Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me … Go instead to my brothers and tell them ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”—John 20:16–17
The Resurrection is an unprecedented event in history. In the words of C. S. Lewis, it is a miracle of the New Creation. Something of which the world has had no previous experience at all has entered the old order and radically altered it. The great reversal has begun. The new wine has burst the old wineskins. Even familiar relations with Jesus in the old creation no longer suffice. Now, it seems he can only be recognized by those to whom he chooses to reveal himself.
The story of the Resurrection is also the story of human love at its best. When all else fails—even faith and hope—love comes through intact. It may be weak in comparison to divine love, but it is strong enough to move the heart of the Lover. Such is the love of Mary Magdalene.
What makes Mary’s devotion to Jesus unique may have begun early in his ministry when he cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:1–3). Mary had known the terrifying power of spiritual enslavement and the exhilarating freedom of following Christ her teacher. Here was a Rabbi who treated women very differently. From that day, her admiration and love grew.
Mary followed Jesus to Jerusalem. When all the other disciples fled (Mark 14:50), she stood in solidarity with other women to witness his agonizing death on the cross (Matt. 27:55). Love refuses to be cowed. Love perseveres when hope is extinguished. Mary witnessed Jesus’ limp body being taken down from the cross. He was dead! But love will not give up.
She continued to follow Jesus to the point where she could go no further. The tomb was finally clamped shut. Sabbath was about to begin. She had to leave, but not without first taking note of where his body lay (Mark 15:47).
Mary could not wait for the Sabbath to be over. At the first streaks of dawn, she hurried to the tomb. Love drove her back. Perhaps all she wanted was to be with the Beloved—if only to run her hand over the cold, defiant rock that blocks the tomb’s entrance. But further dismay greeted her: The stone had been removed and the body was gone. Without a second thought, she hurried back and reported it to Peter and John.
John reached the tomb entrance first and hesitated, but Peter, true to form, barged in. The sight defied explanation, for they “still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Peter and John tried to figure out what might have happened. They were practical men looking for plausible explanations, and finding none, they decided to leave.
But Mary lingered. She would not give up so easily. But where is he? Why? No, it can’t be—perhaps a jumble of foreboding thoughts filled her mind. Could it be the work of grave robbers? Perhaps anger welled up at the thought of unconscionable men desecrating Jesus’ body. Mary could take it no more; she broke down in tears.
She moved closer to the tomb and saw two angels. Their brief exchange suggests that they seemed harmless, ordinary folks. Just then Jesus appeared and asked: “Why are you crying?” But Mary could not recognize the voice. Thinking that he was the gardener, she pleaded with him to tell him where he might have carried away the body of Jesus, saying, “and I will get him”—I will carry him (John 20:15). She did not consider how she would do it. These are words of a determined woman. Whatever it took, she’d find the body and carry it back.
Was Mary so blinded by her tears that she could not recognize Jesus? Not likely. The Gospels record other instances when the resurrected Jesus was not recognized until he chose to make himself recognizable, such as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who only recognized Jesus through the breaking of bread. For Mary, the voice of the “gardener” suddenly sounded familiar when Jesus called her by name.
Mary’s love had been stretched to breaking point—almost. But then Jesus revealed himself and spoke her name in the familiar voice that she had heard countless times before. In the depth of despair, her “teacher” had found her. She recognized his reassuring voice. She instinctively clung to him, driven by love that will not let go.
But she could not make Christ exclusively her own. Love must at some point yield to the will of the Lover: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ ” (v. 17).
Following Jesus had brought Mary to the brink of despair, but love finally broke through the old order. She became the first witness of the risen Christ and the first bearer of the Good News: The Father of Jesus is now our Father and Jesus is now our brother (Heb. 2:11, 12). But Mary was not a witness in the formal sense, for in her culture a testimony was validated by at least two witnesses and among the Jews, the status of a woman as a witness was a contested issue. What Jesus did for her can only be understood as an act of pure love in response to her singular devotion.
Mary Magdalene’s relentless pursuit of her Beloved exemplifies the spiritual quest for deeper union with God. Like other contemplatives, mystics, and saints in subsequent Christian history, Mary teaches us that love never fails—even when hope fails. It sustained her through the dark night of Holy Saturday into the dawn of Easter. Even as Mary clings to Christ, she also learns to let go. The ecstasy of her reunion with the Beloved was not meant to be for her alone to enjoy. He called her to go into the world and bear witness to the Resurrection: “I have seen the Lord!” From Mary, we begin to understand why love is the greatest theological virtue (1 Cor. 13:13). From her, too, we learn that however much we relish mountain-top experiences of intimacy with God, we must also descend to bring the Good News of the living Christ to a dying world.
Simon Chan served as Earnest Lau Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore. Now retired, Chan is the author of several books including Grassroots Asian Theologyand Spiritual Theology.
This article is part of Journey to the Cross, CT’s 2019 Lent/Easter devotional, which is available for digital download here.