John 20: 1 “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying. 11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.”
If I had wanted to make up a resurrection story in order to hoodwink people into joining a religious racket for profit, I would not have written the resurrection story that we read in John Chapter 20. But that’s effectively what the books, The Passover Plot and Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code say: that the Resurrection of Jesus is the fictitious hook for snagging us into a religious racket.
But when it comes to making up a bogus tale, today’s gospel account gives us the wrong first witness. Wrong, that is, if you really, really, really wanted to hoodwink gullible, pre-scientific First Century men. And I mean men in the particular male sense, not in the generic sense of humanity. Because the first recorded witness of the resurrection is a woman. That’s no problem for me, hopefully not for any of us. But in both Jewish and Gentile laws of the time, the testimony of one woman was not admissible in court. There had to be at least two. Now I find that law just as objectionable as do you, I hope. But if Jesus’ resurrection was a fable, a hoax and a fabrication, would the first witness named be someone whose testimony was not legally admissible? Not likely.
The second reason I would Not have made up a story like this is because it is just too true to the human condition, especially to the aftermath and the effects of great loss and trauma. Those effects often include helplessness and dependency. There may come despair and despondency, what I call the false security of low expectations and negative assumptions. Then, when the first ray of hope breaks in through the dark clouds of loss and despair, our work of recovery is not over; its just beginning. We still have to work through confusion, ambivalence and mixed feelings, as we learn to let go of our hopes and desires to recreate the treasured times that have been lost forever, and learn to embrace the new thing, trusting that, though it is different, it will also be better.
I thought about that this week, when I interacted briefly with someone in a coffee shop. He came into it on his hands. For from the waist down he had no legs. Is he a veteran who lost them to a roadside bomb in Iraq or Afghanistan, I wondered? Or was it an industrial accident? Either way, he had to come to terms with saying goodbye to something old, familiar and comforting: legs. And he had to embrace a new future. That he appeared to be doing with some relish, and gusto. He was getting around quite well, and was smiling and chatting everyone up. But I doubt that he got to that point easily. Nor would I be surprised if some days he cycles back through the hard feelings of loss. I wouldn’t hold it against him if he did. But you wouldn’t know that from the way he was getting around and engaging us in the coffee shop.
Here’s how I see that process playing out in today’s resurrection account:
As for helplessness and dependency, I don’t mean to be judgmental nor condemning. I don’t know that I would have done any better had I been Mary Magdalene or any other of the friends and disciples of Jesus. Not if I had witnessed the kind of crazy, wanton celebration of violence and shaming that Jesus suffered on Good Friday, and the gratuitous overkill of everything he stood for. In such times, so much is demanded of us precisely when so much is taken from us, that it is a testament to God and to the human spirit that we can even put one foot in front of the other. Some can’t.
So when Mary shows up at daybreak and finds the stone rolled away from the mouth of the tomb, why doesn’t she look inside to see what happened? She did, later. But at her first sight of the open cave, she runs first to tell the disciples, assuming that someone has moved the body of Jesus. Which amounts to more work than if she had just looked into the tomb and inquired for herself. But that’s not unusual in cases of trauma, bitter loss, and despair. Our reasoning capacities get frozen in place, and we may look for others to lean on, to lead us, and to think for us.
Someone who witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, at the end of World War II, saw a long line of dazed and injured survivors following each other out of the ruins of the city, stumbling and scrambling over piles of rubble and wreckage. And yet just fifty feet away was a broad boulevard that was empty and clear of debris. But they weren’t up to noticing that and acting on their own. They were simply following whoever was in front of them, who was doing the same with whoever was in front of them. Its amazing that they were capable of that, given what they had just experienced.
I don’t know with 100% certainty that the helplessness and dependency of trauma is why Mary ran first to the disciples, with the worst of all assumptions, instead of stepping forward a few paces to investigate for herself. We’ll have to ask her. But should we ever experience anything comparable, may there be someone on whom we can lean, who can be strong for us when we can’t be strong for ourselves. We should not expect the most from those who have lost the most, including ourselves. God gave us each other for a reason. But nor should we get stuck and stay in helplessness and dependence beyond its time, because someone else may need us to be strong for them some day.
But as we emerge from the shock and paralysis, another stage people experience is confusion, ambiguity and mixed feelings. For the worst situations can also be the most confusing. Having survived or witnessed something terrible, we will likely have all sorts of mixed feelings, like relief and guilt. Relief that we survived; guilt for having been the one who survived, while others did not. I sense this ambiguity in the story of Peter and the Beloved Disciple, John.
When John and Peter arrive at the tomb, what they see in there is quite confusing. There’s no body. But the grave cloths are still there, just where and as the body would have lain. Evidently, no grave robbery took place. Grave robbers or political enemies would likely have taken the body, cloths and all.
This may be when they start to remember that Jesus had predicted his resurrection. They had seen Jesus bring life back to the dead, such as Lazarus, a young boy and a young girl. But the dawning possibility that Jesus has arisen would be at once too good to be true, and too scary. Yes, he has conquered death and hell! Hallelujah! But what will Jesus say about the fact that we slept in the Garden of Gethsemenae when he had wanted us to pray with him? What will Jesus say about the way we fled and abandoned him in the Garden when his enemies came for him? And Peter, what will he say about the way you denied him three times? If Jesus has come back, alive, What’s to become of us? Is this good news, or are we in deep trouble?
Maybe this is what they were preoccupied with when they stepped out of the tomb. Maybe that mix of hope and fear, relief and guilt, is why they ran back to join the other disciples in hiding. For them, the Resurrection would not entirely be good news until later that day, when Jesus would stand among them and say, “Peace to you!” In other words, “All is forgiven; let’s start again, shall we?” Then, in a way, they too were resurrected.
