“But Mary stood without at the sepulcher weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulcher, and seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabbo’ni; which is to say, Master.”
When we have experiences that do not make sense we may feel alienated by the strangeness, by the unknown, but we quickly recover by interpreting the strangeness away. In fact we hardly ever permit strangeness to linger long and for many of us the sense of wonder that may be quickened by the unfamiliar is a long lost memory of childhood. The poet or the mystic may get caught up in wonder even without the lure of oddness, but most of us seldom experience the world with the blessedness of a naïve heart. Rather than a world fresh as falling rain, we experience not the world, but our hasty interpretations of experience. The world comes our way as pre-interpreted, prepackaged sheaths of meaning that allow us to move through life a little quicker so we can get on to things we think are important or things we want to do. But occasionally we experience something so weird, so incongruous, and so unexpected that it defies interpretation. Sometimes we don’t even have words and categories to talk about it. Such is the case with the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was completely new, so different from anything that had ever happened that the very newness of it disabled the disciples’ natural tendency to interpret and it took some time for the Church to know, to understand what happened on a tiny piece of real estate in Jerusalem on the first Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion.
According to John, Mary Magdalene was the first one at Jesus’ tomb but we know she was not alone because she told Peter “we know not where they have laid him.” The other Gospels report the names of the women who had accompanied her to the tomb and they are identified in Luke Chapter 8 as Jesus’ earliest followers. In fact, Luke informs us that these women, at their own expense, provided for the daily needs of Jesus and his disciples –- they were the regulars, the usual suspects he could count on.
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, not regulars but late bloomers, removed the body of Christ from the Cross and quickly wrapped it in a linen shroud, threw in about 75 pounds of spices including myrrh and laid him in a rock tomb close to where he was crucified. Mary Magdalene and other women sat down across from the tomb and watched till they had to leave because of the Sabbath.
The first experience of the resurrection is told from Mary’s point-of-view. She was dismayed upon finding the stone rolled away from the tomb and she must have looked inside and saw that it was empty because she ran straight to Peter. “They have taken him away and we do not know what they have done to him!” Peter and John then ran to the sepulcher and confirmed Mary’s report.
They went into the tomb and verified that Jesus was not there. The linens were there, including the towel-like piece of cloth that was tied under the chin and over the head of the corpse to hold the mouth shut, but the body of Jesus was missing. John took note that the cloth was folded and placed separately from the shroud. Peter and John quickly returned to their safe house, but Mary Magdalene would not leave. She was determined to find the lifeless body of Jesus and take care of it. Eventually she went back into the tomb and saw:
“two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”
There is much to love about the Gospel of John, but I especially love John’s use of imagery. By appealing to our visual imaginations, John paints stories that communicate profound theology. These images were meant for a specific audience – John’s intended reader would have understood these word pictures because they symbolic of an older narrative that already had meaning for them. Here is one example I like point out during the Easter season:
“two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.”
You see that picture? There’s the stone slab where the body of Jesus had lain, there the bloodied cloths not scattered about, but just lying there; and at either end is an Angel. Now pass over to the point-of-view of a Jewish Christian in John’s day and sooner or later just because you were a Jewish Christian it would dawn on you that you had seen that before. I have made this point many times. Eventually you would remember where you had seen it. You would recall God instructions to Moses for the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat.
“And thou shalt make a mercy seat of pure gold…and thou shalt make two cherubim of gold…one on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat…” (Exodus 25:17-22)
Now what does this mean? The Mercy Seat was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple and on the Day of Atonement a Jewish High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial victim upon the Mercy Seat atoning for all of Israel. Incense was burnt first so that a cloud rose up over the Mercy Seat. You can see that. Right? And if you were a Jewish Christian you would eventually grasp the intelligibility of this odd experience in Jesus’ tomb: John’s Gospel is declaring that the Tomb of Jesus is the true Holy of Holies and the Stone upon which his lifeless body was placed is the true Mercy Seat but this time with real angels, not angels hammered from gold –- real angels on both ends. The Mercy Seat of Moses is perfected in the Mercy Seat Mary found the first Easter morning. This is a prime example of what Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP calls an “ordering principle” of Catholic theology: God does not discard his creation, he appropriates it, he assumes it into a higher reality, thus perfecting it. Or as E. L. Mascall never seems to tire of saying: “Grace does not destroy nature; grace perfects nature.”
