During my recent careful reading of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection I was surprised by the large place Mary Magdalene held in the story. You might say, she’s number one among the women who visited the tomb. Consider these facts:
She was possessed of seven demons when she was drawn into Jesus’ ranks. He delivered her. Two Gospel accounts state this fact. (Lk 8:2, Mk 16:9).
All four Gospel writers place her at the tomb on the Sunday morning of Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 28:1; Mk 16:1; Lk 24:10; Jn 20:1). No other woman is mentioned in all four accounts. In fact, the Gospel of John places her there twice, first before she went back into the city to notify Peter and John that the tomb was empty, and then again after Peter and John had gone out to the site to see for themselves and then had left (Jn 20:1,10,11).
Also, she is the only one the two angels at the tomb addressed directly, “Woman, why are you crying?” (Jn 20:13). Even more significantly, she was the first to see and speak with the resurrected Christ (Jn 20:14-16).
And this Mary was the one who carried the good news to the apostles — that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. She had been granted first-hand evidence (Jn 20:18).
Consider her unfolding story in more detail.
On the first Sunday after Our Lord’s crucifixion, Jesus’ followers were in utter confusion. The Jewish sabbath was over. The feast of unleavened bread was still in progress. But, their leader, in whom they had lodged such hope, was dead and buried –- permanently, so far as they could tell.
For a small group of women who had supported Jesus’ ministries out of their own resources, all that was left was an emotional visit or two to the borrowed tomb where their fallen hero had been hastily buried. They could finish the work of embalming and then deal with their shattered hope as best they could.
Foremost among that band of women was Mary Magdalene. Based on her history of deliverance, she had great reason to love the Lord with feeling, and to grieve deeply over his shameful death.
John says she was the one who first discovered the tomb to be vacant (Jn 20:1). He reports that it was early in the morning and it was still dark. But the stage of the moon provided enough light for her to see that the stone had been rolled to one side, leaving a gaping hole in the rock. And peering in, she could see that the ledge where his body had been laid was empty.
What could this mean? Based on her limited facts –- the tomb was both open and vacant — she drew a mistaken conclusion and hurried back into the city to report to two of the apostles, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him” (Jn 20:2).
Her conclusion was drawn in the darkness, with misty eyes and a depth of grief that would be sure to cloud her thinking. Besides, the possibility of a resurrection to explain the vacancy would be the last thing to occur to her.
Then, to this distraught woman a stranger materialized behind her and repeated the question the angel had already asked, “Woman, why are you crying?” Thinking it was the gardener, she addressed him, perhaps with an edge in her voice, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
At that moment, the risen Lord spoke her name and she recognized the voice and responded with great surprise, “Rabboni!”
Before she hurried off to carry the news to the apostles, and before any other follower heard the word, the resurrected Lord gave her advanced notice of his coming ascension to the Father (Jn 20:17).
Why would the gospel writers give her such attention? Women in Palestine in the first century were on the bottom rung of the social ladder. A rabbinic saying went: “blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.”
Another rabbinic saying goes, “Let the words of law be burned rather than delivered to women.”
The Gospel was ahead of its time. It elevated womanhood. Here is a woman who once was under demonic possession but who had been miraculously delivered. Then to top all else, the Master had trusted her first with the Good News.
And beyond that, even ahead of the other women, she is the first to carry that Good News to the other disciples (Jn 20:18).
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