Refusing to abandon Jesus in His darkest hour, all four Gospel accounts describe Mary of Magdala’s faithfulness and courage, remaining with Jesus, at the foot of His cross, until His death. She had accompanied Jesus and those who had come to know and love Him, on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, to celebrate the Feast of Passover.
Mary, along with a few other faithful women, watched as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus lowered Jesus’ body from the cross. She took note of what spices and precious oils they brought to embalm Jesus’ body. Following from a distance, she and the other women marked where Joseph and Nicodemus interred Jesus’ body. Knowing the Sabbath was about to begin, Mary, and these few devoted women disciples, determined to purchase and bring the rest of the spices and ointments needed to complete Jesus’ embalming. They remained and kept watch as the temple guards and Roman soldiers arrived to seal the stone rolled across Jesus’ grave.
At the soonest possible moment, 4:45 a.m., just as dawn was breaking on the first day following the Sabbath, Mary, along with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and Salome the mother of James and John, hurried to Jesus’ tomb, carrying all the necessary supplies to complete His burial. At 5:15 in the morning, sudden and severe aftershocks rumbled through the countryside, following the major earthquake the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet these steadfast women were undeterred as they carried their burdens of precious spices and oils to the Garden tomb.
Unbeknownst to them, Jesus had been raised to life in that earth-rocking moment. Angels were rolling back the great, sealed stone to Jesus’ tomb, and the entire detail of Roman soldiers and (or) temple guards were falling on their faces, briefly immobilized by terror. Quickly recovering, these frightened men ran back into the city of Jerusalem to the temple mount where Pilate had temporarily headquartered himself and a garrison of soldiers. The temple guards went to the priests, the soldiers to Pilate, to report what they had seen.
Mary had begun running ahead of the other women to ask one of the guards to roll back the stone—did she hopeher status as a wealthy and prominent citizen of Magdala would perhaps persuade them? But when she arrived, no one was there, the stone was already rolled away, and Jesus’ body was missing. In horror, Mary sped back to where Peter and John were staying, to tell them the awful news.
Not long after, perhaps 5:30 in the morning, the other women, Joanna and Mary mother of James, completed their walk from Bethany and arrived after sunrise. They also found the stone rolled away. Of course, they entered the tomb and found it empty. As they stood there, emotionally overcome by the disappearance of Jesus’ body, an angel appeared to them with an amazing, hard-to-believe message for the disciples, which they quickly agreed to deliver, and left without delay.
In a kaleidoscope of movement, Peter and John had already just heard a startling and unsettling report from the breathless and distraught Mary of Magdala. Together, the three of them ran back to the Garden tomb to verify her fears. It only makes sense that Peter and John got there far ahead of Mary, who had already run the distance, and was spent from physical and emotional exhaustion. When she finally got back to Jesus’ burial site, Peter and John had long since arrived, assessed, and returned to Jerusalem.
Alone in the empty tomb, it seems Mary of Magdala was utterly devastated, and could not control her anguished and heaving sobs. It was in that moment, when she had once again reached the nadir of heartache and despair, Jesus would draw her out from her darkness and into the sweet light of freedom and life. The apostle John later wrote that an angel called out to her and asked her why she was crying? She must have looked up, startled, thinking she had been wholly alone. And she must have followed the angel’s gaze to someone standing behind her…
Still focused on her own profound sense of grief and loss, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener, and demanded he show her where Jesus’ body had been taken. It took only one word—her name in His voice—for Mary to realize here was her Lord, her Savior, her beloved Jesus.
What is most precious about this story, to me, who has battled darkness of my own, is Jesus’ choice of Mary, a woman, freed from demons, to be the first to see Him as risen Lord. It is a new story of a man and a woman in a Garden.
This story begins in death and ends in life, in this story the Tree of Life is chosen, instead of the undoing of all that is good, it is the restoration of Shalom, of peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. Once again, the woman holds the seed of life within her, life that will move out and out and out, a powerful life, the very life of God, His Holy Spirit, being breathed once again into all those who will have Him. And Mary, who had known hell, was the first to experience the realness, the concrete physicality of the Kingdom of Heaven.
[Cover Image: James Tissot [Public domain]