Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, I came to the tomb. I came alone in that time before dawn, when fear and doubt get the best of us, and when God seems farthest away. I came to make closure, like so many of us have had to do in our lives. I came to say goodbye and to let go.
For me the empty tomb held only a sign of loss. After seeing that the stone had been rolled from the entrance to the cave, I feared that someone had stolen Jesus’ body and hidden it. Only one conclusion could make sense of my experience in that moment: grave robbers!
The empty tomb didn’t mean hope or good news. It simply meant another disappointment. And hadn’t I already known enough of those?
I’m not sure what you know about me. I’m a woman from the region of Galilee, actually, from the prosperous shipping district called Magdala, which is where I get my name, Mary Magdalene. Over the years some misunderstandings have attached to me like barnacles on a boat, so I set the record straight whenever I can.
I am not a prostitute. Never have been, never will be. I am not the woman from the city who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. And I’m not Martha’s sister, either. But you’d know that right away—I’m not one to sit quietly at the feet of others.
I’m a woman of independent means with a very common name. Did you know there are seven Mary’s mentioned in the Gospels? Is it any wonder that the years would bring such confusion about us? The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar didn’t do anything to help my cause. Remember that song, “I don’t know how to love him”? I wasn’t a particularly sinful woman, just a woman with my own struggles and heartaches.
And then there’s Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code. Of course he had it right that I wasn’t a prostitute, but then he made me Jesus’ wife! I don’t have anything against being Jesus’ wife! But I wasn’t. He never married. Don’t you think if he’d been married, people would have known? Jesus did change my life, but not through marriage. He changed my life by forgiving me, healing me, and saving me.
Jesus healed me of seven demons. I’d been living under circumstances and in relationships that ignored my contributions and choked my dreams. Maybe you can relate to the demons that preyed on me: depression, fear, low self-esteem, doubts, procrastination, bitterness, and self-pity. Seven demons. Count them (as Renita Weems has pointed out in Just a Sister Away, p. 90).
When I met Jesus, I experienced freedom from what had bound my very self. So I followed him. And I wasn’t the only one. Johanna and Susanna and other women came too, we all followed him. How we could annoy the twelve! It makes me smile just to think about it…Anyway, I followed him to the cross and then to the grave, thinking at least I could treat him with dignity in his death.
Now, at the empty tomb, I experienced another grief. My friend, Jesus, already lost to me in death, was now lost to me by theft. I had to tell someone, so I ran to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple. I saw the beloved disciple run and reach the tomb first. While he paused to look inside, impetuous Simon Peter plunged ahead into the cave. He didn’t see Jesus, but he saw the evidence that Jesus had left death behind; the wrapping from his head neatly rolled up in a place by itself. No grave robber would have taken that kind of care with a corpse. He didn’t see Jesus, but the beloved disciple saw the empty tomb and believed, believed that God was up to something; although what, he didn’t yet fully know.
And then, in what I can only describe and not even begin to explain, these men went home. Honestly, I still don’t get it! Two adult males, that’s what it took to make a legal witness in first century Palestine. Two credible witnesses, whose testimonies would have stood up in the courtroom, turned on their heels and went home.
I couldn’t move. I stood weeping outside the tomb, then I bent over to look into the cave. I saw the angels and they saw me. Of course at the time I didn’t realize who they were or who they represented. They asked me the most ridiculous question. “Woman, why are you weeping?” I wish John would have written what I really said to them, with a mixture of tears and growing irritation, “Why am I weeping?! Isn’t it obvious you bozos?! Where have you been, anyway? They’ve taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” They were no help whatsoever.
I dismissed the angels and turned around, only to see the gardener—or so I thought. In the beauty of John’s writing you know all along who the gardener really is. Jesus asked me the same question the angels did, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And then another, “Who are you looking for?” I answered the gardener with a sense of resignation, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away. Why am I weeping? How can I even begin to tell you what fills my heart and what tugs at my soul? And who am I looking for? At this point I don’t even know. All I know is that my friend’s body has disappeared and if I just do this one thing, if I just take a little step, things might get better and I might make it through the day. Why am I weeping? If you only knew the sadness that engulfs my heart.”
And then it happened. Jesus called me by name. “Mary!” I didn’t see Jesus come forth from the tomb. I heard my name and then I came forth from my tomb. “Rabbouni!” Divinely wise teacher! The intimate and the cosmic mingled in my ears as I heard my name from the other side of death. Jesus was alive again and so was I! I was speechless.
Eventually, he spoke again, “Do not hold on to me.” I think I know what he meant, that none of us could hold him now, or control him—that he could not be contained. That’s when I really started to understand the good news of the resurrection. He was saying, “Let me be free so I can ascend and finish what the incarnation began. Let me be free so I can give you the fullness of what I have to offer.”
This way resurrection could get loose and spread out throughout all creation. Jesus is raised and forever after the Body of Christ is being raised. And I am part of that body! And so are you! And so are Christians around the world, from the Sudan to Yugoslavia, from Ireland to Honduras to Thailand, from Australia to Ohio to California. We are all part of the Body of Christ, and we are being raised to new life, each and every day!
Then Jesus sent me home to break the silence about what God has done. I was the first one to tell the story of resurrection! I said, “I have seen the Lord!” and I told the others the truth about what had happened to me. May God help all of us to proclaim the truth of our experience of our Risen Lord, now and forever. Amen.