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Mary Magdalene and Seeing

Throughout these seven weeks of Lent we have been diving into the Scriptures about various people who have important encounters with Jesus in the final days of his life.

Are there anymore encounters with Jesus’ left to be had? After all, he is put to death on a cross and buried in a tomb. Isn’t this the end? Apparently not. For a supposed dead man there are a lot of people who have been having a lot of encounters with Jesus Christ for centuries.

Mary Magdalene was the first to have an encounter with the risen Lord. I’m not sure Mary Magdalene thought there was anything more to encounter in Jesus when she and the other Mary went to the tomb early that morning. You generally go to tombs for dead people.

When we read the four Gospels we find there are little differences in each account of the resurrection. We might like to come up with explanations for the differences. But it should be noted that the first Christians didn’t try to hide the differences in the accounts. They didn’t try to clean it up. Though the various accounts are different the message that the tomb was empty and Christ was seen alive is consistent. And other details match up as well.

One of the things that is consistent in all four Gospels is the women. It is the women who are first to the tomb. One woman in particular is highlighted: Mary Magdalene.

When Jesus was crucified it says many women were looking on from a distance. These women had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him for at least a couple of years. Among the women Mary Magdalene is named. Mary Magdalene, as well as the other Mary, who is identified as the mother of James and Joseph, were sitting opposite the tomb when Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus body in his tomb. They knew exactly where the tomb was.

And now, Mary Magdalene and this other Mary have come at the break of day to the tomb of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene is highlighted in all four Gospels. “Magdalene” was not her last name but refers to the area where she was from which was a village called Magdala. Magdala is in the region of Galilee which is about an hour north of Jerusalem. Magdala is one of the hot spots of biblical archaeology. It was just discovered in recent years. But it was a thriving village and some fascinating work is being done there.

Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene became a disciple of Jesus after seven demons were cast out of her. Whatever that means and whatever that was like, Mary did not come from a smooth, struggle-free background. Nor did she probably come from a pure and religiously-refined background. She had probably suffered and knew hardship in life. I imagine she might have been a little rough around the edges.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that in the larger circle of disciples who followed Jesus there were women. Mary Magdalene is mentioned first in every listing of Jesus’ female disciples.[1] It may be that she was the leader of this group of women who followed and served Jesus throughout his ministry.[2]

As Jesus traveled and carried out his ministry it was the women who took responsibility for Jesus’ practical needs and provided for Jesus, it says, “out of their own resources.” These women used their own money to provide for Jesus. Did not the inner circle of the twelve do this?

Men are so cheap.

The twelve disciples get the windows in Cathedrals, banners in sanctuaries, things named after them, and lots of press. But they were not the ones who kept with Jesus when things got toughest and most serious. They abandoned him in fear for their lives. It was some women, and particularly Mary Magdalene who remained and kept watch for Jesus. Through his crucifixion and through his burial.

It says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. I know we think of the tomb as empty, and a place of wonder and victory. Today we have flowers and glorious music and Easter breakfasts. But remember, it didn’t start that way.

Jesus’ tomb was a place of death. It was a place of sadness and failed hopes.

Have you been there? Have you been to that place you really would rather not go because you know what it stands for and what awaits you there: the hospital, the courtroom, the prison, the mortuary, the scene of something painful?

Mary Magdalene gets up early in the morning and returns to the place of death. Just like she kept with Jesus through the hard travel back and forth from Jerusalem and Galilee, just like she hung with him as he suffered his gory death, and just as she saw him buried, so now she comes to the tomb.

You wonder how she can keep taking it. Why not just abandon ship and head back to Galilee? Everyone else has.

What is it about Mary Magdalene, and this other Mary, that keeps them showing up, even in the most heartbreaking of seasons, even when their own hearts are broken? Maybe it’s that they love Jesus. And their love for him compels them to face death head-on, even when most everyone else are so overtaken with hopelessness that they can’t get up as day dawns. How many people can’t get to an 11 AM service on Sunday morning? But if you love Jesus…

I’m going to ask you on this Resurrection Sunday do you love Jesus? “Well, I believe in him.” Do you love him? “Well, I belong to a church and I admire him.” Do you love him? Do you love him to the point that he compels you to keep getting up and going out and showing up? That he stirs your life mission?

Even though Mary’s heart is broken at the magnitude of the suffering and loss she’s witnessed she keeps showing up, despite the pain and loss because she loves Jesus.[3]

And because of Mary Magdalene’s persevering love and enduring faithfulness she gets to see. There is an earthquake and an angel with lightning-bright appearance. Other Gospel writers have some of the same things but also things that are different. Mary Magdalene receives the first announcement, the first vision, and the first instructions. She, and the other Mary who is with her, are the first witnesses to see Jesus alive.

The angel tells Mary: Do not be afraid; Jesus, the same Jesus who was crucified, is not here; he has been raised. Don’t take my word for it, come and see the place where you saw that he was laid in the tomb. See for yourself. Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised and they will see him in Galilee.

As they run to tell the disciples they do so with “fear and great joy.” That is how Matthew puts it. Fear and joy. How can someone experience fear and joy at the same time? Well, remember the day you got married? Remember the birth of your child? Maybe that first day on the new job?

Twice Mary is told “do not be afraid.” But if dead bodies have been raised then it’s not irrational to be afraid. This is outside of normal experience. It is not what anyone expected. One of the things the Gospel accounts honor is that this was not a particularly romantic or orderly experience. The fear is acknowledged. Real human experience is honored.

But “do not be afraid” because Jesus can keep showing up even in the places of pain and grief.

Women were not regarded as reliable witnesses in Jewish courts. They could not testify in any cases. If the Gospel writers were making all of this up then it is strange to have women be the witnesses. It doesn’t make it credible. But the Gospel writers did not make it up nor were they trying to impress outsiders.

