John’s Gospel is one of the most complex of the Gospels. He tends to add layers and layers of meaning with every word and phrase. Today’s Gospel is no exception. Mary Magdalene was the first to experience Jesus resurrected because she came to the tomb weeping. I think we often forget the deep level of attachment and love she had for Jesus. Since she first encountered him, she basically didn’t leave his side. So, where do we expect to find her? With Jesus, namely at the tomb.
The Resurrection of Jesus is a rather peculiar event. I am not sure how you imagined that it happened but I think that many of us think that Jesus simply got up as though he were waking from sleep. That is not how the Scriptures speak of it. Instead the Scriptures proclaim that God raised his Son from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection was not by his own power but by the Father’s power. Thus the necessity of the angels. Recall Sunday’s account of the Resurrection, the account that follows today’s account. Peter and the other disciple saw the burial cloths rolled up in two different places indicating that someone took them off Jesus’ body and carefully put them aside. Who could have done it? Maybe the two angels that Mary saw? These two angels were positioned in the same place as the two piles of burial cloths, one at the body and one at the head. We should be thinking about the Resurrection of Lazareth from a few weeks ago. He came out of the tomb wrapped in burial cloths and had to be untied by other people. Jesus is the same. The angels untied him from the burial cloths so that he could rise. This shows the great humility of God: he needs help to do the most profound things. Meaning, we should also ask for help.
The questions. Three questions are asked throughout this passage. The angels ask Mary: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Then Jesus asks Mary two questions: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” The answers to these questions seem obvious to us, but there is more. The obvious question – “why are you weeping? – is in direct relationship to the obvious answer, he is alive and therefore we should not weep. But the reason for Mary’s weeping is that she is holding onto her teacher, an image of Jesus that she holds dear. Jesus is more than Mary comprehended and therefore her weeping is in response to her lack of understanding. Recall how many times Jesus tells the crowds of mourners at a funeral, why are you weeping? He continually calls all those who mourn to seek something greater. The same applies here. If Mary would have understood the prophesies and the teachings of Jesus, she would have no reason to weep or return to the tomb, but here she is. The second question – whom are you looking for? – also has an obvious answer, Yet, this question bookends the entire Gospel and clarifies issues from chapter 1. When Nicodemus meets Jesus, Jesus asks him “what are you looking for?” With the obvious answer, “a teacher” or “the truth.” Jesus is both. So were are no longer looking for a “what” but a “whom.” Everything is summarized in Jesus. The final part of these questions is the word “woman.” The word “woman” is seldomly used throughout John’s Gospel: the wedding feast of Cana, the woman at the well, the crucifixion, and here. The use of “woman” in these four passages are meant to recall Eve, the mother of all creation, and indicate the start of something new. Mary, the mother of Jesus, becomes the mother of all those reborn into a new creation. Mary of Magdala becomes the premier disciple and the first to experience the new life of Jesus. The word “woman” indicates the newness like the newness that came from Eve.
The final point of the Gospel summarizes this passage and clarifies the points that I have already made: “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Even from Mary’s example we realize that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teachings and the fact of the Resurrection. Thus Mary personifies the mentality of the people who were calling him a teacher and holding to the idea that he is like every other human being. This is not the case. Jesus is coming back so as to prove and bring all creation to the Father in himself. Through Mary’s example we are challenged to understand the true Christ, the one who came from the Father and is returning to the Father, the one who would die and rise, the one who would save the world from sinfulness and bring back covenantal fidelity. Thus we are challenged by the same question Jesus asked Mary: “whom are you looking for?”