John 20: 1 – 18 The empty tomb – Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene

John 20: 1 – 18 The empty tomb – Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene

The empty tomb

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 at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped round Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, 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 where they were staying.

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene

Now 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

He asked her, ‘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 towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

Jesus said, ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending 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.

*       *       *

If you like to read every word of the bible as being literally true, a comparison of this passage with the same situation described in the synoptic gospels surely gives cause for thought.

All the gospels agree on the time. It was either just before or just after sunrise on the first day following the Sabbath.

They all agree that the empty tomb was witnessed, although they disagree on who witnessed it. In St Matthew’s and St Mark’s accounts, it was just the women. St Luke adds Peter to the roll call, and St John adds Peter and ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’ (thought to be St John himself).

They disagree on who was in the first group to arrive at the tomb. St Matthew’s gospel says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. St Mark says Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. St Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others. St John says that it was just Mary Magdalene.

Were there angels present? All the gospels agree that there were, but Matthew and Mark say one, while Luke and John say two.

There is a big divergence over the opening of the tomb. In Mark, Luke and John the tomb had been opened before anybody arrived. St Matthew, though, paints a dramatic picture:

“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”

Then, too, what do the gospels say about Jesus speaking to Mary on this occasion? St Matthew writes this:

“So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

St John gives us the tender scene of Mary weeping, and mistaking Jesus for the gardener.

St Mark and St Luke say nothing about an appearance.

Finally, there are the actions taken by the women after visiting the tomb. St Matthew doesn’t tell us, although he implies that they delivered the message that the disciples should go to Galilee. St Mark says: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” St Luke says: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the eleven and to all the others…But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

There are a lot of discrepancies in the accounts. It’s hard to accept that every word of each of the accounts is literally true, because there is just too much of substance that differs between them.

As I don’t believe that every word of the bible is literally true, this doesn’t matter to me.

I am quite happy to read these accounts as testimony recalled years after the events, testimony of the most dramatic event in history. All the witnesses had been traumatised by what they had experienced. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They were terrified that the authorities would come for them next. They had lost the expectation that Jesus would overthrow the corrupt rule of the chief priests who were backed by the Romans. As a force, they were broken by the loss of their leader.

Of course there are differences in the gospel accounts of the resurrection! It would be astonishing and suspicious if there weren’t. And taken as a whole, the accounts add up to a testimony to its truth. Jesus was raised from the dead. God won. Jesus lives. We need fear nothing. Alleluia!

The account I’m studying today, from the gospel of St John, may not be literally true, but it contains a profound emotional truth. Mary Magdalene loved Jesus, and she loved his teaching. Her love was probably more intense and purer than anything experienced by the eleven apostles. She was there, on her own, first thing in the morning. When Peter and John had seen the empty tomb, they left. Mary didn’t. She remained, grieving.

As a result of her fidelity, and her love, Jesus was able to comfort her and use her as a messenger to the apostles.

When we love Jesus, when we love his words and his teaching, he can use us to do his will. Perhaps best of all, we can know and understand a little of the ardour with which he loves each one of us.

Isn’t that wonderful?


Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the resurrection of Jesus, and for everything that means for us. Please increase my love for Jesus day by day, so that I may become a better and more faithful servant.

In Jesus name, Amen

Published by pennygadd51

I write. I've written many pieces of flash fiction, dozens of short stories and two novels, with a third in progress.

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