When the women arrived, what did they find? Mark tells us that “they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away” (Mark 16:4). In that moment began Mary’s next lesson in discipleship. She had set out that morning with one set of expectations and quickly found them turned upside down. John reports the incident this way:
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put Him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)
Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. (20:1–12)
Mary, seeing the stone rolled away, made an assumption. She concluded that Jesus’ body had been taken away and laid elsewhere. In that moment she could not think of Jesus as anything but dead. She had watched Him die. She had seen Him placed in this tomb.
Running to Peter and John, she followed them back to the tomb but stood outside weeping. This was the final blow. Enormous emotional tension had built up over the preceding weeks. Standing there, she may have remembered that last trip from Galilee to Judea, that seventy-mile walk to Jerusalem. Among other things had been Jesus’ ominous prediction of His coming death. But overshadowing that had been the thrill of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. She had heard the adulation of the crowds crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
She had stood in the Court of the Women and watched as Jesus entered the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers. She swelled with pride as He drove out evil men who were fleecing the poor pilgrims coming to the Holy City to celebrate the Passover. She held her breath, seeing the fury of the chief priests and Pharisees as Jesus taught for the last time in the temple courtyard.
She may have watched at the house of Simon the Leper as Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus. If so, she heard Him again predict His own death. She may have been present at Jesus’ trial. We know she was there as He was led away to execution. She was there as the nails were driven into His hands and feet. She was there when the spear split open His side. She was there as the sky darkened at midday and a strong earthquake broke open rocks and graves. She had stood with the other women at the foot of the cross watching the One who had delivered her from seven demons now seemingly unable to deliver Himself. She watched Him die.
The highs and lows of that week all flowed together. She felt again the sting of contradiction as she remembered hearing crowds chant “Hosanna” one day and “Away with Him! Crucify Him!” only a few days later. Mary who had experienced that emotional rollercoaster now stood at the tomb, wrung out, devastated by the thought that, even in death, Jesus was violated. His body had been taken. Her wrenching sobs expressed all the dashed hopes and desperation she felt.
Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put Him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. (John 20:11–14)
When Mary and the other women had arrived at the tomb earlier that morning, she had sped off to find Peter and John. Meanwhile the others entered the tomb and met the angels who said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! Remember how He told you, while He was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’ ” (Luke 24:5–8)
But now the weeping Mary, who had missed those words the first time, did not wait for those words of hope when she saw the angels. Blinded by her grief, she turned away from them. As she turned, she saw a man standing nearby. He spoke exactly the same words she had just heard from the angels in John 20:15–18:
“Woman . . . why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking He was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him, and I will get Him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that He had said these things to her.
What did it take to move Mary from desolation to exaltation and to galvanize her for witness? Only one thing. Jesus spoke her name in a voice she knew, and it was enough.
The Good Shepherd called the name of this weeping sheep, Mary, and she knew His voice. Suddenly everything that had been all wrong was now all right.
The one who had been dead was now alive. The one who had delivered her from seven demons was once again with her. In her ecstatic joy she flung her arms around Him.
Jesus gently disengaged her clinging hold on His body and gave her a task: Go and tell my brothers.
In a split second this disciple had moved from abject sorrow to euphoria: The Teacher was alive! Now she had work to do.
The fourth thing we know about Mary Magdalene is that she was sent by Jesus as the first witness to the resurrection. He commissioned her to tell His brothers the good news. She became, as Augustine called her, “an apostle to the apostles.”
Mary’s mental horizon had been fixed in the past. Her thoughts had been riveted on a dead body. Only the living Christ Himself could move her out of her focus on the past and into the future. In the future she was to go and tell.