For Mary’s Sake

There are no earthquakes, no glowing angels (Matthew), no big stone doors magically rolled away (Mark), or dazzling heavenly pronouncements (Luke). And certainly no five-piece rock bands to make sure the resurrection is hip enough. John’s account differs starkly from the others–empty tomb, the leavings of the burial tidily stowed therein, and nobody there, human or otherwise, to cushion the shock and announce an answer or two. There are only the questions. Peter the Impetuous inspects the tomb, guesses that prophecy has been fulfilled, and sprints off to tell the others. Mary of Magdala remains, playing the skeptic, doing the Thomas thing, though her cascade of sorrow suggests it’s the role she least wants.

After Peter departs, she stays by the tomb weeping, seized with grief unassuageable. For her the tomb is just damned empty, not anything close to Light but a cosmic black hole sucking in love, hope, and everything else that matters. So distraught is she that when two angels suddenly occupy the place where Jesus had lain, all she can do is complain that she doesn’t know where the grave-robbers have taken the corpse. Turning away she sees someone she thinks is the gardener, and he poses the same question the angels asked, “Why are you weeping?” and bothering to add, to make the matter clearer still, “Who are you looking for?” (REB; vs. 13 and 15). And still Mary doesn’t get it, turning away from the Risen One, Jesus himself, the fellow she so laments. Only when he speaks her name, “Mary,” and who knows how, does she get it.

Amid her fear, perplexity, disappointment, and grief, the unfaith that is the opposite of Peter’s over-eager guesswork, Jesus calls her name, no doubt stringing it out to who knows how many syllables, five or twelve, and the voice announces what her eyes cannot see. That’s all, just her name. The Word speaks a name, and a world turns. There are no stage directions supplied for how he says it, no clues about intonation and insinuation. And then, and only then, does Mary assent, completely. He has to tell her to keep her hands off, and he sends her back into the human community, taking care to endorse what they know of him: “but go to my brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v. 17).

A scene like this foments all that old gossip about “just what was the relationship between Mary and Jesus, anyway?” After all, just one word, her name no less, clears the fog and flips the heart. The suggestion is that Jesus could not really have been so good or divine as to not have had at least a few carnal thoughts. If he did it surely must have been the foul human man part that did. The silliness of that observation lies in the bizarre conclusion that God does not relish the carnal; after all, who made this very resplendent material place and “so loved this world”? In any case, whatever the pair felt for one another, the nature of it is best seen in Mary’s response upon hearing the voice call her name. She does not call him by name or endearment but simply “turned and said to him, ‘Rabbuni'” (v. 16). That’s hardly a term of blood fever.

The notes in the Oxford study Bible try to allegorize this scene to pump up faith as an epistemological necessity. That is exactly what the scene does not do. Peter runs off in faith, or at least in good warranted guesswork. Mary instead needs the actual-factual palpable incarnate Jesus to reverse her fears into elation. Faith doesn’t do it; nor does hope, wishing, lament, or dream. It takes the very present, very personal Christ, risen Jesus, calling her very own name, to haul her out of the dark back into God’s family. After that, Jesus’ instruction takes care to show Mary the connection between himself and his community of followers, and maybe traditional Jews too, seemingly to point to the way in which all of these are meant ever after to be signposts and bulwarks for the bereft Mary and others like her, which is just about everybody, save for those few crazy Peters. In any case, calling to her by name is about as personal a thing as Jesus does anywhere in the Gospels, and he saves it for when it is needed most. Whatever it takes. We should be so lucky.

Roy Anker is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and co-editor of Perspectives.