Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. “But Mary stood outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb” (John 20:11, ESV). We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene. Oh! To be sure, novelists and filmmakers have taken an incredible amount of artistic “license” (or, shall we say, licentiousness) in regard to the woman who became the first witness of the resurrected Lord Jesus. Some imagine that she was Jesus’ wife or girlfriend. Of course, she was neither. Feminist theologians wrongly imagine that she ranked among the apostles. That is also heresy—not just invention.
Yet even church tradition likes to paint Mary Magdalene with a certain color. In Christian iconography she is pictured in red robes—like a lady of the night. Down through the centuries many preachers have called her a harlot. And even in Christian storytelling, such as the popular television series, The Chosen, Mary is portrayed as a prostitute. But the Bible never indicates or even insinuates that Mary was a prostitute. In fact, until the scenes of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, all that we know about her is that she was wealthy and was at one time possessed by seven demons—until Jesus cast them out (Luke 8:1-3; Mark 16:9).
Mary Magdalene is one of the handful of women who wept beneath the cross as Jesus poured out his lifeblood for the sin of the world (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40). She was among the first on the scene at the empty tomb on the very first Easter. And, as we discover in our Gospel today, she was the very first witness of the resurrected Jesus (Mark 16:9).
Mary went to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, along with Joanna James’s mother Mary (so-called “the other Mary”). When they arrived upon the scene, the stone was rolled away, the Roman soldiers were gone, and Jesus’ body was missing. Assuming the worst—grave robbers—Mary and the other women ran to tell the apostles. Peter and John ran to the tomb to check things out, but after affirming the sad truth of the matter, they returned home, leaving Mary Magdalene by herself.
Can you imagine leaving a poor woman alone in her grief? As a pastor, I don’t think that I could ever walk away from a weeping woman. Your pastoral instinct is to reach out with comforting, reassuring words.
Now, of course, we cannot know for certain that Mary was alone. Her first time at the tomb, she was attended by other women who were disciples of Jesus. But on that Sunday, there were a lot of comings and goings back and forth to and from the tomb and various dwellings in Jerusalem and Bethany. They didn’t have cell phones with which to text one another, so word traveled only as fast as feet could carry it. Very likely, Mary was alone when she met the angels. After all, her pronouns changed from the plural, “we” (v. 2), to the singular, “I” (v. 13).
So Mary was alone in her grief—as many of us feel alone when our loved ones die and we are lost in our grief. Even if, in the aftermath of a death, you are surrounded by people, you still feel like an island adrift.
Yet we have an advantage over Mary: we live on the other side of Easter. And so the Bible tells us that do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). Our hope is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the final resurrection on the Last Day, when Christ will come again to raise our bodies out of the dust and reunite them with our souls.
But Mary and the other disciples had no such hope, for they did not yet know or understand “that [Jesus] must rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Despite his three separate passion predictions, Jesus’ words had fallen on deaf ears. And the devastating memory of Jesus dying on the cross was imprinted on their minds and hearts. I do not believe that there has ever been a sorrow so severe as that suffered by Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday.
Who can even begin to imagine Mary Magdalene’s profound grief as she wept outside Jesus’ empty tomb. Not only was her Lord dead (to her knowledge), but his body was missing. She couldn’t even perform one last labor of love by embalming him for proper burial. For many people, an important part of healing after a loved one’s death is being able to visit the grave, to lay flowers, to pray, and to remember the deceased. That’s why governments go to such great lengths to repatriate the remains of fallen soldiers. It is a great comfort to families to be able to bury their loved ones’ remains, even if all they have is a few bones or a scrap of uniform insignia. And so Mary stood outside the tomb like a dog abandoned by its master, who simply stays at the last known spot where he was.
But when she looked inside, she saw the two angels, who asked, ever so gently, “Woman, why do you weep?” To which she replied, “They have taken away my Lord…”—whoever They might be! “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13).
Next, she sees Jesus, although she doesn’t know it is Jesus. Many people have speculated as to why Mary did not recognize her Lord. Some wonder if she was blinded by her tears. Others imagine she was in hysterics from the trauma that unfolded just two days prior. After all, the last time Mary saw Jesus, his body was ground to a pulpit by the scourging and crucifixion. One of my favorite Jesus movies, The Gospel of John (2003), imagines Jesus hiding behind a palm tree! Perhaps the simplest explanation is just that the disciples had no expectation of even the possibility of Jesus rising from the dead. Remember: the Emmaus road disciples did not recognize him either (Luke 24:16).
“Woman,” Jesus asks, “why do you weep? Whom do you seek?” (v. 15, CSM).
Mary assumed the man speaking to her was the gardener—the cemetery caretaker—and through her tears she blubbered something about showing her where he was so she could take him away. We may laugh at the absurdity of little Mary carrying away the corpse of a grown man. I’m not certain she could move him even if she dragged him by the ankles. Besides all that, where would she take him? But love knows no logic. There is no hill too high to climb or ocean too wide to swim for love. Mary loved Jesus.
And Jesus loved Mary. In a voice full of warmth, he spoke her name. “Mary,” he said, holding her up by a word. Even after his suffering and death—even after his glorious resurrection—Jesus still remembered the little people ignored and forgotten by the rest of the world. He did not leave her alone. He sent out his Word to heal her (cf. Ps. 107:20).
And by that one word, Mary’s name on Jesus’ lips, she finally saw Jesus. The Messiah’s missing body was found—and he was alive! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
“Rabboni!” she cried. “Teacher!” After some brief instruction, Mary ran to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).
Jesus loves you and knows your name too. He loves you so much that he died for you. And now he lives for you. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Jesus will never forget or forsake you. He will never leave you alone in your grief. Your name is engraved with the nails of the cross on the palms of his hands (Isa. 49:16). And, if you believe and trust in him as Savior and Lord, then your name is also written in heaven in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Luke 10:20; Rev. 3:5). Because Jesus died and rose again, you have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in his name: Jesus, the one who saves his people from their sins (Matt. 1:23).
Now Jesus’ words to Mary are your instructions too: “Go to my brothers [and sisters] and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17). Jesus invites everyone into his new family—God’s family! So that no matter what we face in life, we will never be left alone crying outside the tomb. Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11). He will never leave you or forsake you. Jesus remembers you—and your name. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of T the Holy Spirit. Amen. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia!