Enjoy this monthly blog post from Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services.
I’d like to tell you about a woman named Mary. Mary was born in a little city near the coast in Israel. Although she grew up with some religious influence, the society in which she lived was dominated by sultry influences. It was a sort of night club district that included all the details of such a scene – violence, substance abuse, slavery, and prostitution. Mary resisted a bit, but as she got to be a teenager, she was subsumed in this reality.
It wasn’t long before Mary was working the oldest profession. She was renting herself out to local men.
When she met Jesus, we don’t know. All we know is that Jesus likely made a stop or two in her hometown during the middle of his ministry. But meet him she did, and joined his little band of ragtag followers. In fact, she wasn’t just a fan, she was actually contributing money to the cause of Jesus—money that she had earned, no doubt, through her former profession in the red-light district.
One thing we do know, although we aren’t told the story. Luke casually mentions that Jesus had driven seven demons out of her. So, he probably met Mary while she was still in that old lifestyle, tied up and hemmed in, and Jesus set her free.
She had been forgiven much and she loved much.
For probably a year or two she followed Jesus and soaked in his teachings. Many have speculated that she was in love with Jesus. And that’s probably true enough. She certainly loved him with a greater love than she had ever known. But for a woman with a past like hers, I have a feeling that sexual love was something she was a little jaded about. She simply loved him. She called him “Rabbi” and joined in his mission.
In fact, she followed him right up to the end.
Peter was with Jesus a lot at the end. He was outside the trial, and he was one of the first ones at the tomb. John was there a lot, too. At the trial, the Cross, and early on at the tomb. Jesus’s mother was there at the Cross as well. But only one person was at the trial, the scourging of Jesus, the Cross, the burial, and at the empty tomb. It was Mary Magdalene.
The former prostitute who had been filled with darkness.
Imagine Mary, whose whole life finally has begun to make sense the last year or two. After years of abuse and oppression, after being a slave, she was set free. Now she was a part of something that really mattered. She was a part of the coming of the Kingdom of God. She was a part of the Revolution.
But that balloon is being popped. She has watched a farce of a trial be carried out, watched her Master be beaten and whipped. She has watched and bawled her eyes out as they pin him to a cross. She has stayed the agonizing hours watching him die a slow and painful death. She has followed the procession to the tomb, where he is buried with tears, but without fanfare, in a makeshift hole.
Picture her there.
On the opposite hill, crumpled in a heap. A couple friends with her, crying as well. As Jesus’s body disappears from view, all hope disappears with him. As the large wheel-like stone scrapes against the opening of the tomb and slides into its resting spot, the door to her dreams is slammed shut.
I imagine she stayed there for a long time, crying.
Then she probably went home with some friends to try and sleep. But I doubt she slept much. She has been up all night Thursday night watching the trial, the beating, and the decision for his crucifixion. She’d endured the most emotionally draining day of her life on Friday, and now she’s a wreck. Her rest came in fits and starts, peppered with nightmares during which she lived parts of the past 24 hours all over again.
On Saturday, the Jewish rules forbade her to travel to the tomb. As a day set aside for prayer and reflection, you can imagine what her prayers may have been like that day.
After a night that garnered her even less rest than the night before, she is anxious to get to the tomb where she saw Jesus laid. The Gospels tell us that she started out for the tomb, with a few friends, during the last watch of the night. Sometime between what we would call 3 and 6 a.m. When you are doing something that early, chances are you have been up all night.
The impossibility of moving the stone occurs to her as she stumbles through the dark toward the garden where he is buried.
But when she arrives, she sees something perplexing. The stone is rolled away. After the shocking mistreatment of the past few days, she assumes someone has either robbed his grave or that his enemies have taken his body from the tomb.
Mary, whose whole life seems to be falling in around her, turns and runs. She runs to Peter and John and the others. When she tells them that the tomb was open, they run to see for themselves. By the time Mary gets back to the grave, they have come and gone.
Mary slowly gets closer to the opening in the rock. She peers in. Sure enough, his body is gone. Not only has his life been taken away, but her chance to mourn over him has been stolen as well.
She comes all apart.
You know that feeling, don’t you? When you come all apart.
Things have been bad and have been hard up to that point, but then there is that moment when it all comes to a head. And life seems to enter a dream sequence, and nothing seems real.
At that point, when she looks back into the grave she sees two men inside. They are dressed in white. Any other day Mary might have been more shocked. But in her grief, she seems to have little reaction to them. They ask her a question, “Why are you weeping?”
“Because they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.”
Hear her pain. “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have put him.”
She turns to leave, not really caring to talk with anyone about her sadness. As she does, there is another man standing there. He stops her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, what’s the matter? Why are you crying? Are you looking for someone?”
“Please, sir, if you have done something with my Lord, please tell me and I will go get him.”
It’s hard to say why she didn’t recognize this other man as Jesus, but I think it’s because the possibility that her grief could be totally turned to joy had not even entered her mind.
Let’s press pause on the story at the point and look at the scene.
Here is Jesus, the resurrected, triumphant, glorified Jesus. The Jesus that still stands in heaven today. The Jesus that has overcome the grave, overcome fear, overcome the great gulf between God and man, overcome his Great Enemy, and just finished a permanent bridge between God and man.
And yet he is also still the same Jesus that she has known for the past couple years. The Jesus who drove seven demons out of her. The Jesus she supported financially. The Jesus she watched teach and heal day in and day out.
However, this is also the Jesus that she watched be beaten, led away, and crucified on Friday. The same hands that she saw nailed to crude wood. The same back that bore the brunt of the soldiers’ whips. The same mouth that cried out to God from the Cross. The same nose that smelled the vinegar wine the soldiers tried to get him to drink. The same eyes that were swollen and blackened, but still looked to the heavens longingly. The same face she watched sink and wag after his final breath.
How does he look now?
In some ways, he looks exactly the same. He bears some scars. But he is definitely the same person she has known. And yet, somehow, more so. It’s like he’s a butterfly come out of his cocoon. He’s the same creature, only more so.
And how about Mary?
Mary is in such a dark hole that she cannot see any light at all. Her whole world has caved in. This is simply the worst moment of her life. Physically she’s sacked after not sleeping much in several days. Her hopes for the future have all dried up. Her friendships are strained with the differing responses to the death of Jesus. And perhaps she has even heard little voices in her head calling her back to her old way of life, her old oppressors, in Magdala.
Mary is like a widow the night after the funeral. Darkness has closed in. She cannot see that the light is standing right in front of her.
With one word, though, that is all about to change.
Let’s press play now.
That’s the word. Jesus, listening to her boo-hoo about being desolate and without hope, simply calls her name. “Mary…”
The word rings in her ears like a church bell calling people from miles around. It reverberates in her forlorn soul, chasing every clinging bat of despair out into the day time light to be forever vanquished. It’s like the end of the movie The Truman Show where the sun suddenly rises in a moment of time in the middle of the night.
Death has given way to life.
Fear has given way to joy.
Despair has given way to triumph.
Jesus has overcome the grave.
And Mary has been carried along with him in a tidal wave of excitement, relief and victory.
She does the only thing she can do and she rushes to Jesus and hangs on tight.
Mary, the desperate uneducated second-rate sinner. Mary, a single woman in a day when single women were marginalized and trivialized. Mary, the one who is still the subject of modern gossip.
Mary is the first one Jesus speaks with when he has accomplished the most astonishing feat in human history.
From Mary’s lips the disciples are told about the Resurrection. They get hope from this woman who was hopeless just moments before.
The book of Hebrews calls those who believe in Jesus, “We who have fled for refuge and now grip with white knuckles to the anchor of our souls, to Jesus, who overcame.”
We’re still looking for the identity of the author of the book of Hebrews. From that verse, maybe we should consider Mary Magdalene.
We are those who have fled for refuge. And finding refuge, we hold on with a death grip to the one who has come back from the grave.
Some things I take away from Mary’s story:
First, when Jesus meets Mary she is in darkness. He walks into her life while she is still in darkness.
Sometimes we fall into two traps. The first trap is thinking that when we are in darkness, when our lives are a mess in one way or another, we cannot know God. The truth is that at these times we sometimes are closer to God than at any other time. Why? Because God is near to those who are broken.
The second trap we sometimes fall into is thinking that we need Jesus to fix things on the outside. We need a change in our situation. And sometimes we do. But more often, we need him to deal with something that is inside of us. He cast seven demons out of Mary. Let’s not pretend that we don’t have some demons inside of us. Let’s not pretend that we don’t need him to cast out our darkness.
Secondly, Mary understands what the lack of sleep can do to a person.
I would contend that grief and lack of sleep are the issues which keep her from recognizing Jesus. Mothers of preschoolers understand what a lack of sleep can do to a person. And so do many others. It can make everything difficult to recognize. But just because you are sometimes in a fog that makes everything unrecognizable doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t standing right in front of you.
Lastly, let’s consider the word that Jesus speaks.
In the midst of darkness, in the midst of sleeplessness, in the midst of grief and depression, Jesus speaks her name. And everything changed.
If Jesus has never spoken your name in the midst of darkness, he is now. Close your eyes for just a second, and allow Jesus to speak your name today.