The meeting of Mary Magdalene with the risen Lord at his empty tomb is one of the more poignant passages of Scripture. According to the Gospel of John, she was the first to go to the tomb. Then she went to Peter and John and told them that the tomb was empty, but at that point she didn’t understand what had happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” The apostles ran to the tomb and discovered it empty. We’re not told how Peter interpreted the phenomenon of the empty tomb, but we learn that John “saw and believed.” Still, the apostles “went back to their homes” without having met the Lord at the tomb.
Mary stayed, and she wept. If John “saw and believed” he evidently did not tell Mary what he believed about the empty tomb, because she was still under the impression that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Mary’s love kept her there and she would not be consoled.
She looked again into the tomb, and Jesus was still gone, but it was no longer empty; there were two angels sitting there. This seemed not to faze the Magdalene in the least. They asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back their smiles, for they knew what was to come). Without questioning who they were or how they managed to enter the tomb without her seeing them, she gave the same answer she gave to Peter and John above.
Then she turned around and saw Jesus. By this time the tomb was anything but empty! She didn’t know it was Jesus at first. This is a common occurrence in the post-resurrection appearances. Jesus asked her: “Woman, why are you weeping?” (knowing full well why she was weeping, and forcing back his smile). Then He said, getting more to the point and preparing the imminent recognition and reunion: “Whom do you seek?” She didn’t answer his question, assuming that, whoever he was, he knew darn well whom she was seeking if she was standing outside his tomb. And if he was the one who took her Teacher/Master (Rabboni) away, he had better take her to where He was.
The next moment could take volumes to describe, if it could be described at all. In fact, it is ineffable, and we feel it more than we can talk about it. “Jesus said to her: ‘Mary.’” The last three years of her life must have flashed before her in an instant: meeting Him, being delivered from demons by Him, following Him, loving Him and being loved by Him, going to the Cross with Him and sharing in his agony, suffering the loss of Him, weeping at his grave. “Mary.” At the sound of the Master’s voice speaking her name, everything came back in a rush of wonder, fear, and joy. No one took Him away from the tomb after all! He left of his own accord—just as no one took his life from Him but he laid it down of his own free will. “Rabboni!” It was He, standing before her, making all things new. Her fidelity and love were rewarded with the gift of being the first to see Him after He had risen from the dead.
A curious thing happened next, which I don’t know if anyone fully understands. She must have rushed to embrace Him but he forbade her, saying, “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” Why could no one touch Him before this mysterious ascension—which was not the same one which happened 40 days later and marked the end of his appearances? It must have something to do with the completion of Jesus’ “glorification,” which, according to John’s Gospel, included everything from the Passion to this Ascension. In any case, it was a mystical ascension, perhaps a profound personal “reunion” of the Son—in the flesh, bearing the wounds of his obedience—with the Father upon the completion of his mission. We don’t know why Mary couldn’t touch Him before this was accomplished, but we know He welcomed the touch of his loved ones afterward: “Touch me and see…”; and again: “Put out your hand, and place it in my side.”
Mary knew whom she was seeking, yet in a certain sense Jesus might have been saying that she didn’t know fully. Something happened at the resurrection that superseded all previous ways of relating. It was Jesus, but not merely the kenotic Jesus, the one who had abandoned all his divine glory in order to be the Suffering Servant. Risen from the dead, He clothed his humiliated humanity with glory. So perhaps it was a kind of sign or symbol that Mary didn’t recognize Him right away. He was glorified, but still not manifestly so, since she mistook Him for a gardener, but the point is that He was different. And Mary would have to learn to relate to Him in a different way, though a way that would ultimately be better than anything she had ever known. But it was a process: seeking, mistaking, then hearing his voice and recognizing, being temporarily restrained yet being granted a mission (“Go to my brethren and say to them…”), and finally—though this is not mentioned in the Gospel—going into his eternal glory upon her death and living in ecstatic love with Him forever.
If we are asked, in the context of our spiritual life, whom we are seeking, we may readily respond: “Why, Jesus, of course!” But perhaps we ought to reflect a bit and see if we sufficiently understand who it is we are seeking. Mary was seeking Jesus as she had come to know Him, but He was different and she didn’t recognize Him. Perhaps we may be seeking an image of Jesus that we have either made for ourselves or have carried with us from childhood, but if that’s not really who He is, then we may not recognize Him even if He stands before us. We are not the ones in control of our relationship with God; it’s not up to us to make comfortable images or settle into satisfying devotions—especially if that implies a lack of genuine openness to anything new or different the Lord might will for us. We must always be growing, maturing, listening for the voice of the Master. When He calls us by name, He is looking for a moment of joyful recognition on our part, and even if we cannot immediately enter into the fullness of love’s embrace this side of Paradise, He will most likely give us some sort of mission in the meantime. And if we continue to seek Him throughout our lives, we can be sure He will call our name at the hour of our death and receive us into his everlasting joy.
So then, whom do you seek? In what ways are you seeking Him? What are your expectations? Are you willing to be open to his reality, and not merely your own image of Him, even if that is based on genuine past experience? Mary’s past experience of Jesus had been authentic, but He was taking her to a new level. We should let the Lord take us to ever-greater levels of relationship with Him, in knowledge and love and sensitivity to his voice, that is, willingness to do his will.
May we at last be able to enter into his joy, like the Magdalene. I wonder if, when she finally crossed the threshold of the Kingdom, she might have recalled these words, which summed up her whole life and her whole eternity: “I found him whom my heart loves; I held him and would not let him go…” (Songs 3:4).