3. In the Garden of Lost and Found (John 20:11-18)
Meanwhile, Mary remains outside the tomb, weeping and disconsolate. She had not yet looked into the tomb. She bent towards the opening of the tomb and saw two angels “in brightness” who were seated, one at the head end of the burial platform and the other at the foot end. To identify the angels with a particular color is, I think, too limiting. John’s gospel returns over and over to the theme of Light coming into the world. With that in mind, I think a better translation of their appearance would focus on their shining brilliance.
All Christian scripture deserves close reading and careful study. I have always taken this to be one of the primary tasks for ordained ministers of the Word. That close reading and careful study is always rewarded, in my experience, with new insight and deeper encounter with the grace and mercy of God in Christ. Nowhere in the Christian scriptures is that truer than in the Gospel of John. With that in mind, we read these next verses closely and discover manifold layers of meaning.
Even with the presence of the two shining angelic messengers, Mary is still convinced that she is witnessing the results of a grave robbery. “They have taken up my master,” she wails, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” The verb for “taken” has in it a sense of upward movement. The writer of John is always at play in the garden of irony, and that continues here. Jesus has been taken up, but not in the sense Mary means. She should know where “they” have put him, since Jesus told them he is the “true and living way” (chapter fourteen).
Mary doesn’t give the shining messengers time to answer. Instead, she “turns around.” Our ears should be finely tuned for the writer’s continued double meanings, and that is certainly the case here. Turning around is another way to describe repentance. And repentance is not so much feeling sorry for misdeeds as it is receiving a whole new way of seeing the cosmos. Mary turns from the tomb and toward an encounter with the risen Christ. Now we know that she is an image, an icon, of the believer who turns from death to life, from despair to hope, from self to Christ.
Mary has not considered or accepted the possibility that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Nor does she recognize the risen Jesus when she first sees him standing there. Jesus asks her the same question as the shining angels – “Woman, why are you crying?” In the same way that Jesus is identified with all of humanity when Pilate says, “Behold, the human being,” so Mary is made identified with all human beings when she is addressed as “Woman.”
Jesus asks a second question, “Whom are you seeking?” This question takes us back to John 1:35-42. John the Forerunner points to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God!” Two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. He turns (same verb as above) to them and asks, “Who (or what) do you seek?” They respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi (which translated means Teacher).” Here in the Garden of Lost and Found, Mary is a disciple. She is the first witness of the Risen Jesus in John’s Gospel. She has turned to see not only the Risen Jesus but a whole new cosmos.
The new vision doesn’t come to her immediately. She supposes or imagines him to be the gardener or caretaker of the garden. The verb used here has the sense of judging something by its appearance rather than its substance. Again, the writer invites us into the irony. Jesus is the Gardener of all the cosmos. The world came into being through him, we were told in the Prologue to John’s gospel, and without him nothing that exists came into being. Mary’s imagination needs to be expanded to cosmic scope and scale.
The writer plays as well with the title for Jesus – the Greek word kyrie. It can be translated to mean master, sir, and lord. It is the title for God in the Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures – Lord. She says to Jesus, “Kyrie, if you have disposed of him, tell me where you have put him, and I will take him up” (verse 15). The Lord has “disposed” of Jesus’ body mired in mortality and has raised him up to a physicality beyond decay and death. Mary cannot “take him up” because Jesus is already there.
The writer crafts the scene with heart-rending intimacy. Jesus calls her by name – “Mary.” We can hear all the echoes of naming that reverberate through the scriptures. In particular, we can hear the words of Isaiah 43:1 – “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (NRSV). And we can hear the words of our baptismal ritual as the candidate is named “child of God, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever” (ELW, page 231).
Mary hears her name and once again “turns” toward Jesus. She says to him (“in Hebrew”), “Rabbouni (which means ‘Teacher’).” Commentators vary in their assessment of this title. Literally it means “my Great One.” It echoes the response of the disciples in John 1 but expands on the title. Some scholars suggest that this title has clear messianic overtones and acknowledges Jesus as in some sense divine. Mary is portrayed as calling out the name in joyful recognition and embracing Jesus in love.
The text doesn’t say that Mary spontaneously hugged Jesus. But in the next verse, Jesus says to her, “Do not keep holding on to me.” The Greek verb is a continuous present and would not be necessary if Mary were not already clinging to her master and friend. The writer’s irony continues. Mary cannot hold Jesus in place. Instead, it is necessary for him to ascend to the Father so that the “other comforter” can come to strengthen and walk alongside the community of disciples.
“I have not yet ascended,” Jesus tells her. This puts to rest, as N. T. Wright notes, any thought that resurrection and ascension are somehow different words for the same event. While the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are intimately related in John’s gospel, they are not the same thing. Each event is a distinguishable element of the process of Jesus’ glorification. But even though the elements are not identical, they all belong together.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar puts the Easter event under the Johannine title of “Going to the Father.” He suggests, “The Father is the Creator who, acting at Easter in the Son, brings his work to completion; the Father, in exalting his Son, also brings the Son’s mission to its conclusion, and makes the Son visible to world, spreading abroad there the Spirit which is common to them both” (page 189).
Jesus gives Mary the first apostolic commission in John’s gospel. We cannot overestimate this reality. Being the first witness to the empty tomb did not qualify Peter and the other disciple as witnesses to the Risen Christ. Mary is the first one to encounter Jesus risen from the dead. She is the first to be called into new relationship with him and to respond to that relationship with faith formed in love. She is now the first to be sent as a messenger of the Good News.
All of the Gospel accounts give primacy to the witness of the women. No gospel makes it clearer or more personal than does John. Perhaps we think back now to the Samaritan woman at the well who has a similar encounter with Jesus and becomes the apostle for her whole village. Doubts about the roles of women in proclamation and teaching simply cannot be anchored in the gospel accounts and must be ruled out of bounds as the unfortunate infections of patriarchy in some of the other Christian scriptures.
“Go to my brothers (and sisters),” Jesus tells her, “and say to them, ‘I am going up…” We return to the gospel’s emphasis on the descending and ascending Son of Man. This theme was announced in John 1:51, and we find it almost wherever we look in the Gospel of John. Here in the Garden of Lost and Found, we hear that this ascending is to be the path for all who follow Jesus. After all, he is going up “to my father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We come back to John’s prologue – “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…” (NRSV).
Mary Magdalene went “announcing.” The word is the same as the root for “angel” or “messenger” in Greek. She functioned as an angelic messenger to the disciples. “I have been seeing the Lord!” she declares. The Greek verb is in the perfect tense, with a sense of continuing action. And the word for “see” includes the sense of “to recognize” rather than merely to perceive. Her message is more than a bare announcement of the encounter. Instead, she shares his words (“these things”) about ascending to the Father.
The other gospel accounts give us some sense of a response from the disciples upon hearing such a report. That is not the case here in John’s gospel. Why is that? In John’s gospel, the recognition of faith comes through a personal encounter with Jesus. Mary prepares them for this encounter. But it is not until the evening of that day that Jesus comes to stand among them. Like Mary, they do not immediately recognize him. It is only when he has spoken to them and showed them his wounds that they know it is “the Lord.” But more on that next week.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.