I love reading a really good book, watching a good film or TV series, something with a plot which draws me in and leaves me wondering, who done it? Or what the twist is going to be at the end. There’s nothing worse than someone telling you, before you watch it, what is going to happen, it takes the interest from the story, and distracts us from following the detail as we try to process it.
Reading Scripture can be the same. We know the end of the story, we know the punchline, and so it can be hard to lay that aside. I would love to be able to read it as if I had never heard the stories before, and marvel as the plot unfolds.
I always find a tension on Easter Day. Our hymns, our worship, our entire liturgy is one endless Alleluia as we proclaim that Jesus has risen, and so, as we journey to the empty tomb we can miss the fullness of the sense of shock and bewilderment as Mary Magdalene, Peter, and the beloved disciple enter that tomb and try to process what has happened.
Try to place yourself in Mary Magdalene’s shoes. She was at the foot of the cross when Jesus died. Many of the other disciples had deserted him, only a few remained. The body was prepared hurriedly for burial before the Sabbath. When the Sabbath was over she went to the tomb to finish the formal anointing of the body.
But more than the simple facts of the story, try to get inside her head. She was devoted to this rabbi, she had followed him, she had been healed by him, she had listened to him teach and seen his miracles. Then it all went so badly wrong. Arrest, trial, scourging, crucifixion, death, all within a matter of hours. Everything she had given her life to seemed to come crashing down. As she walked to the tomb that morning the only way I could describe her emotions is the word devastated. All her hopes and dreams, all she saw as her future, dashed in pieces.
She comes to the tomb before the first rays of sunlight had risen, and finds the stone rolled away. She was in such an emotional turmoil that she couldn’t even wait for the first light of day to dawn, she needed to do something, to keep busy. She found the tomb empty and ran to the disciples to tell them that the body had been stolen. They come, see for themselves, and return home. But Mary stays, weeping at the grave.
Then the extraordinary moment, the first resurrection appearance. She sees Jesus, but she does not recognise him. She speaks to Jesus, and he to her, yet still she does not recognise them. Then he calls her by name and she is transformed. It is one of the most wonderful and amazing scenes in scripture, touching in its intimacy.
Much earlier, in John 10, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd, who knows his sheep and who his sheep know, the one who calls his sheep by name. Her we see those words come to life. Jesus calls his sheep by name, Mary, he says, and she relies, Rabbouni! And suddenly the world is different. In one sense nothing has changed, but in another everything has changed. The world around Mary is exactly the same as it was a moment before, but the world for Mary can never be the same again. With the calling of her name she recognises that her Lord and Master is alive, he has returned from the realm of death, and he calls her by name.
So often we find ourselves, metaphorically speaking, in Mary’s shoes. We are frightened, we are bewildered, we struggle to comprehend what has happened and what is happening, we are devastated by the events occurring around us. We might feel as if we have no hope, no future, no reason to keep going. When we find ourselves in that position, all we need is to hear the Good Shepherd calling us by name, and suddenly the world looks so different. Like Mary, nothing has changed, yet everything has changed. The voice of the Risen Jesus speaking to us has the power of transformation.
Mary’s devastation turns to ecstasy, and she reaches out to hold Jesus. He speaks to her again and say, “do not cling to me.” When we have been through a Magdalene moment the obvious thing to do is cling to Jesus. Sorrow turned to joy, death turned to life and so we want to cling to the source of that transformation, to hold on to him for dear life and never let go. Like Peter on the mountain of transfiguration, we never want the moment to end.
We cannot appreciate it at the moment, but Jesus has greater things in store. The resurrection was momentous, beyond Mary’s imagining, but that was not the end of the story. The resurrection leads to the Ascension and Pentecost, the sending of the Spirit of Truth to lead us into all truth.
If Mary had clung to Jesus, if the story had stopped there, the world would be a poorer place. When the risen Jesus speaks to us and calls us by name, it is always only a stage on the road of transformation. If we cling too tightly to that moment, we cannot be led into God’s future. Like Mary Magdalene, we need to cherish the moment, but be prepared to be swept up in the movement.
And, like Mary, the risen Jesus sends us out into the world to proclaim that “I have seen the Lord”. When we know the joy of the risen Lord in our hearts, we need to go out into all the world to tell of his love and his power, so that all his sheep may be gathered into his fold.