God continues to retain, to assume, to enlarge, to transform, and to perfect his works. And so the Mercy Seat that Mary discovered, retained, assumed, enlarged, transformed, and perfected the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament, while at the same time the Mercy Seat that Mary discovered is itself assumed, enlarged, transformed, and perfected in yet another Mercy Seat. What Mercy Seat do I speak of? By the grace and specific institution of Jesus the Messiah, on the night in which he was betrayed, we have a greater Mercy Seat and it is right there in front of you at that Altar. As the old priests of Israel once sprinkled the Mercy Seat with the blood of sacrificial lambs in the Old Testament; and as Jesus Christ crucified, the Lamb of God, once lay upon the blood sprinkled Mercy Seat in the Tomb, now the resurrected Jesus comes to us daily, body and all, right there upon the Altar — the finality of all the instantiations of the Mercy Seat.
But let’s get back to Mary Magdalene. Realize this — she had not slept much if at all and her last meal was probably with Jesus – four days ago. She had seen terrible things, things you and I can hardly imagine, fall upon the man she loved. Her grief was agonizing. Her affect is flat. She was drained, beyond weary, exhausted, very nearly used up.
When Mary saw two angels sitting on the Mercy Seat, it should have taken her breath away. Had she not been worn out from grief and fatigue the sight of these numinous beings would have taken her breath and she would have frozen in fear and trembling. But she is at the place now that very little of her experience is registering with her. Even when they speak to her she answers straight-out and flatly but we also discover that she is driven by a single question that kept her at the tomb and it would not let her sleep or rest:
“Why are you weeping?”
“They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”
She must have been standing at the mouth of the tomb and it is at this point in the narrative that she turned around and Jesus was standing right there. But she did not recognize him — for obvious reasons. He was battered bloody the last time she saw him. He was mutilated — a gory lifeless mess. No, she was not expecting a resurrection; no one even knew what a resurrection meant — this is the very first one. Mary thought Jesus was the gardener.
In the Gospel of John people are always making mistakes with regard to Jesus’ identity. Anytime someone makes a mistake of identity in a Gospel it means something. What would this have meant to a Jewish Christian in John’s day? Well, who was the First Gardener? Every Jewish child knew that Adam was the first gardener. By citing this piece of tradition in which Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, John is identifying Jesus with Adam. Here is the Last Adam in a garden that is bursting with life. And Jesus has a wound in his side just like the first Adam. In the story-world of creation the Mother of Humanity was taken from Adam’s side. And so Holy Mother Church was taken from the side of the Last Adam when a Roman soldier opened up his side and water and blood poured forth. From the water of Baptism Holy Mother Church is born and she is nurtured on the blood of Christ.
But it is getting late and we need to get back to Mary! Mary said:
“Please sir, if you have taken him somewhere else tell me where that I might take him away.”
And then as you all very well know, Jesus said one word to her: “Mary.” And instantly she recognized his voice. Without any categories to understand what was happening, without any prepackaged interpretation and meaning available to her, she simply gave herself to his love. No one in the world could say Mary’s name like Jesus. No one had ever loved her like Jesus. No one had ever taken the mess she and others had made of her life and turned it into such beauty. She knew what it was to be used. And she knew what real love was all about because Jesus had come into her life. There are two things I want you to understand: Though Jesus was standing right in front her, at that point she did not understand, she did not have our understanding of what was happening. She had the experience of the resurrected Christ, but she did not understand it. Secondly, she knew one thing — as odd, as strange, as unbelievable as it may be, the robust man standing in front of her, full of life and strength and power and love was Jesus and she was his disciple.
Listen, you have what Mary did not have — you have the infallible witness of the Church. In 325 the bishops in council at Nicaea gave the Church the infallible creedal declaration that not only was our Lord Jesus Christ “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” but that “on the third day her rose again” and because he rose “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This is the faith of the Church: that the human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised, body and all, from the dead, never to die again; that his resurrection was the prototype of our own resurrection. It is one thing to have had the experience of our resurrected Lord, but it is altogether another thing to understand it. As you knell at the Altar, as you receive life of Jesus, our Lord and our God, in the palm of your hand, or upon your tongue, why not make today the day you offer up your life to the Lover of your soul.