On this feast day of Mary Magdalene, I’m thinking back to Easter, when the lectionary wanted to remind us of her story. She’s at Jesus’ tomb, a couple of days and a handful of hours after He died on the cross: looking? waiting? hoping? We’re not sure. What we do know is that she’s there, and that she will miss Jesus when He actually does show up.
During his college years, my brother came home from being away all summer and we went to the airport to meet him. My dad walked into the small terminal, past a bearded guy on the sidewalk wearing a Greek fishing cap and leaning against a pole, and emerged a moment later, without my brother–only to discover that this guy at the pole? It’s him. My dad–who, like all of us, was eager to see my brother and did, in fact, know my brother–blew right by him.
Jesus approaches Mary, who mistakes Him, we read (see John 20:1-18), for the gardener. Now this is actually Mary’s second time at the tomb that morning. She’d come earlier, found the tomb empty, and went back to tell the others. Peter and John race back, find nothing, leave–but Mary returns and stays. This time, she sees angels. Then, she sees Jesus. Except that she misses Him. Maybe it was the beard, or the Greek fishing cap: looking for one thing, but seeing something else. Maybe instead of rushing around singing Hallelujah, or convening a meeting with more angels, Jesus is stooping to smell flowers, pulling great draughts of air into newly resurrected lungs, checking the bushes for blueberries. Maybe He just isn’t looking very much like, well, Jesus at this moment, and Mary just doesn’t see Him.
But then, she does. He speaks her name, and the penny drops.
Later stories speculate about this woman, trying to connect dots, fill in details. The Bible contains–perhaps–hints, but draws no direct lines between Mary Magdalene and, say, the woman of ill repute who bathed Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears. Among the facts reported, however, is this rather remarkable one: it is this Mary who tells the disciples that Jesus has been resurrected. For this, she will be called by some ‘apostle of apostles’.
There is, perhaps, one more way to think of Mary: as a friend of Jesus. Obvious, no? But still important, because on that resurrection Sunday, when she was near the empty tomb, it is hearing her name that brings her back to her senses. And her response? Rabboni. Teacher, yes, but more. The “i” makes the noun personal–she is saying, “my” teacher. It’s personal, familiar; they’re friends.
You go to the airport to meet someone you love; you go to a tomb in search of a dear friend. What you’re looking for isn’t there. Or, at least, you don’t see what you expected to find. And yet: He is there. And when you see Him, you’re torn. Do you stay? Do you go and tell the others? Thankfully, there is time and space for both, and because of that, we have this powerful, precious story of a true, deep friend of Jesus who meets Him, can hardly bear to let go, and yet does, so that others might also have the joy of seeing Him as well.
Mary Magdalene, apostle of apostles. Friend. Mentor.