Commentary on John 20:1-18
Mary Magdalene, whom we met at the cross in John 19:25, comes to the tomb early on Sunday morning. John does not introduce Mary as someone who had multiple demons cast out (Luke 8:2). And she is certainly not the sinful woman that much of Christian tradition made her. She is a faithful disciple, one of the few to stay with Jesus all the way to the cross. She is named as one who comes to the tomb in all 4 Gospels (and hers is the only name in all 4 accounts). In John, she comes alone. She comes empty handed. There is no need to bring aromatics. Jesus’ body was already fully prepared and buried. All that Mary can bring is her grief.
Mary finds the stone rolled away from the tomb, but the text does not say that she looks in. We are to assume that she did, or that she correctly guessed that the opened tomb meant it was now empty. It is Peter and the Beloved Disciple who, in response to Mary’s report, run to the tomb and look in. The wrappings and the face cloth that they see will recall for the careful reader the story of Lazarus from chapter 11. Yet something is different. Lazarus shuffled out of his tomb still wrapped up. Jesus’ wrappings have been left behind. We will soon learn that Jesus will never need them again.
Peter’s response to the tomb is not mentioned. It is the Beloved Disciple who sees and believes. There has been considerable discussion about just what he believes. To say, as Augustine suggested, that he simply believes Mary’s report that the body is missing doesn’t fit with what John normally means by “belief.” Besides that, it would mean that the Beloved Disciple believed something not true (that someone had taken away Jesus’ body), and that is out of character with how John portrays the Beloved Disciple. Some have suggested that he believes Jesus has defeated death, but he doesn’t yet know how that has happened.
Perhaps resurrection is not part of what he believes, and to assume resurrection-faith here may indeed “rush the story.”1 However, we should not downplay the significance of the Beloved Disciple’s faith. Everyone else who believes in John 20-21 does so because they see the risen Jesus. It is the Beloved Disciple alone who believes without seeing Jesus, and in doing that he is the companion in faith to those who, reading this Gospel, likewise believe without seeing (20:29).
Mary returns to the tomb. It is astonishing that she sees two angels in the tomb and has no reaction to their presence. Even if their appearance was that of humans, we might expect Mary at least to conclude that they were involved in the removal of Jesus’ body and ask them (or challenge them) about it. Furthermore, the angels in John’s account do not announce that Jesus has been raised from the dead. That decisive revelation will come from Jesus himself. The angels are present here, it seems, only to allow Mary an opportunity to express her loss and confusion.
But perhaps their presence is to bring to the reader’s mind something else. The mention of angels may remind us of the angels who would be seen ascending and descending on the Son of Man (1:51), the only other use of “angels” in John. That early promise has not yet been fulfilled within the gospel. The mention of angels ascending and descending in chapter 1 recalls the story of Jacob at Bethel, the place where Heaven and Earth meet. Two angels in a small, dark place, at two ends of a shelf or slab could bring to mind the covering of the ark of the covenant (the “mercy seat,” the center of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies; see Exodus 25:22, 37:6-9).2 In chapter 2, Jesus himself referred to his body as the temple. Perhaps the angels are here to help us see that the tomb of Jesus, or better yet the crucified and risen Jesus himself, has become the Holy of Holies, the place of most intimate contact with God.
Mary cannot see this yet, any more than she can recognize the man who repeats the angels’ question. But Jesus adds something: “Whom are you looking for?” It is a reminder of the question Jesus asked his first followers in 1:38: “What are you looking for?” Who is Mary looking for? A risen Lord, or a dead friend? She wants the corpse back. The empty tomb is still only loss to her.
Then Jesus calls her by name, as he did for Lazarus (11:43) and as the Good Shepherd does for his sheep (10:3). Only then does Mary recognize him. Faith comes as a gift. Jesus must reveal himself, here as in the church’s experience through the spoken word. Only then can Mary see Jesus alive and with her. Only then can she be sent as the first apostle of the resurrection.
Jesus urges Mary not to hold onto the old ways in which she knew his presence. Jesus goes to the Father and will send the Paraclete, and thus make possible the indwelling relationship that he had promised his disciples (14:15-24). The abiding presence of Jesus is not through such appearances as we find in this passage, but through the life of the church. This is how Jesus will abide with the disciples, as he promised, and thus fulfill Mary’s hope. So Mary is sent to the community of disciples to prepare them for all this. There she, and we who gather to hear her story once again, will know the presence of Jesus.
- O’Day, 841.
- This possibility is mentioned in passing by Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1970), 1009; by Sandra Schneiders, Written that You May Believe (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 195; and by Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (New York: Oxford, 2011), 139-140.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
With joy and unending praise we raise our voices to you, as together we sing, “Hallelujah! Jesus is risen!” Amen.
This joyful Eastertide, Philip Ledger