But somebody forgot to tell Mary. For while they are heading back to their hiding place in the city with the other disciples, Mary remains standing, weeping outside the tomb, still thinking that the grave has been robbed or that the body has been taken and moved. All this confusion and miscommunication would be funny if we weren’t talking about a grief so raw.
It was bad enough that they put her beloved Rabbi and teacher to death. Did they have to do it so shamefully, so cruelly, so brutally, as on the cross? And having done their worst, at will, did they have to take the body away, too? Did they have to deny her and all his friends and followers this one last little solace, this one decent human consolation left when death robs us of everyone and everything else we hold so dear, a place, a grave, at least a tomb to which we can go and pay our respects now and then? Did they have to take that away, too? They may have disrespected him in life; why can’t we at least respect him in death?
That reflex to assume the worst is another symptom of trauma and soul injury. Given what she has suffered and seen, I don’t fault Mary for this false security of low expectations and negative assumptions at all. Once you have experienced the worst, it seems prudent and safe to keep expecting the worst. Once you have been beaten down in life, why walk with your head up and your shoulders straight? That’s only to invite getting beaten down again.
But this negative predictability and this despairing approach to life, gives a false sense of security. Because when our proverbial ship comes in, we might think its an invasion and run from it. When opportunity knocks on our door, we may think its a monster and hide in the attic. One loss keeps setting us up for another, in a continuous cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies.
So, even when Mary does finally look into the tomb for herself and sees two angels inside the tomb, and even when the Risen Jesus himself first addresses her, she assumes that they are the people who have removed Jesus’ body. “Tell me where you have taken him, and I’ll go get him,” she says. Maybe it was the tears clouding her eyes that kept her from recognizing Jesus. But just as likely, it was the heartbreak, the trauma and the experience of defeat that left her believing that its best to assume the worst. What can break us from such a cycle of self-reinforcing disappointment, despair and defeat?
The Great Physician has the medicine for such a broken heart, and in Mary’s case, he administered it through the ears. Everything changes when Jesus calls her by name. “Mary,” he says, in such a way that light breaks into her darkened spirit and hope breaks into her despair.
Then she must have embraced him, even if only to confirm that this is Jesus, in flesh and blood, and not a wishful hallucination. For which she gets a surprising response: “Do not hold on to me!” Bible teachers and preachers and interpretors have been working on that one for a while: “Do not hold on to me.” Some of your Bible translations may say, “Do not touch me,” but that doesn’t square with other times that people did touch the Risen Jesus, and at his own invitation. Grammatically, I think the best translation is literally, “Do not keep holding on to me.”
Why would Jesus tell her not to keep holding on to him? Jesus gives two reasons. I’ll start with the second one he gives. In verse 17 he tells her, “Go and tell my brothers….” meaning, obviously, the disciples. So don’t keep hanging on, Mary, you have a job to do. Time’s a’wasting; they need to know about the resurrection, the sooner, the better. That makes Mary Magdalene the first witness to the Risen Jesus, the first preacher of the gospel, the apostle to the apostles.
The first reason that Jesus gives takes a bit more explanation. He says, “Do not keep holding on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” In other words, Jesus is soon to ascend to the place of power and agency and honor that God the Father had promised his Messiah in the Psalms and the prophets. There’s no keeping him here for long. Just as Mary has a place to go with an assignment, so does Jesus.
But that won’t happen for another forty days, when he ascends to heaven. Can’t she have a few more minutes to hold him close? Maybe. But there’s a deeper meaning here than meets the ear. “Do not keep holding onto me” means more than, “Let me go,” physically. It means “Do not try to hold on to what is familiar, to what is passing away.” She must start getting used to the fact that things will be very different from what they were in the good old days in Galilee, along the Sea of Galilee. His mission will continue, but no longer just in Palestine. The same message and ministry will continue, but we cannot depend upon Jesus being physically present, to do it all for us. Once he has ascended to the Father, he will be present everywhere, to all of us, by his Holy Spirit. But now ours are the feet that must walk the world in his love; ours the mouths that must speak his gospel, ours the hands that must reach out to serve, to heal and to help.
In other words, there are more changes to come; there’s more growing up to do. God’s way of resolving our grief and loss is not restoration but resurrection, a resurrection of hope, of purpose, and of powers. Yes, Mary’s beloved Rabboni is back, but not exactly as he once was. Nor will she be the same, either.
As the truth and reality of such changes dawn on Mary, and upon us, I can understand if there should be more mixed feelings. Even if the changes are good, even if, for example, we’ve just had a baby, and we find that a distant relative has left all his estate to us, and the IRS suddenly says it owes us thousands of dollars, change, good or bad, comes with a mixed bag of feelings. At times we may even prefer the paralysis, the helplessness and dependency of grief and trauma, once they start becoming familiar, to the changes that come with healing and resurrection. At least those are familiar. And with the new pleasures, possibilities and powers that lie ahead, come new responsibilities. And so we come into the last stage of healing and recovery: living into, and embracing, the new thing that is before us, with all that it gives us. And with all that it requires of us.
Whatever happens to us, whatever we have to deal with and adjust to, one thing does not change: the Risen, Triumphant Lord is with us, not in body, but in Spirit, now that he has ascended to the Father. It may sound harsh, that Jesus would say to Mary, “Do not keep holding on to me.” But none of us get to bottle our best moments and memories so that we might open them up for repeat performances, whenever we like. Life keeps moving on; God keeps calling us forward.
This same Risen Lord gives us the same blessing that he gave to Mary: to call us by name, in the depths of our spirits. And he gives us the same challenge and opportunities that she received, namely, to “Go tell my brothers.”