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Saint Mary Magdalene - Years ABC
John 20.1-2,11-18

Other texts:

On this Lesser Festival, one could highlight what we know about Mary Magdalene from the scriptures. The following are all of the references to her. Her major "claim to fame" is being at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, given a message from angels to report to the disciples (in an age when women were not allowed to be witnesses in court!), and, according to some, the first see the risen Christ.

*includes resurrection appearance

Philip Pfatteicher, (Festivals and Commemorations: Handbook to the Calendar in Lutheran Book of Worship) presents the following summary of Mary Magdalene and prayer emphases for the day.

Mary Magdalene, called "the apostle to the Apostles" by Bernard of Clairvaux, carried the news of the resurrection to the Twelve. Whenever the gospels list the women who were with Jesus, Mary Magdalene is listed first (John 19:25 is the sole exception), perhaps because she was the first to see the risen Jesus. Luke 8:2 reports that Jesus had cured her of possession by seven demons. She has often been identified with the repentant "woman of the city" who anointed Jesus' feet as he sat at the table in the Pharisee's home (Luke 7:36-50), and her title on the calendar has been "Penitent." (There has been no one else with this title.) There is, however, no biblical basis for this identification of Mary with the penitent prostitute. Nor is she to be identified with Mary of Bethany, an identification common in the Western church since the sixth century, although it is rejected in the East.

According to the gospels, Mary of Magdala is the primary witness to the fundamental facts of the Christian proclamation: she saw the death of Jesus, she saw his burial, she saw his first resurrection appearance. Her commemoration on July 22 is observed in both the Eastern and the Western churches, and, especially since the twelfth century, she has become one of the most widely commemorated women in Christendom.


Frederick Buechner (Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who) writes a "biography" of Mary.

It is sometimes held that Mary Magdalene was the woman Luke tells about whom, to the righteous horror of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus let wash his feet and dry them with her hair despite her highly unsavory reputation, and about whom Jesus said, "I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven because she loved much (Luke 7:47). It's a powerful story, and it would be nice to think that Mary Magdalene is the one it's about, but unfortunately there's no really good reason for doing so.

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples, he had a group of women with him whom he'd cast evil spirits out of once and who had not only joined up with him but all chipped in to help meet expenses. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and in her case it was apparently not just one evil spirit that had been cast out but seven. Just what her problem had been, nobody says, but helped along by the story in Luke, tradition has it that she'd been a whore. Maybe so. In any case, she seems to have teamed up with Jesus early in the game and to have stuck with him to the end. And beyond.

It's at the end that she comes into focus most clearly. She was one of the women who was there in the background when he was being crucified she had more guts than most of them had and she was also one of the ones who was there when they put what was left of him in the tomb. But the time that you see her best was on that first Sunday morning after his death.

John is the one who gives the greatest detail, and according to him it was still dark when she went to the tomb to discover that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance and that, inside, it was empty as a drum. She ran back to wherever the disciples were hiding out to tell them, and Peter and one of the others returned with her to check out her story. They found out that it was true and that there was nothing there except some pieces of cloth the body had been wrapped in. They left then, but Mary stayed on outside the tomb someplace and started to cry. Two angels came and asked her what she was crying about, and she said, "Because they have taken away my lord, and I do not know where they have laid him" (John 20:13). She wasn't thinking in terms of anything miraculous, in other words; she was thinking simply that even in death they wouldn't let him be and somebody had stolen his body.

Then another person came up to her and asked the same questions. Why was she crying? What was she doing there? She decided it must be somebody in charge, like the gardener maybe, and she said if he was the one who had moved the body somewhere else, would he please tell her where it was so she could go there.

Instead of answering her, he spoke her name Mary and then she recognized who he was, and though from that instant forward the whole course of human history was changed in so many profound and complex ways that it's impossible to imagine how it would have been different otherwise, for Mary Magdalene the only thing that had changed was that for reasons she was in no state to consider, her old friend and teacher and strong right arm was alive again, and RABBONI! she shouted and was about to throw her arms around him for sheer joy and astonishment when he stopped her.

Noli me tangere, he said. Touch me not. Don't hold on to me (John 20:17), thus making her not only the first person in the world to have her heart stop beating for a second to find him alive again when she'd thought he was dead as a doornail but the first person also to have her heart break a little to realize that he couldn't be touched any more, wasn't there any more as a hand to hold onto when the going got tough, a shoulder to weep on, because the life in him was no longer a life she could know by touching it, with her here and him there, but a life she could know only by living it: with her here old tart and retread, old broken-heart and last, best friend and with him here too, alive inside her life, to raise her up also out of the wreckage of all that was wrecked in her and dead.

In the meanwhile, he had much to do and far to go, he said, and so did she, and the first thing she did was go back to the disciples to report. "I have seen the Lord," she said, and whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist. (John 20:1-18). [pp. 101-103]

Another options on this day is to center on these verses from John. Most of the following notes come from my comments on the Easter text (20:1-18).

There are two biblical themes related to the resurrection: (1) finding the empty tomb and (2) appearances of the risen Christ. There are no canonical accounts of the actual resurrection (although there is one in the Gospel of Peter).

Our text is divided into two parts -- related to the two types of biblical resurrection narratives.

(1) Finding the empty tomb (20:1-10)

(a) by Mary (20:1-2)

(b) by Peter and the beloved disciple (20:3-10)

(2) The resurrected Jesus appears to Mary (20:11-18)

(a) Mary sees angels at the empty tomb (20:11-13)

(b) Mary sees Jesus, but think he's the gardener (20:14-15)

(c) Mary sees Jesus after he utters her name (20:16-17)

(d) Mary reports the appearance to the disciples (20:18)

For this Lesser Festival, the story about Peter and the beloved disciple finding the empty tomb is omitted. The emphasis is on Mary.


