Gospel of John: Mary of Magdala


Here is a YouTube link for my deeper dive into the life of Mary of Magdala.

All four Gospel accounts describe Mary’s faithfulness and courage, a major financial supporter and patron of Jesus’s ministry, one of only three remaining with Jesus at the foot of his cross until his death, and the first to arrive at his tomb the morning of his resurrection.


Anguish and Despair

In fact, Mary’s most significant story in scripture comes in her final encounter with Jesus, described in John 20, the day he rose from the dead.

Before we get to Mary’s story, though, imagine first the confusion and horror she had endured the past three days, then coming to Jesus’s tomb only to find the soldiers sprawled out unconscious, the tomb broken open, and mysterious angelic beings inside. Imagine the women, emotionally weary, mortified by the sadistic cruelty of Jesus’s flogging and crucifixion, their fluster and flurry, dropping their jars, running back and forth several times from the tomb to the place where they were staying.

The gospels say the disciples did not believe the women, but later Peter and John came to inspect, then they also ran back. Already exhausted and depleted, this had to have stretched them beyond their already frayed edges.

Now think of Mary’s emotional state as she sank down alone beside Jesus’s empty tomb—the rawness of her anguish and grief, even despair. She was crying—that kind of crying that comes up from the depths of your inner being, racking sobs. Think of her physical fatigue, and the unbearable pressure and horrific trauma of the past few days’ events. In this state, like touching an exposed nerve, Mary bent once again to look into Jesus’ empty tomb, knowing with dread that he would still be gone, and she would still be alone in her loss.

Angels and Jesus

But, astonishingly, the tomb was no longer empty! Two angelic beings now sat on the stone ledge where Jesus’ body had been interred, one at the foot, and one at the head by the neatly folded head cloths, in a tableau reminiscent of the cherubim guarding the seat of mercy of the Ark of the Covenant. They spoke with great empathy and compassion.

As Mary was talking to the angels she sensed a presence behind her. Maybe the angels looked passed her shoulder and she turned to look at what they saw. It was a man, simply and humbly dressed.

Here is a classic case of eyes seeing, but the heart and mind not comprehending. Maybe the Lord was not wearing a robe Mary would have recognized. Maybe she did not look at his face, just up in his general direction. Jesus repeated the angelic beings’ gentle words, using the same honorific, spoken in tenderness, that Jesus had called his own mother.

Mistress, why are you lamenting? Who are you looking for?

John 20:15

Mary heard Jesus’s words, in his voice, but she still did not recognize him. Distraught, she blurted out her feelings, not really seeing Jesus because she was so overwhelmed with her own pain, her own heartache and sorrow.

Do you feel like the lowest of the low, not really worthy, like all those other Christians you admire? You are in good company. Mary must have felt like that often enough too, not just because she was a lowly woman, but also because she was a woman who had to be delivered from demon possession. How long had she been in the grip of evil, of utter darkness? What awful, unnameable things had she said and done before Jesus released her from that torment?

Into that deepest pit, with no way out, Jesus shone the light of his healing power, and he called her out into life and freedom, and like Paul after her, Mary immediately devoted her entire life to Jesus. Jesus would now give her his own life. his relationship with her would become even more intimate, when he ascended to heaven and sent His Spirit.

But there is even more.

Acolyte to Disciple

John’s gospel makes a point of portraying Jesus’ inclusion of women, and there seems to be an important indicator for those who become Jesus’ disciples.

The first words Jesus spoke in the Gospel of John were

Τί ζητεῖτε; Ti zeteite?

John 1:38

to the two disciples who had left John the Baptist’s side and were now trailing Jesus. The verb ζητέω zeteo, incorporates a Hebraism implying a philosophical search, “What are you looking for in life?” and more to the point, “What are seeking to worship?”

Such a question is well-asked of those who are seeking to be disciples.

The second time this question appears in this kind of context it remains unspoken. The disciples dared not voice it as they observed Jesus engaged in a profoundly spiritual conversation with a Samaritan, who was also a woman. The question was nonetheless well-placed, for later this same woman returned to her village as an apostle of the gospel.

The third time this question appears in this frame of reference is in Mary of Magdala’s story, slightly modified to τίνα ζητεῖς; Tina zeteis? posed by Jesus to Mary. In context, it seems somewhat disingenuous for the risen Christ to ask that question of a follower of Jesus. Yet, the significance of the question becomes clear after Mary poured out her heart to Jesus, all her grief and loss, for her whole life was wrapped up in Jesus’s life.

Jesus responded to her outpouring with one word. “Mary

With sudden, breathtaking clarity, Mary discovered the “gardener’s” true identity by hearing the sound of her name spoken in his beloved voice. She exclaimed, “Rabbi,” the word a disciple would use in response to their teacher.

The Good Shepherd

Years before, Jesus had explained to his followers that those who knew and loved him would always know his voice, and he would know every single one of them by name, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Mary was one of his sheep, she recognized her name in his voice.

Perhaps there was an even deeper meaning, for Mary. Only a few months before Jesus had raised their close friend Lazarus up out of death by calling his name. Perhaps when Jesus had freed her of her demons, he had called her out of her own dark place and into his light by saying her name. What overwhelming joy! As she said these things she flung her arms around her beloved rabbi and was probably holding him in a tight hug, so incredibly happy to have Jesus back.

Apostle to the Apostles

Of even weightier significance than Jesus’ initial question that would identify a disciple, was the Messiah’s commissioning of Mary to return as an apostle of the gospel to the other disciples, to give them the good news of his resurrection.

Jesus gently moved Mary from clinging to him and all they had, to going back to the community and sharing with them what she had experienced.

Do not fasten yourself to me, for I have not yet gone up to the Father—so, you go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, “I am risen up to my Father and also the Father of all of you, my God, and also your God.”

John 20:17

This is the first time in John’s gospel where Jesus described God as the Father and God of the brethren in the same way God was Father and God to Jesus. This cosmically powerful truth of God’s restoration of all creation, of God’s reparation of humankind to God and to each other was now entrusted to Mary.

Jesus restores the relationships of humankind—to God, to each other, and to the earth.

Jesus had specifically, and carefully, waited to appear to Mary of Magdala first, so that she might be the first one to carry the most profound and life-changing message there is—the Gospel. Jesus chose her above his own family, above his twelve carefully selected disciples, above his other closest friends and supporters.

Jesus chose her.

Mary of Magdala was

  • The first to see Jesus risen from the dead.
  • The first to be called by name by the Good Shepherd.
  • The first to touch the risen Lord.
  • The first to receive the great commission, “He is risen, Christ is risen indeed!”
  • The first to deliver an eye-witness account of the resurrection.
  • The Lord Jesus valued her and honored her.
  • Then Jesus sent her back to the community of men and women who needed to experience this same joy. 

[Sir Edward Coley BURNE-JONES “The Morning of the Resurrection” 1886 Oil on panel. Tate Gallery | Plum leaves, flickr, (CC BY 2.0)]

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