Resurrection of Our Lord (B)

Belief precedes understanding

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Stairs going up from a cave, via Unsplash

March 31, 2024

Alternate Gospel
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Commentary on John 20:1-18

The Gospel of John is an exhibit of contrasts. The Jesus we are presented with in this Gospel is often mysterious. This resurrection account is curious because the main characters seem bewildered about what is happening. The other Gospels are more straightforward in their telling of this story.

Unlike the other accounts of the resurrection, we are told here that only one woman—Mary Magdalene—went to the tomb early that Sunday morning. However, we are not told why. We often assume we know why because of the other Gospel accounts, but John has no explicit reason. It simply says, “Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1 Common English Bible).

Mary Magdalene is a curious figure to highlight here, especially given her reception history. Despite being mentioned briefly in Scripture, Mary Magdalene has been held in high esteem for centuries, embodying the essence of Christian devotion and repentance. As a result, her image has been reimagined throughout history, taking on various forms, from a prostitute to a mystic and even a feminist icon. Her presence in this story raises cultural questions about remembering the past and sanctifying power. It also explores the role of tradition, revolution, fallibility, and devotion in shaping the legacy of the woman who was a close companion of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mary Magdalene must have been a prominent figure among those who followed Jesus. She hailed from Magdala, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. (It should be noted that, like a man, she is associated with a geographical location, which is a form of status recognition.) From what can be gathered through different sources, she was most likely a woman of some financial means. However, the conventional trope that she was a repentant prostitute is almost certainly untrue. On that false note hangs the dual use to which her legend has been put ever since: discrediting sexuality in general and disempowering women in particular.

Mary arrives at the tomb during that period of transition from darkness to light, “early in the morning … while it was still dark.” Since she is not carrying spices to anoint the body, we can assume that this narrative, like many in John, is about enlightenment. For example, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night in chapter 3, the engagement leads to enlightenment. Likewise, when Jesus speaks of “living water” with the woman at the well in chapter 4, the point is not about the actual consumption of water.

The metaphors of dark and light make statements about the character of the individual involved. Nicodemus never quite understands what Jesus means by being “born again” (3:3). Although many translations pick up on the dual meaning of the Greek anothen and opt for “from above” instead of “again.” The ambiguity of the wording partly explains Nicodemus’ inability to understand Jesus.

By contrast, the woman at the well in the next chapter encounters Jesus “around noon” (4:6). She is confronted with the concept of “living water” (4:10). She discerns that he is the Messiah (4:25). He confirms her insight (4:26). And verbal ambiguity does not deter her understanding in this encounter in the middle of the day. And so, Mary’s arrival at the tomb as the day moves from darkness to light speaks to us about how we are to understand the story. The disciples are moving from a period of ignorance (darkness) to understanding (light). The story now draws together several important strands of the Gospel.

They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead” (20:9 Common English Bible). The resurrection experience begins the disciples’ understanding of the importance of Jesus. Although we are told that the other disciple believed (20:8), this statement is immediately followed by “They didn’t yet understand.” Understanding and belief are contrasted several times in this Gospel. They are not mutually exclusive, however. They coexist in the life of the believer. In this case, as in many, belief precedes understanding. 

The other disciple accepted the validity of the experience, although he didn’t understand the reason why the experience occurred. This highlights Jesus’ statement in 5:39, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that testify on my behalf” (New Revised Standard Version). The experience of the incarnated Logos provides understanding of what scripture teaches.

Mary sees angels. Yet, the character of the conversation suggests she does not recognize them as such. They say, “Woman, why are you crying?” (20:13 Common English Bible). She responds, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

This is followed immediately by the appearance of Jesus: “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus” (20:14). She believes he’s the gardener. He repeats the question asked by the angels. She repeats her plea with the added recognition that this gardener could be involved in the bodily abduction, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him” (20:15). This highlights the recurrent theme of duality where words have more than one meaning, events have meanings on distinct levels, and characters operate in two orbits of identification.

Jesus then calls her by name, and she immediately identifies him (20:16). This recalls what Jesus said in 10:3–4, “The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice … the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” With Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the relationship between shepherd and flock cuts through all ambiguity and duality. This then prompts the first telling of the core of the gospel message: the resurrection of Jesus.