All but one of the disciples had fled, fearing for their lives. Only John and a few women stayed with Jesus as he was crucified at Golgotha—the place of the skull. Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother were among the women who stayed close, but they were helpless to do anything more than watch as Jesus’ feet and hands were nailed to a wooden cross. He was placed between thieves, likely on a hill outside of Jerusalem, near a main road to serve as a warning to all to heed Roman law.
They [women] lived in a culture where their testimony didn’t count.
For the women, that sense of helplessness was probably made far worse by not being permitted to speak in front of the council in Jesus’ defense or to appeal to Pilate. They lived in a culture where their testimony didn’t count. So they did what they could; they stayed nearby while Jesus endured the excruciating pain of crucifixion and slow suffocation, and literally took the weight of the sin of the world onto himself.
Teaching Women Their Value
Mary Magdalene was an early and devoted follower of Jesus, who had directly experienced one of Jesus’ miracles when he cast seven demons out of her. Following Jesus was her heartfelt response to the grace that she had received. She probably could not have imagined watching him suffer like this. Jesus allowed women to travel with him and to learn from him, despite that in their Jewish culture, women were not supposed to learn from rabbis (teachers). But Jesus treated women as people of worth, of value, and brought them into fellowship and service. He showed them that they mattered, that all people were equal under God.
It is Finished
As Jesus struggled and endured many hours of agony on that first Good Friday, it grew late in the afternoon. Finally, he took his last labored breath and said, “It is finished.” Seeing Jesus die must have stricken Mary and the others with grief that only kept deepening. Their beloved teacher and friend was dead. And more than that, he was supposed to be the Messiah, the one to save them—to redeem Israel. With his death, what hope was left? The dream of him freeing their country, Israel, seemed over.
She Would be Ready
Yet, Mary Magdalene knew there was one more thing they could do for Jesus. Sundown was not long off, signaling the start of the Sabbath, when no work could be done. As Jesus’ body was given into the care of Joseph of Arimathea, she and the women followed to the nearby garden and watched Joseph place Jesus’ body in a new tomb, big enough to walk into, carved out of the rock. With little time left, Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus’ body in linen cloth, while the women waited outside, crying. Typically the full Jewish burial rites occurring right after death included washing and anointing the body and prayers or Psalms read, but the sun was fading fast.
“Jesus treated women as people of worth, of value, and brought them into fellowship and service.”
The women watched the stone rolled in front of the tomb and returned home to observe the Sabbath, but as John reports in his gospel, they first hurriedly prepared spices and ointments so that as soon as the Sabbath ended, they could return to truly embalm Jesus’s body.
The Long Wait
Then they waited. The slowness of that 24 hours, unable to seek comfort even in some kind of activity because it was forbidden during the Sabbath, probably weighed on them. It’s easy to imagine it gave them too much time to relive the horror and grief, to question and doubt, to fear what would happen next. The future must have looked bleak.
The Empty Tomb
On the third day, when the Sabbath ended, the Gospel of Mark says Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Salome got to the tomb at dawn, intending to anoint Jesus’ body. Discussing who might roll the stone away for them, they looked up and saw, in surprise, it no longer blocked the entrance to the tomb. According to John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene ran to tell Peter and John.
“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she told them, “and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Looking for Him
Peter and John ran to the grave and were surprised to find only the linen cloths, still in the shape of Jesus’ body. What they were seeing seemed impossible. They did not understand Jesus’ words (John 2:19) about what he was going to have to do, that he must rise from the dead. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
Peter and John returned home, still not understanding, while Mary stayed, grieving this new loss in addition to Jesus’ death. She looked in the tomb and saw two angels in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They asked why she was crying.
“Jesus had shown in his actions that women were a part of his ministry and John seems to have honored that.”
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” But then she turned and saw a man standing there. He, too, asked, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
Not the Gardener
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
It was then she recognized him. “Rabbouni!” (teacher)
It seems that she must have reached out to him, overjoyed and probably unwilling to lose him again because he told her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Now that is the best surprise ever! Mary did as Jesus asked and went to the disciples. “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them what he said.
The First Person to See the Risen Lord
Mary Magdalene was the first person to see Jesus after he had risen, and the first he entrusted with the message of his Resurrection—even though Jesus, for certain, knew the Jewish culture considered a woman’s word and testimony worthless. Jesus was showing otherwise.
In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is named as a prime witness to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. John, as the only disciple who stayed at the cross with Jesus, was an eyewitness. As the author of one of the gospel accounts that details the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection, John knew the Jewish culture, and could have easily written that Jesus appeared to him instead of Mary. That would’ve seemed more credible since he was a man whose eyewitness testimony mattered, right?
“In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene is named as a prime witness to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
After all, John did make sure to point out that in running to the tomb that he beat Peter there, and admitted his surprise that the tomb was empty, but he leaves the credit with Mary as the first person to whom the angels appear at the tomb and the first person to speak with the risen Christ. As a man, John’s testimony would have been more accepted—and the disciples for sure wanted the fact of the Resurrection to be accepted. But Jesus had shown in his actions that women were a part of his ministry and John seems to have honored that.
The Way is Open…Still
Jesus continues to turn the world’s wisdom upside down. He tore away the barrier. Now all people are free to approach God because of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. The way is open. Jesus did what he promised: he rose from the dead, and for those who believe, God has given us eternal life through his Son.
The past year had brought such a mixture of intense emotions for us all. Let’s recapture the surprise and the joy of discovering that Jesus has made all things new. He is Risen.