Repeatedly Jesus had said that he would be "raised on the third day," but none of the resurrection accounts use that expression. Rather they say "on the first day of the week". Perhaps this was to emphasize the change from seventh to first day worship.

All four of the biblical accounts indicate that Mary Magdalene was one of the first at the empty tomb. In John she appears to be the only one, while in the synoptics other women are mentioned.

We are not told why Mary has gone to the tomb. Given the information only from this text, I would guess that she went to mourn the dead. Four times we are told that she is crying (klaio -- vv. 11, 11, 13, 15) -- the same reaction of another Mary at the death of her brother Lazarus (11:31, 33). The deceased were usually buried on the day they died and the mourning followed.

John tells us that Mary came "while it is still dark." The synoptics indicate that the women come at dawn (Mt & Lk) or sunrise (Mk). A symbolic meaning of this difference has been suggested that the synoptics emphasize light's triumph over darkness and John (at this point in the story) emphasizes the darkness of the (supposedly) stolen body. Even if it were dark when Mary arrived at the tomb, light would have to come shortly so that the two disciples would be able to see the cloths inside the tomb.


"Dark" may also refer to the blindness of seeing the truth. Seven times in this text words for "seeing" are used; and the seeing always results in some belief about what is seen -- and that belief is usually wrong!

Her comment, "We don't know where they have placed him" recalls the theme throughout John about knowing where Jesus comes from and where he is going (e.g., 7:33-36; 8:21-23).

The use of we has led some to speculate that there were other women with Mary as reported in the synoptics, but it is a singular in v. 13. I am more inclined to think that she used "we" in opposition to the "they" she assumed stole the body; or a collective "we" to refer to all of Jesus' followers.

Grave robbing was a troublesome crime at this time. There was an imperial edict against it. It would have been natural for her (and other disciples) to conclude that someone had stolen the body.

Whatever the beloved disciple believed wasn't complete as v. 9 indicates: "For as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead."

Remembering that this is part of the "empty tomb" story, he could only believe as much as the empty tomb allowed -- Christ was no longer in the tomb, and it was likely that his body had not been stolen. Thieves would not have neatly folded the linens after unwrapped the body.

The angels give no Easter announcements, but draw attention to Mary's grief. Their sitting at the head and feet of where Jesus' lay may relate to "angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (1:51) and thus point to the in-breaking of the promised new age (rather than being messengers of the resurrection).

Note again the attention to Mary's grief.

It is only through the word from Jesus that Mary able to see and believe correctly. In addition, Mary is told to go and speak to the disciples (v. 17).

Mary declares to the disciples, "I have seen [orao] the Lord" (v. 18)

The disciples may not see what she has seen. She can't show them what she has seen. She can only tell them what she has seen and heard and believes. They may or may not believe what she declares.

So it is with us today. Our belief in the resurrection doesn't come from what we see, but from what we hear. What we see, may not necessarily lead to a correct belief about Jesus. Mary illustrates an emphasis in the gospel of John -- correct faith comes from hearing, not seeing.


As I mentioned earlier, Mary's weeping is emphasized in this section. It may indicate the reason she came to the tomb -- to mourn the dead. It also contains a symbolic meaning in John. Besides the weeping at the tombs of Jesus and Lazarus, the only other instance of this word (klaio) is 16:20: "Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy."

I also think that 16:22 relates to our text: "So you have pain now; but I will see [orao] you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."

Mary is weeping and mourning over (1) the death of Jesus; and (2) the fact that she thinks someone has stolen the body and she doesn't know where it is. The transformation promised in ch. 16 takes place through a word and the presence of Jesus. Her pain and weeping is turned into joy. Jesus has seen her again.

The calling of Mary's name recalls the image Jesus gives in John 10: "The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (v. 3).

A similar "eye-opening" event -- although centered on breaking bread rather than the word -- occurs in the Road to Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35).

Mary is told not to hold on [hapto] to Jesus (v. 17), yet later Jesus will tell Thomas to touch [phero = put, reach out; and ballo = cast, put, place] his wounds (v. 27). Different words are used. The risen Jesus standing before Mary is not the Jesus who will stay forever. Neither she nor we can "hold on" to him. The permanent presence of Christ will be through the Spirit whom Jesus and the Father will send after Jesus' glorification (7:39; 14:26; 15:26; 16:13). Jesus' glorification involves being lifted up on the cross, being lifted up from death, and being lifted into heaven.

From the covenant language at the end of v. 17, it would seem that the ascension is necessary for us to have the same relationship with God the Father as Jesus has with him -- a relationship mediated through the Spirit.

I'll close with a comment I like from Fred Craddock on this text in Preaching through the Christian Year, Year A.

...even for disciples like Mary, Easter does not return her and Jesus to the past; Easter opens up a new future. The earthly ministry is over; now the ministry of the exalted, glorified, ever-abiding Christ begins. "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you" (16:7). In fact, the one who believes will do even greater works than Jesus did, "because I am going to the Father" (14:12). Therefore, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, "Do not hold on to me" (v. 17). Rather, she is to go and announce his resurrection and his ascension to the presence of God, from whose presence the Holy Spirit will come to lead, comfort, and empower the church. [p. 246]

The resurrection is not a return to the past, but a movement to the future. Neither Mary nor we nor our congregations can hold on to the past after resurrection. We look to the even greater future that God has in store for us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been called, as Mary was, to spread the news that Jesus has been raised and continues to live.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901