais are always other people, people she goes to or talks to. She is never mentioned as “one of” them, for instance, and when she goes to talk to them, she doesn’t go to “the other disciples,” but to “the disciples.”
I’m not minimizing Mary Magdalene’s importance here. I’m pointing out how the author describes the characters in this story.
There is a lot of weeping in this story. Weeping is used twice in verse 11, as Mary stands by the tomb. Then, two different speakers address her with the phrase “Woman, why are you weeping?” First the two angels say this, then Jesus says it.
Jesus also asks Mary “What [or, who] are you seeking?” Fresh from our study of John 4, I wonder whether this language is meant to remind us of the way Jesus sought to do the will of the Father. If so I wonder what its deeper significance is here.
In both cases, Mary’s answer to the question about weeping refers to Jesus’s missing body. She tells the angels “they” – whoever “they” are – have taken her lord somewhere, she doesn’t know where. Surprisingly, the angels don’t respond to her statement. Also surprisingly, Mary doesn’t react in any special way to the presence of the angels. She just turns around.
She sees Jesus, but mistakes him for “the gardener.” The tomb is in a garden, as we know from the preceding chapter, so it stands to reason that a person could run into a gardener there. Ironically, she addresses this gardener as “lord” or “sir” [same word in Greek]. Even more ironically, her speech to the gardener uses perfectly ordinary words – “carried him away,” “take him away” – that could easily be used with a sense of “lifting up” or “raising.” The text is moving Mary closer and closer to an explicit awareness of the resurrection.
Jesus’s use of Mary’s name seems to prompt her full recognition. She addresses him as Rabbouni, “my teacher”. This form of address must be significant, since the author gives it extra emphasis, but why?
Jesus’s logic in verse 17 is hard to follow. It isn’t clear why his not yet having gone up to the Father would prevent Mary’s touching or holding on to him. Later in this same chapter, Jesus will invite Thomas to touch him.
Then Jesus gives Mary a message to take back to his “brothers,” that he “goes up to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” Mary brings this message to the disciples, along with her personal testimony “I have seen the Lord.”
The narrative is brief, compressed, more about conversation than action, intense, and remarkably strange. It is made all the more strange by the repeated use of present tense verbs. These are consistently translated into English as past tenses, possibly because the translators can’t stand to make John sound like a commodities broker.
As is often the case, we’ll have to make some choices about how we want to think about this text. We can approach it from the “human experience” point of view, imagining ourselves in Mary Magdalene’s position, and thinking about what it would be like to experience the utterly unexpected revelation of the risen Christ. We can approach it from the “symbolic significance” point of view, reflecting on the meanings contained in the various elements of the story (time of day, setting, characters, words). We can think about its theological significance. We can think about the implications of Jesus’s giving the message “he is risen” to Mary Magdalene. Any of these seem like potentially fruitful choices.
Image: “Noli me tangere,” Giotto, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons