Sisters in Scripture
 

John 20:1-18
 
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.  She saw that the stone had been moved away, so she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple (the one Jesus loved) and told them, "The Lord had been taken from the tomb!  We don’t know where they have put him!”  At that, Peter and the other disciple started out on their way toward the tomb.  They were running side by side, but then the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He did not enter but bent down to peer in, and saw the wrappings lying on the ground.  Presently, Simon Peter came along behind him and entered the tomb.  He observed the wrappings on the ground and saw the piece of cloth which had covered the head not lying with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the disciple who had arrived first at the tomb went in.  He saw and believed.  (Remember, as yet they did not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.))  With this the disciples went back home.
 
 Meanwhile, Mary stood weeping beside the tomb.  Even as she wept, she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels in dazzling robes.  One was seated at the head and the other at the foot of the place where Jesus’ body had lain.  "Woman,” they asked her, "why are you weeping?”  She answered them, "Because the Lord has been taken away, and I do not know where they have put him.”  She had not sooner said this than she turned around and caught sight of Jesus standing there.  But she did not know him.  "Woman,” he asked her, "why are you weeping?  Who is it you are looking for?”  She supposed he was the gardener, so she said, "Sir, if you are the one who carried him off, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”  Jesus said to her, "Mary!”  She turned to him and said [in Hebrew], "Rabbouni!” meaning "Teacher”).  Jesus then said: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.  Rather, go to my brothers and tell them, "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God!”  Mary Magdalene went to the disciples.  "I have seen the Lord!” she announced.  Then she reported what he had said to her.

 

Entering the Scene   

 
 Please click on image to view larger version.
Unlike the last Station, this appearance of the Risen Christ has a multitude of artwork from which to choose.  I’ve chosen these three but you may want to google and look at more.  Fra Angelico, c. 1450, (on the left) is always one of my favorites so I’ve included it here.  It is more restrained than most, almost polite in the demeanor of both Jesus and Mary.  But it is also tender with a felt tension in the space between the two as their hands reach out.
 
 
This piece by Correggio, c. 1525, (on the right) displays much more passion as the two figures lean toward one another.  Jesus’ arm stretches upward as he speaks of ascending to the Father.  He is clearly communicating something urgent to her and she is drinking in all that he says.  Both of their faces are worthy of a closer look, rapt and intent.   
 
 
 Painting several centuries later, Alexander Ivanov, 1834-36, (below, left) incorporates all the elements we have come to associate over time with both Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  He is the same Jesus we’ve "seen” walk on water and bless the bread.  She has the long tresses and red garment that we expect.  He is Jesus, the recently crucified, but with unperturbed dignity.  Mary has a youthful radiance. No title seems necessary.   
 
 
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The encounter between Mary and Jesus in the garden has, in fact, been the subject of countless paintings.  These are often titled, Noli me tangere, which is Latin for the words, "Do not cling to me.”  Those words have also generated volumes of commentary, particularly from the early Church Fathers.   
 

Mary’s reaching out in response to Jesus calling her name is not at all surprising.  It is, in fact, the most natural of reactions, the same as that of the women in the last Station.  It is Jesus’ reply that is mystifying.  It raises deep questions about the physicality of the Risen Christ.  What does it mean to transcend death as Jesus did?  How is he the same?  How is he different?   For that matter, how will any of us be once we die?  It raises questions about the human reality of living a physical, mortal existence and questions about living another kind of existence after death.  Recall that in Matthew’s crucifixion account, after Jesus dies, "The earth quaked, rocks split, tombs were opened and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised…and appeared to many” (Mt. 27:51-53).  These saints, Lazarus, and people today who’ve had a near-death experience all evidence another kind of life—one to which they later return.

Noli me tangere also raises questions about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
 

Getting into Character      

    Apparently the relationship between them is still a hot topic—I give you the Da Vinci Code.  A little history here might shed some light, however.  In the early church, Mary of Magdala was frequently extolled, and for good reason.  She is named 24 times in the Gospels, more than any of the disciples outside of Peter, James and John.  This, of itself, is remarkable when we cannot even get a list of the 12 names of the apostles that "match” in all four gospels.  However, it is not so much the frequency with which her name appears; it is the time and place of her appearance.  All four gospels place Mary Magdalene at both the crucifixion and the resurrection, the only one so named.  This establishes not only her historical presence at these central events, but is also an indication of her importance in the life of Jesus, his followers, and the early church that recorded these events.  In being sent by Jesus as she was in this scene, she bears the news of the resurrection and thus becomes, "Apostle to the Apostles,” a phrase first coined by Hippolytus of Rome in the second century.  She is sent with the authority of Christ on a mission and she is the first to proclaim that central message, "I have seen the Lord!”
 
    Despite the teachings of Early Church Fathers like Hippolytus, over time a different picture of Mary Magdalene emerged.  Some of this can be attributed to the confusion over the several Marys.  In addition to the "other Mary” of last week, there is, of course, Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary, the sister of Martha, and Mary, the wife of Clopas (Jn. 19:25), as well as an additional Mary in Acts 12, "the mother of Mark,” in whose home the early church gathered.  At any rate, the tendency was to conflate these into one.  In 590 A.D., Pope Gregory the Great preached a homily in which he combined the woman who anointed Jesus in Luke’s gospel with Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala.  Using allegory, he equated the seven demons of the gospel with the seven deadly sins and said, "She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark.  And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices?”  She thus became a model of repentance rather than a model of discipleship.  She was actually then named the Patron Saint of Prostitutes, a far cry from Apostle to the Apostles.  Artists, writers, and commentators have found much to mine in this salacious image.  To this day the image of Mary Magdalene is commonly that of a great sinner—one who has repented, to be sure, but one whose past is full of sin, usually sexual sin, at that. 
 
    Recent discoveries like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts have begun to shed new light on the community of Jesus’ followers.  An intriguing picture emerges of her as favored by Christ and frequently at odds with Peter.  Scholars differ on the credibility of these texts but they have fueled interest in her. In today’s world of contemporary biblical scholarship and with resources we never dreamed of in the days of Pope Gregory, there is no reason to perpetuate the false notion of Mary Magdalene as penitent sinner.  Nor need we look any farther than the pages of the Gospels to claim her importance.  In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it is irresponsible to continue to cast Mary Magdalene as a prostitute or sinner.  A quick look at Jesus' many healings, even of demon possession, shows that these are not linked with or attributed to sinfulness.  To see Mary solely as sinner is unfair to her and inaccurate but it also robs us of the powerful witness of a remarkable woman of faith, a partner with Jesus in the Good News and the herald of the resurrection.  
 

Going Deeper    

So, isn’t great to live in more enlightened times when we can appreciate a woman like Mary Magdalene for who she is?  Unfortunately, the church still has a hard time knowing what to do with her.  John’s resurrection story is told in two scenes.  In John 20:1-10, Mary discovered the empty tomb and ran to tell the disciples, John and Peter, who ran to see what she saw and then returned home.  In John 20:11-18, Mary has the subsequent encounter with the risen Jesus, the scene we have been focusing on.  Depending on your church affiliation, you may never hear the second half of this story on Easter Sunday.  The Episcopal and Common Revised Lectionaries include all 18 verses, but the Roman Lectionary chooses to omit the story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden.  (It is only read on Tuesday morning of the Week following Easter). 
 
    Perhaps this Noli me tangere scene just raises too many questions about Mary Magdalene.  In the light of all we now know, she is certainly part of Jesus’ inner circle, one with a unique and chosen position.  It also raises questions about Jesus.  Could Jesus have friendships with women?  Clearly, he did.  Martha and Mary and Lazarus (remembered in that order) frequently welcomed him into their home where he, apparently, felt much at ease.  We have the names of eight women, as well as Luke’s citation of "many others, who were assisting him out of their means” (Lk. 8:3).  Jesus openly included women in a way rarely seen.  Nothing in his words, actions, or demeanor is ever less than respectful and empowering of women.  Could Jesus have one woman whose company he favored above others?  A challenging question—and this scene raises that question, one with which we are not totally comfortable and which we may want to avoid.   Human touch and human relationships are such a tender, powerful, and vulnerable part of our existence.  Noli me tangere captures all of that. 
    
     Remember there is much we do not know—about Jesus, about Mary Magdalene, about many of these people.  We do not know when or how his own mother knew of his resurrection.  Some tradition tells us that he visited her first, wherever she was.  Makes sense, but there is nothing in scripture to support that.  We cannot expect scripture to answer all our speculation.  Often, as noted earlier, it merely fuels our questions.  Speaking of questions….
 

Bringing it Home   

 
1. Mary had to deal with strong, conflicting emotions.  Consider as we did last time, how she must have suffered—not only in witnessing the crucifixion, but also through the hours since she reluctantly left the tomb.  Consider her reaction to the empty tomb and her frame of mind that caused her to assume Jesus was the gardener.  Try to imagine her feelings when she realized it is, indeed, Jesus and how she reaches out toward him.  Lastly, consider her response when Jesus bids her to leave to tell the others and her state of mind when she meets them.  Make a list of adjectives for all of these emotional stages.  Note the range of emotions and the pattern before and after recognizing Jesus.  Can you hear the transition in her feelings in the song?

2. In all of this turmoil and confusion, the moment of clarity comes when she hears Jesus call her by name.  Imagine a time of similar turmoil and confusion in your life.  Imagine the power of Jesus calling you by name.  What moves within you?  What is your response?

3.  Noli me tangere is in Latin, not the language the scriptures were written in. The Greek is Μή μου ἅπτου, οὔπω γὰρ ἀναβέβηκα πρὸς τὸν[b]πατέρα and it can be translated variously as: "do not cling to me,” "do not wish to touch me,” or "you must let me go.”  Which translation attracts you and why?

4. Mary Magdalene is such a popular subject for art—painting, poetry, literature and lore, that we have all received impressions of her.  How has any of that been changed or informed by what we covered here?
 
Group Discussion
 
5.  The Garden is not overt about the Resurrection until the very last line. Did you notice that? Did all that went before prepare you for that? Earlier, she sings, "for this moment, you planned ahead." Share a time when God's care for you was evident in hindsight. How does time-lapse photography capture that experience?
 

Giving Voice  

 
 
Rabbouni, You have called us by our name
and our hearts leap within us.
Can it be that You are alive—so close, so real?
Darkness and death are scattered in the light of your being
and we dare to believe
We want to hold his moment,
hold You, forever.
Yet You would have us carry our newfound belief to others.
Made bold by your trust, may we dare to live lives that proclaim,
"I have seen the Lord!”
 
A Personal Note from Kathleen
 
      If you are interested in learning more about Mary Magdalene and other fascinating biblical women, check out my bible studies on the Purchase Books page.

    
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