The story of resurrection we’ve just heard is a lot like the others. Women—in this
case one woman—comes to the tomb and finds it empty. And except for in Mark, they run
to tell the others and a couple of them dash back to the scene. Then they see the empty
tomb and wander away, confused and dazed and afraid. But except for the gospel of Mark,
that’s not the end of the story. It’s actually the beginning of a whole new story. The writer of
John makes that clearer in some ways, than the other gospels do. To help make clear that a
new story is beginning, John has us spend time with Mary of Magdala.
Like lots of biblical figures, the text doesn’t tell us much about Mary of Magdala.
Having several women named Mary appear throughout the gospels makes it hard to sort
out what’s about Mary of Magdala or not. Mark and Luke tell us that this Mary had seven
demons cast out of her; Luke tells us that she helped support Jesus’ ministry. She was a
loyal disciple of Jesus. That’s all we know from the scripture. We also know legend and
tradition and apocryphal gospels discovered in the 20th century expand upon her character
quite a lot.
Was she a prostitute? Or the wife of Jesus? Or a powerful preacher in her own right.
Or a strong witness and disciple. And wonder worker. And trusted confidante. One legend
has her testifying to the good news of Christ in front of an emperor. Other texts and stories
suggest that she was a rival to Peter’s status and legitimacy. We don’t know much, really.
But scholars increasingly agree that she was a major figure among Jesus’ earliest followers.
Perhaps even a “strong tower,” as some translations of “magdala” suggest.
She was also brave.
To go to the tomb in the dark was brave.
To publicly mourn an executed criminal was brave.
To finally look into the borrowed tomb holding her loved one was brave.
In that tomb, she encountered two angels who ask her why she’s weeping.
A moment later, she turns around and someone else asks her the same question.
The writer of John wants us to know without doubt how devastated Mary of Magdala
is by Jesus’ death. We see the tears of a torn-up heart and a spirit so distracted by grief that
even a couple angels don’t merit her attention much. She just wants to know where Jesus’
body is. So she asks the same question of the gardener, thinking he might have moved it.
That makes sense, when you think about it. Jesus incarnates the Creator, the first
Gardener. In a sense Jesus is a gardener. It’s not entirely a case of mistaken identity even
though Mary doesn’t recognize him physically.
This happens a lot in gospel stories of resurrection appearances. People just don’t
recognize him at first. But when Jesus says Mary’s name she immediately knows who he is.
Imagine how much emotional whiplash Mary of Magdala experiences just in this
short snippet of scripture. She sets out to be alone in her grief, then finds the tomb empty,
adding anger and frustration to the mix. She experiences urgency as she rushes to tell the
others, who then leave her alone again in the garden. Finally—finally—there is great joy.
Jesus is alive. But confusion follows: she must not hold on to him or touch or embrace him.
Most of us have experienced that kind of emotional onrush and turmoil. It takes a
long time to sort through, sometimes. We long for some calm, some peace, some center.
The only calm, soothing moment in the passage comes when Mary hears her name.
On the first day. In a garden. The symbolism John plays with here is very apparent.
Creation began on the first day in a garden. “Early Christians,” says theologian
Robert Shore-Goss, “grasped the depth of meaning of the garden exchange between the
risen Christ and Magdalene. They understood that God is a gardener, for God began the
gardening process of creation….On Easter morning, the eschatological first day indicates a
new cosmos and a new sabbath” (God is Green, 100). “Jesus appears to [Mary] in the
garden, symbolic of Eden resurrected and the cosmos yet to be restored to a new fullness”
(101). Jesus and Mary represent a new humanity in a new and fresh creation. Jesus,
speaking her name, recalls the story of Eden and the process of naming that occurred
there. And we know that being named, or choosing our names, is wrapped up in our
identities. Names help us know ourselves and be known by others. In very important ways,
being named adirms our humanity and identity.
So it is no small thing that Mary recognized Jesus when he calls her name, anew, in
the garden of a new creation. A transformed world. A reality in which the insistent and
undefeatable powers of Life prevail over all else.
I have mentioned the forest churches of Ethiopia a couple times in the last few
years. They have taken the notion the Christ calls us into a new Eden, a new creation, very
seriously. Over many years they have cultivated patches of lushness and green and forest
in the middle of desolate landscapes. They take to heart the notion that the spirit of
resurrection calls us to live in and create, a new garden, a new Eden that people can
literally walk into. As Mary has.
In hearing her name, Mary of Magdala is being adirmed and identified and called to
live in a new creation. A new garden.
As are we.
The Gospel of John tells us a bit about what it takes in order to enter new
creation and proclaim resurrection, to enter the reality of knowing Life prevails despite
tragedy and death.
Strangely, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge grief and loss and lament
deeply. Something has died—an illusion, a hope, a myth—and we must lament to the point
of distraction. Perhaps a relationship dies. Or an old and hurtful belief about yourself. Or
trust in established norms and institutions. We all have things in our life that need to die.
And we grieve that loss. It’s fine to be confused in the midst of grief. We will ask questions,
as Mary did. We need to grieve and wail. Unabashedly and unashamed, as Mary did.
Only then can we hear our names anew from the Lover and Gardener of this world.
After great lament we can eventually awake to a diderent reality for ourselves and our
world. We can be open to being called by our true name and can be summoned into the
knowledge of our belovedness, and the presence of the One who loves us.
Our first impulse, though, is to hold on to new circumstances, new revelations and
awareness as if nothing had changed. We awake briefly to the new, as Mary did, and try to
hold on to it, as if things were going to be the same after all. But what we have known must
go away; we can’t rely upon old understandings and relationships. We are in a new
creation. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation;
everything old has passed away; see, everything is new” (2 Cor 5” 17).
Resurrection brings us into a new creation, a new Eden. May we awaken to that and
let go of what is deadening us. And may we help create and recreate this world anew for
ourselves and others.
Deep grief or choosing to leave something behind leading to something new
Heard a call from someplace new

Scripture: John 20:1-18

-Rev. Ruth Moerdyk