“Do you recognize Me now? ”
Scripture tells us that Mary of Magdala came to the empty tomb while it was still dark. You can almost feel the chill, draped like a mantle around her shoulders, that familiar sensation in those moments before the dawn. An added chill might have set in, as she made her way across that garden of graves. She’d seen death before, but it had never affected her like this. How did I get here? And where do I go from here? In the quiet company of her grief and questions, she arrives at her destination, and her pace slows down while her heart speeds up. Can you look through her eyes for an instant? Can you see the stone rolled away from the entrance of the tomb? Imagine her distress, then, when she realizes the body of the Man she loved is gone. She races back to the disciples to let them know, and then rushes back to the tomb. She’s out of breath from the running. The emotion of the morning finally overtakes her, and she sits down weeping. But even as she weeps, she still feels compelled to look inside the tomb again. Maybe she missed a clue before, some hint as to where Jesus’ body might be. She doesn’t find a clue, but she does find two angels sitting there. They offer no salutation or customary greeting. Rather, they want to know why she is crying. She repeats herself: they have taken my Lord…
At this point, she turns around and sees Jesus there, but mistakes him for the gardener. The first words from Jesus reiterate the angels’ query:
Woman, why are you weeping?
It is curious (and rather telling) that there is such concern about the tears of Mary Magdalene. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary had been a little bewildered or irritated by their near-incomprehension of her tearful state. Don’t they understand what is going on here? But Mary remains polite, addressing the gardener as “Sir,” and asking – again – where she can find the body of Jesus. Our Lord does not, as one might expect, introduce Himself or correct Mary’s mistake. He simply replies: Mary!
It is always significant when our Lord addresses someone by name. Take, for example, the pivotal moment when Christ gives Simon a new name: You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church (Mt 16:18). And in Luke 10:41, Jesus declares to his friend: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. He uses her name twice, so it’s clear He wants her to listen to Him closely, and heed His word. The use of names throughout Scripture is one more way that God demonstrates how He works in specific lives, and not just in some abstract, nebulous mode. The genealogy at the start of the Gospel of Matthew might be a challenge for the lector to read at Mass, but it is a testament to the long history of God’s divine work in and among His people.
So when Jesus Christ calls out “Mary!” it is a clear cue to us to lean in a little closer and pay attention. And what is more, the translation gives us an exclamation point. Do you remember the last time someone called out your name, using an exclamatory tone? It might have been as recently as five minutes ago, when your spouse called you down for dinner (and if that is the case, please do put this book down and go eat your dinner). The point is, we hear the urgency in Christ’s voice. But there is a tenderness there, as well. It is as though He is saying, “Fear not! I know you. I have known you since before you were born. And you know Me, even if you did not recognize Me.”And what is Mary’s response? She turns again. And this detail is noteworthy because we are told that she had already turned to face the man she thought was the gardener. So why the extra turning around?
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gives us a possible answer in his book “Credo for Today.” He writes that:
"…metanoia is not just some sort of Christian attitude but, rather, is actually the fundamental Christian act, understood, of course, in terms of one very definite aspect: the aspect of change, the act of turning, of becoming new and different. In order to become a Christian, a human being must change, not merely in one place or another, but unconditionally, down to the very bottom of his being."[i](emphasis mine)
In other words, this added “turn” could be representative of an interior movement in the heart of Mary of Magdala. True, she had already experienced moments of conversion in her life of discipleship so far, but this was her first encounter with the Risen Lord. Mary had witnessed a number of extraordinary events up to this point, but this encounter would surpass all of those prior experiences. This meeting in the garden had the power to reshape even the most basic of Mary’s perceptions and her very understanding of the destiny of the human person.
So after this second turning around, Mary does not hesitate. She replies with a name, too: Rabbouni. She calls out to him simply asTeacher. And this Teacher’s latest lesson is the greatest one of all. He has taught her that the power of sin and death has been shattered from the inside out. He stands before her, as the God who died and rose, burying evil in its deep grave. Mary gazes upon the King, who has overturned the curse and re-awakened the people of this realm. An echo of a prophet’s words pierces through the silence of that new day, as Mary looks upon the one she has loved most dearly:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
Upon those who lived in a land of gloom
a light has shone.
~ Isaiah 9:1
This could explain the apparent incomprehension of Mary’s earlier distress and sadness. The angels know that a new reality has set in. There is no longer a world without the Resurrection of Christ. The age of the Old Covenant has passed. This is the age of the New Covenant, the age of fulfillment. You and I – and Mary Magdalene – belong to this era. No wonder the angels were a bit puzzled: how could any of us weep, when we know the Lord has risen and conquered death?
You changed my mourning into dancing;
you took off my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness.
So that my glory may praise you
and not be silent.
O LORD, my God,
forever will I give you thanks.
~ Psalm 30:12-13
When I consider how her heart must have been bursting with the tremendous joy of this encounter, I can’t help but wonder what Mary experienced as she walked back home later that day.
She comes to the home she’d left
anxious and alone but
it feels more like a mansion now…
Does not all of creation somehow grow and stretch when we ponder how God has walked among the trees? Nature would need to make room for such a cosmic presence, after all. Are not the colors sharper and more brilliant, where the Lord has knelt and prayed? Isn’t our drink a little more refreshing, when we contemplate the divine lips touching the rim of a cup? In her haste to leave the garden, Mary would have scarcely realized that when she brushed against the morning dewdrops, her fingers were dipping into holy water. The tiny petals served as a baptismal font, catching the first drops of living water. They washed away the dirt of sin, which belonged to an older garden. In that ancient garden, evil had crept in, slithering and venomous. But in this garden, Life gushed forth and rolled back the heavy stone of death. This Life is still so new and so overwhelming that Mary cannot even hold onto it. Instead, He sends her forth, with the most important message that has ever been entrusted to a human soul: I have seen the Lord.
In the end, the maiden from Magdala was not too far off in her assumption: in a way, she did come face to face with the Gardener’s Son. On that cool and quiet morning, Mary turned her tear-streaked face upwards, and looked into the eyes of the Son of God. A glance and a word from Him sufficed: the little garden of Mary’s heart blossomed into vast acres of beauty, and as she walked, it was as though the freshness of spring followed her every step, giving glory to the Father.
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at day-break to the place found the grave empty in the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realized the new wonder; but even they hardly realized that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.[ii]~ G.K. Chesterton
* * *
Where have I “seen the Lord” in recent – or not so recent – memory? And have I carried the message of this encounter to others, as the Lord instructed Mary?
Lord, I have often found myself standing next to an empty tomb, wondering where You have gone. Why have I been left here, with only my tears as company? Grant me the faith of Mary of Magdala, who kept her eyes and ears open, and heard her name pronounced eagerly and tenderly by You, the one she loved above all. Help me listen more attentively, as You call out my name. And may it be an invitation to turn, as Mary did, and recognize You, where I did not see You before. Let me see You as You truly are – Teacher and Savior.
[ii]G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2007) 207.