I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
Mary came to the garden alone that morning. The hymn is what our family calls an “old-fashioned favorite.” It says something many of us wish for more of in our relationship with Jesus, a sense of closeness, caring and intimacy. Mary Magdalene may have had the closest relationship with Jesus of any of his followers. You don’t have to look far these days for suppositions about Mary Magdalene. We know she must have been an important person to the early Christians because she appears at the tomb in all four Gospels. In John’s story, she is alone, rather than part of a group of women. And she is the only one in any gospel to meet the risen Jesus right there near the tomb.
Mary had no expectation of new life when she went to the tomb that morning. She went with a job to do, an important ritual task, to anoint the body of the teacher she loved so much. At times when we are grieving, it can be so important to have a job to do, a responsibility to fulfill, something that keeps us putting one foot in front of the other. And so Mary had her task. And when she arrived at the tomb, she found that things were even worse than she expected. Prepared to perform the painful task of anointing the broken, bloodied body of her beloved Rabboni, she instead found the tomb empty and the body missing. She naturally assumed that his body had been stolen. She ran to find the disciples, and together with two of them ran back to the tomb. The details of how the grave cloths were left behind or of angels or young men in white vary from gospel to gospel, but the important thing here is that Mary’s suffering has been deepened and her shock increased.
When a man comes near, she doesn’t recognize him through her tears. She doesn’t notice anything unusual about him. All Mary wants is an answer to her question, “Where have you taken him?” It is when Jesus says her name, “Mary!”, that she finally knows him. Earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Sheep recognize their master’s voice; following the master is what keeps them out of trouble.
When she finally recognizes him, she calls him, Rabboni, a very cozy word meaning, “My master,” or “My teacher.” She reaches for Jesus, but he keeps her at a distance. He is on his way and cannot stay with her. The gospel does not describe her shock and amazement, but I think we can safely read those emotions into the story. Joy at seeing him gave way to a further separation and yet another task to perform, to bring the good news to the disciples.
When my husband was away working last fall, our puppy, Sam, was just about six months old. Like a little child he had no sense of time and no understanding that his “daddy” would ever return. He was one sad puppy, because my husband was the primary person in his life, his surrogate parent, his teacher, his playmate. When he arrived home, there was no chance for anyone else in the family to greet him, because Sam needed to climb all over him and lick him and snuffle him, all the time wagging his whole body and whining with joy.
How urgent must have been Mary’s need to touch her teacher—but Jesus stops her. That particular familiarity is gone, just as some things are lost to us forever. The familiarity of the garden, the joy turned to woe, the material experience of being with him, is over. Now there is something new. And it is joyful, too, for there is a knowing that nothing ends completely. But it is different.
We live out this resurrection motif when we recover from a loss and even when we kiss and make up. We live out this resurrection motif when we wake up to the sunshine and warmth of spring as if it were the first spring. We live out this resurrection when we find the strength to stay on the path despite disappointment in ourselves, in others, in the world. We live out this resurrection when we feel joy again where there has only been pain and determine to share that joy with others.
We do not live the resurrection when we take things for granted, when we miss opportunities because we are preoccupied with concerns of the world, of business, of politics, of sports or popular pursuits. Jesus didn’t rise in order to avenge his own death, to rally his troops to take on the Romans, or to punish the Jewish leaders who turned him over to be executed. He rose in order to ascend even further, to be reunited with God, his God and our God. It is a sign to us of what is really important—that we reunite with God. And as is true about so many things in our faith, the method is counterintuitive. “Do not cling to me,” Jesus tells Mary, and tells us. The way to be closer to God is not to hold on tight to what is past. The way is new, not old. The path to follow is one of new life, not old habits. The path to follow is love, and if anyone knew the way of loving Jesus, it was Mary.
We never hear of Mary Magdalene again. I suppose the most important work she could do had already been done. In the space of 18 verses, Mary grieves, finds hope and then must move on as we do in our own resurrection experiences. She does not cling, no matter how much she might wish to do so. She keeps moving forward and calls out the Good News: Christ is risen! Alleluia! Amen.