Among the Myrrhbearing Women, it is clear that Mary Magdalene is something of a “first among equals.” In the Synoptic Gospels she is always listed first among the other women whose names are recorded by the Evangelists [Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10]. In the Gospel According to Saint John, she is the only one of these remarkable women actually named by the Evangelist. That saint John also knew the tradition of multiple women visiting the tomb of Christ “on the first day of the week” [John 20:1] is indicated by Mary Magdalene using “we” when returning from the tomb and excitingly telling the disciples what she/they discovered there, mistaken though she was as to the reason: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know here they have laid him” [John 20:2]. And it is Saint Mark and Saint John who record the fact that she is the first of the women to actually see the Risen Lord [Mark 16:9; John 20:14]. In addition, it is the Evangelist Mark who informs us that Jesus had “cast out seven demons” from Mary Magdalene [verse 9]. Saint Mary Magdalene thus stands out among these outstanding, though self-effacing women, who are now known throughout the world wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. The Myrrhbearing Women were privileged to be the first human beings to discover the empty tomb, and the first as a body to behold the Risen Christ [Matthew 28:9].
This past Sunday, we heard the account in Saint Mark’s Gospel about the role of the Myrrhbearing Women in the discovery of the empty tomb [Mark 15:43-16:8]. This is the only Sunday during the Paschal season that we hear from a Gospel other than Saint John’s. However, I would like to return to Saint John’s Gospel for the purpose of this meditation and to share a few words about the extraordinary encounter between the Risen Lord and Mary Magdalene recorded there [20:11-18]. This is an encounter like no other. I recall the renowned British biblical scholar C. H. Dodd writing that this account in Saint John’s Gospel has no remote counterpart in all of the ancient literature of the Graeco-Roman world. It is absolutely unique.
At first, as recorded above, Mary Magdalene believed that the tomb was empty because “they have taken the Lord out of the tomb” [John 20:2]. This was her “natural” reaction to the fact of the empty tomb. She then temporarily disappears from the narrative as we hear of Saints Peter and John discovering the empty tomb, prompted by Mary’s troubling words. But after this discovery “the disciples went back to their home” [verse 17]. Then, Mary appears again “weeping outside the tomb” [verse 11]. When she stoops to look into the tomb she is surprised by the presence of two angels, who pointedly ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She again repeats her despairing belief that “they have taken away my Lord” [verse 13]. At this point “she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus” [verse 14].
And then that remarkable dialogue and encounter occurs. At first Jesus will repeat the words of the angels: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” [verse 15]. Still fixated on the mistaken belief that someone had removed the body of Jesus, Mary, for the third time, repeats that assertion to “the gardener,” hoping that he will cooperate in disclosing the whereabouts of the body of Jesus. And then all is transformed “in the twinkling of an eye” when the Risen Jesus pronounces her name: “Mary” [verse 16]. That is all that was necessary, and Christ prepared us for that immediate recognition upon hearing one’s name pronounced, “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” [John 10:14, 27-28].
When the Risen Good Shepherd speaks her name she immediately recognizes His voice as foretold in the words above and she responds with the endearing title “Rab-bo’ni!” (The evangelist parenthetically informs us that this means Teacher). This encounter like no other is actually consummated through the seemingly simple pronouncement of a name and a title exchanged with both love and devotion between Christ and His disciple Mary Magdalene. I believe that this moment of recognition would be impossible to express in words. We can only bow our heads in silence and awe. Or, perhaps like the other Myrrhbearing Women, “trembling and astonishment” [Mark 16:8] will come upon us if we allow the full power of this encounter to enter our minds and hearts. Mary’s bewilderment, despair and confusion gave way to joy and regeneration. That the setting was a “garden” is no accident. Now, upon returning to the other disciples for a second time, a new message is delivered to them, for Saint John tells us that “Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’” [verse 18].
At one point on this incredibly momentous morning, Mary Magdalene told the angels that “they have taken away my Lord.” Saint Thomas said, when also coming to recognition of the Risen Lord, “My Lord and my God!” In these words, both of these saints made it very personal. The encounter with Christ, regardless of the circumstances, is always something deeply personal. Each unique human being has a unique relationship with Christ. We say that He is our Lord, but we equally say that He is my Lord. Therefore, I would like to quote again the deeply encouraging words of Father Alexander Men who, when commenting on the events of John 20, wrote: “Therefore today, on this Paschal day, let each of you, returning home, carry in his heart this joy and the thought that the Lord has appeared to me, too. He is risen for me, and speaks for me, and remains with me, and will forever be as my Lord, as my Savior, as my God. May the Lord protect you!”
A pious tradition has Saint Mary Magdalene greeting the Roman emperor Tiberius with the words “Christ is Risen!” These words reverberate to this day with the glorious “good news” of life out of death.