Summary: Mary and the disciples discover true belief in Jesus and are sent out to proclaim his resurrection
It’s early Sunday morning, and she can’t wait any longer. Jesus had been taken down from the cross late on the Friday and buried in Joseph’s tomb, but the Jewish law prohibited them from travelling as far as the tomb on the Sabbath, particularly this Sabbath, being Passover. So they’d had to wait a whole day before going to put spices on his body and mourn over him properly. And so now here she is hurrying towards the graveyard in the dark. But when she arrives she’s brought up with a shock. The stone has been removed from the entrance to the tomb. Everyone knew that stones were used across the entrance to tombs to stop body snatchers from taking the bodies of the dead. But surely that hadn’t happened! What if someone had come in the middle of the night and taken his body away? What if she never has the chance to say good bye? What will she do?
So she hurries back to the solid and dependable Peter who’s still with John, the disciple that Jesus loved. She probably doesn’t realise just how undependable Peter turned out to be on the night before the crucifixion. But she hurries back and tells him, "They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they’ve put him." So now here are Peter and John running towards the tomb. John’s the younger of the two so he outruns Peter and gets there first. But he doesn’t go in. He stops outside, bends over and looks in and sees the strips of linen lying there. Simon Peter on the other hand, ever the impetuous one, goes straight in. He too sees the strips of linen lying there along with the burial cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. This is lying by itself, separate from the rest of the cloths, almost as though Jesus were still in it. But he isn’t. John also goes inside then, sees that Jesus is no longer wrapped in the cloths and, we’re told, he believes. What does he believe? That Jesus is risen, though he still didn’t understand the Scriptures that had predicted it.
Well, what could they do? They were totally mystified. All they could do was to go home and wait to see what would happen next. But not Mary. She waits by the tomb weeping. She’s probably arrived some time after Peter and John, but now as she too bends down to look inside she sees something new. She sees two angels seated either end of where Jesus’ body had been. The place of his death was between two thieves, but the place of his burial is between two angels. And as she looks they ask her, "Woman, why are you crying?" They seem to be genuinely confused at her distress. From their perspective of course there’s no need for tears. But if they’re confused, Mary is even more so. "Isn’t it obvious. They’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where he is." This is the final straw. Bad enough that he’s dead, but she doesn’t even have a body to care for and to mourn over any more. But then with a start she notices a man standing behind her. We’re told it’s Jesus, but Mary doesn’t recognise him. Perhaps the rising sun is behind him and all she can see is an outline, or perhaps his appearance is sufficiently changed that he’s not immediately recognisable.
Jesus asks her the same question: "Woman, why are you crying?" Then he adds a second question: "Who is it you are looking for?" Is this a challenge? Or a test? "Do you know who he really is?" If you really understood who it is you’re looking for, would you look here? Or is he saying, "Are you prepared to be counted among his followers still? Even after he’s been publicly shamed and put to death on a cross?" All Mary knows is that she loved him and now she wants to honour his dead body. So she asks him if maybe he’s taken him away. He seems to have an aura of authority about him, so maybe he’s in charge of the garden and knows where Jesus has been taken.
But then Jesus reveals himself to her in the most profound way: with a single word. He simply says "Mary." He addresses her with a personal, perhaps even intimate form of address, her own name. And instantly she recognises him and calls out to him in joy with her own personal way of addressing him, "Rabboni", "My own dear Teacher." The good shepherd calls his own sheep by name and they recognise his voice. Mary recognises Jesus as he calls her personally.
But things have changed. As she tries to hold on to him, he tells her she’s not to. This is no longer the time for physical contact with Jesus. That will come again when we join him in the Father’s kingdom, but for now our relating to Jesus is by faith in union with the Holy Spirit. This is something that we also discover when Thomas encounters the risen Christ the following week. First Jesus offers to let him touch his wounds, just as the other disciples had the previous week, but Thomas says he doesn’t need to touch them. He can see with his own eyes that Jesus is really alive. But then Jesus says (v29): "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." There’s a new way of relating to Jesus now. Now our relationship with Jesus comes by faith, not by seeing.