Easter Evening 2015
The encounter between Mary and the Jesus in the garden where he was raised from death is one of the most famous of all Jesus’ resurrection experiences, and one of the most beautiful.
Mary comes to the garden to find that the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty. She breaks down in tears. Bad enough that Jesus is dead, but to find his body stolen is too much. Angry and bewildered she begs the man she takes for the gardener to tell her where the body is.
But the man calls her by name, and suddenly she knows it is Jesus.
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene, and much of what we think we know is really just speculation. The Gospels simply say that Jesus cast seven demons out of her and that she then followed him right up to his death and, as we see here, beyond it. We also know that Jesus trusted her to take the news of his resurrection back to the other disciples, who were still in hiding after his crucifixion. That’s why she’s sometimes called the Apostle to the Apostles, the one who is sent to those who will themselves be sent out to carry the news of the resurrection to the world. But that is about all we know.
We don’t know how old she was. Painters always paint her as young, but she could have been old enough to be Jesus’ grandma. Nor do we know what she looked like though every painter depicts her as beautiful. We don’t know that she was a prostitute either; the assumption of generations of Christians that this was so probably says more about them than about her! Then there are all the wilder speculations of the conspiracy theorists – that she and Jesus were secretly married and that she bore his child for example. Needless to say there is even less evidence for these than there is for any of those other guesses – no evidence at all actually. What is obvious, though, is that Jesus mattered to her, and that she mattered to him too.
So we might wonder why, if Jesus is so important to her, she doesn’t recognise him straight away when she meets him in the garden. Of course, she’s not expecting to see him, but isn’t this a face she would know anywhere?
Apparently not, and she’s not alone. Other disciples fail to recognise Jesus too. He walks seven miles to the village of Emmaus with a pair of them before they twig who he is. Either they were blinded by their assumption that it couldn’t be him, or he somehow, subtly, looked different.
But eventually Mary catches on, and it is the moment when he calls her name that breaks through whatever it is that is clouding her sight.
He calls her name. He knows who she is. And that is what convinces her.
This is a story all about knowing and being known. She recognises Jesus because he has recognised her not just superficially, but deep down.
Malcolm Guite’s poem assumes that she is the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus with oil from an alabaster jar when he is at dinner in the house of a prominent Pharisee (Luke 7.36-50). Everyone else there is scandalised. Surely Jesus should know what sort of woman she is. But that doesn’t matter to him. What does matter is that she is there, and that she wants his help. “One man knew and loved you to the core” he says, while all the others “burden [her] with their own weight of sin”. Whether Mary Magdalene was that woman or not, in that society any woman who stepped out of her allotted role was likely to find herself treated like a loose woman “no better than she ought to be”, so it is quite reasonable to assume that Mary Magdalene had carried the same sort of stigma. Being treated like that is likely to leave you feeling grubby and devalued, even if your life is actually beyond reproach. If enough people tell you that you are worthless, you’ll eventually feel that way. But Jesus had proclaimed the opposite, not just to Mary, but to all who came to him. He had seen beneath the surface of people’s lives, and it changed them forever.
When this stranger in the garden calls her by name, it all comes flooding back. This is a man who knows her, and knowing her, loves her too. It doesn’t matter what his face looks like, any more than it matters what hers was like – young or old, beautiful or scarred by the life she’d led. There is a knowledge we can all have of one another that is far more than skin deep, and it is very precious when we find it. It is especially precious when we discover that God knows and loves us like that. As St Paul put it in our first reading, “now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part, but then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
That kind of love, love born of true and deep knowledge, can’t die. It can’t be lost. And it can change the world.
This is the love we celebrate on this Easter Day, the love of God which knows us through and through, and can raise us to new life, just as it raised Jesus.