The Christian claim is that the gospel began with eyewitnesses, not mystical experiences. Really, given the magnitude of this event it is pretty understated. There is an angel or two, but no angelic choirs like at Jesus’ birth. There aren’t trumpets blasting throughout the city announcing what has happened. Jesus doesn’t put on a show and start appearing everywhere and to everyone with thunder and fireworks.

A couple of women, one of whom is Mary Magdalene, are told, “You will see him.”[4] And they do. Jesus greets the women. They fall before him and worship him.

Mary is the first to get all of this. She sees it, hears it, and gets charged with being the one to preach it. Jesus will appear to others. He will speak to others. Others will hear as well. But Mary Magdalene is the primary, chosen, first witness to Jesus being alive.

Mary Magdalene is faithful. She hangs around and keeps showing up. She hangs around as Jesus goes about teaching, healing, and ministering. She shows up when Jesus dies. She shows up when he is buried. She shows up at the tomb, as hard and filled with grief as that was.

The crowds that filled the streets on Palm Sunday aren’t around. We don’t see any of the twelve disciples. We don’t see people who were healed by Jesus. Even good Joseph of Arimathea went away once the tomb was closed up. But Mary Magdalene is there.[5]

And she gets to see. Imagine what she saw that wondrous morning.

The comedian Woody Allen was famous for saying that eighty-percent of success in life is just showing up. I wonder if that can be applied spiritually: that eighty-percent of seeing Jesus is just showing up.

It was some wise fisherman who said, “You can’t catch a fish without being near the water.” Mary was always around the water.

We show up to worship on those cold, snowy Sunday mornings, or drained after a brutal week. We drag ourselves to the Bible study after a long day. We cook and bring that meal to someone who is ill when we would rather go with friends to the theater. We go to our prayer closet though we feel dry. We visit the care center and that elderly saint despite the memories it brings of past hard experiences, just trying to do what Jesus told us to do.

Faithfulness doesn’t mean we have to do anything splashy or worthy of the spotlight. Faithfulness is more often than not just showing up for our Lord. Doing what we think we should do for Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene did.

We will not see what Mary or the first witnesses to Jesus alive saw. Jesus acknowledged to his own disciples that their experience of seeing and touching and talking with him in the flesh would not be the experience of most people.

When Jesus appeared and presented himself to the most skeptical of his disciples, Thomas (yes, even disciples can be skeptical), Thomas saw and reaffirmed Jesus as his Lord and God, Jesus said, “That’s great Thomas. You got to see and handle me. Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[6] That’s us!

There is blessing for those don’t get to see Jesus’ risen body, and yet have faith that Christ has been raised, is alive and present in our world and our lives. Maybe we are blessed because Jesus knew how hard this would be. It would have to be a matter of faith, maybe even greater faith than those eyewitnesses.

We are told that those first-century people in Jerusalem and Galilee had visible, tangible encounters with the risen Lord. Not a special-edition Jesus. But the Jesus who looked like the Jesus they had always known.

You know, I think to myself, if they didn’t see him, why would they die and face danger – as so many did – for a lie and something that was just made up?

And I think, would the authorities have treated those early Christians so harshly and brutally for simply saying they had seen someone alive who had been dead, if they knew that he really was dead? Why would this rile up the religious and governmental leaders further? People might have called those who proclaimed the resurrection crazy, or even that they saw some kind of ghost or apparition. But there wouldn’t be reason to arrest, torture or do such harsh treatment. Yet, that’s what happened to the earliest Christians.

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think the message and event of the resurrection could have been spoken in the streets and places of Jerusalem if people could have located a tomb with a body. Apparently no one did and no one could.

And remember, the message of the early church wasn’t about an empty tomb. The message was about Jesus, risen, alive, seen, touched, speaking, and present. No need to talk about an empty room if we have the person with us.

But even with those reasons for affirming Jesus’ resurrection, still, one needs to have faith. There are people who acknowledge the credibility of the historical reasons for the resurrection of Jesus who don’t follow Jesus. People can hear the message, say “OK”, but their lives are not impacted. They haven’t really seen.

Jesus said there is blessing for those who believe even if they have not seen.

Peter writes to those like us who do not have the experience of physically seeing the risen Lord.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” – I Peter 1:3, 8-9

No, we don’t see him now physically. But that is how faith gets worked out. And that faith is a journey. And it is growth. The Lord said it is blessed. It leads to the salvation of our souls.

But we see him in church, in a time of prayer, in a song, in an act of love, in a changed life, in mercy that helps us in our own circumstances. We see him in the lives of others who love him.

Mary Magdalene provides our final Jesus encounter. What is your encounter with Jesus?

I’ll say this, the ones in the biblical story who see Jesus are those who believed. He showed himself to disciples, followers, and worshippers. He still shows himself to those who open themselves to him.

Sometimes we just have to be like Mary Magdalene, and in life and in death, faithfully and relentlessly just keep showing up.

Prayer: So help us to follow the faithfulness of Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and give us the courage, faith and spiritual fortitude to keep hanging around so that you can make yourself known to us.

We long to see and know your life in this world that so often looks like a sealed tomb.

We acknowledge you as the risen Lord. Help us to believe and see. And to witness to you with our words and our lives. Amen.

[1] Mark 15:40-41, 47; 16:1; Matt. 27:55-56, 61; 28:1; Luke 8:2-3; 24:10 [2] In Luke, we are told that Mary Magdalene was delivered from seven demons that had afflicted her. Her discipleship is the result of Jesus’ healing ministry in her life. [3] Jill Duffield, From an email post sent out by the Presbyterian Outlook [4] Dale Bruner, p.1081 [5] Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 2, p.1074 [6] John 20:28-29

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