Then there is terrible confusion. First of all she runs. Back along the paths from whence she came. Her feet pound the gravel. Her breath is sharp and laden. But she soon finds them – Peter and John – they are half awake, sprawled outside the house staring into the middle distance, seemingly oblivious that night has turned to day. They are neither awake nor asleep. They have about them that same pallor of weary resignation that she was wearing.
They see her approaching, but say nothing. She comes right up to them but it is as if she doesn’t exist; they neither acknowledge nor dismiss her. And she is so out of breath that at first she can’t speak. She stands before them, bending in pain, panting, breathless. Then the words just tumble out: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb.’
The words themselves drop like a stone. At first they say nothing, do nothing. They just stare at her, only now aware of her presence. And she wants to grab hold of them and shake them into action. They have both been so useless: one so patient, watching but doing nothing; one so active, but failing to watch and doing everything except anything that would do any good. So she says it again: ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb. I don’t know where they’ve laid him!’ And something about the panic in her voice – the fear – alerts them. They look at each other. They seem to read each other’s minds, and, without saying a word, rise up.
More footsteps on the path. Peter and John running. Running towards the tomb. But John is faster, and, outrunning his friend, he gets there first. He stands in front of the tomb. It is as she said. Empty. The stone rolled away. The body of Jesus gone. He bends down to peer inside. He can see the linen shroud lying there, but he doesn’t go in.
Now Peter arrives. He pushes past him. He goes right inside. He also sees the linen wrappings. He sees the cloth that had been used to wrap Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself away from the shroud. Everything is neat and tidy. It doesn’t make sense. It looks neither ransacked nor abandoned. It has just been left. Not for the first time, it all seems beyond him.
But now John goes in. He crouches inside the tomb and looks carefully at the place where the body had been laid. He remembers all that he had seen on that bloody Friday afternoon. He remembers leaning on the Lord’s shoulder at supper the night before. In his heart he still thinks of him as
‘the Lord’. He has not let go of his hope. In his mind’s eye he sees the bread breaking, sees it offered, shared, and then at the same time nails being driven in, blood spilling. For a moment it all comes together in his mind: ‘This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. Do this to remember me.’
He catches hold of a thread which leads from this emptiness to that cup’s fullness, and the Lord’s determination to drink it and then at the same time to pour it out for all. And he can’t explain it, won’t yet proclaim it, nor even does he really understand it himself, but it is there inside him: suddenly a conviction, an understanding. He stands in the empty tomb. He sees and he believes. But he says nothing.
Then it is quiet again. The two of them step outside and she is waiting. Waiting to see what they’ll say, waiting to see what they do. But again, nothing. Again, they hardly acknowledge her. They just trudge home, leaving her behind.
And now it rises within her again, and her tears flow unabated, unashamed. And as her body shakes with sobbing she remembers how he had delighted and confounded her, and how his words had been so rich with joy – always making her smile or weep – and always so hopeful. Even
when it came to death, he had spoken of seeds waiting silently in the ground.
Through her tears she also bends to look into the tomb. To her amazement she sees two figures in white sitting where his body had been, one at the head and the other at the feet. Are they angels? She is startled. She shakes her head in disbelief. She doesn’t know what is happening, but they look at her with a cool equilibrium. ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ they say to her.
It is the most stupid, futile question she has ever heard, and she wants to scream at them. Isn’t it obvious? Isn’t it already painful enough? He is gone. He is defeated. He is humiliated. And now this! Not even permitted the rest of death. His grave plundered. His body snatched. And she pleads with them, not knowing who they are, not even caring where they have come from: ‘They have taken away my Lord . . .’ But her own words convict her: who is ‘they’, and why and how? The questions rise in her mind. The awfulness of it swells. ‘I don’t know where they’ve laid him,’ she says to them, stating the obvious. And realizing that her own questions are as stupid as theirs, she stares up into the sky, up to the hills that surround Jerusalem. ‘From whence cometh my help,’ she says to herself, coldly, despairingly.
She is fixed to the spot. She cannot turn from the tomb, but she can’t bear to look at it either. But there is no stillness inside her. She is agitated, disconsolate. The tears still flow down her face.
From somewhere behind her she senses the slightest movement of another person. She looks around, but still doesn’t actually turn.
There is someone standing there. A man. A gardener?
She wonders how long he has been there. He seems to be looking at her, watching her. She suddenly feels embarrassed, and she is about to say something herself when he speaks: the same words as the angels, but this time they are beautiful, for there is a deep kindness in his voice. ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ he says. And even as he asks, it is as if he knows; as if he can see and feel the pain that grips her, that holds her to this spot while the others have departed: as if she is still hoping to catch hold of a part of him whom she has lost.
She is weeping for everything that might have been, and for everything that was. Her body is wracked with the all-too-human pain of knowing that the precious beauty of living is wafer thin and easily broken; needle-in-a-haystack-small and easily lost; a pinprick of dazzling light in a dark and
brooding universe and easily extinguished. And when you know this, and especially when its succour is drained by the inevitable deprivations of death and sadness, what can you do but weep and rage against the dying of the light? No, do not go gentle into that good night as he had done. What good was it? You were still dead. And she wanted to say all this. She wanted to scream it out and batter her fists against the awful emptiness of life, against this man appearing from nowhere and presuming to care: and yet the gentle tenor of his voice seemed to suggest that he already knew, that he was somehow with her in the mausoleum of her grief. Not just beside her.
The two of them stand in the garden. The sun is just beginning to cast the fullness of its first rays across the dew-drenched earth.
She is standing in front of the tomb. Her body is still, but deep unrest convulses her spirit. Tears smudge her face. The stone that was placed at the entrance is pushed away to one side. He is standing beside her. Close to her, but not quite next to her. She is sort of half-turned round, looking at him, wondering who he is and where he came from. They can see each other clearly and they look at each other closely, but she is not turning round to face him properly. She has no idea who he is. And yet she has this strange desire to reach out to him. It seems as if he might know something.
She sees but doesn’t see. She hears but doesn’t hear. Like many before her, like so many after, she doesn’t get it. Not yet. He is standing before her – the very one whom she is looking for – but she doesn’t know it is him. Perhaps the early morning sun is in her eyes? Perhaps her tears have blurred her vision? Or is it something else?
‘Who are you looking for?’ he says.
Such a question. And she didn’t know there was any more feeling to be dredged from the pit of her heart. But this question burns like fire. There is so much she is looking for, but in these last few weeks it had all focused itself into one person – into him – the one whose lifeless corpse she was seeking, the one she didn’t know she was looking for until she found him, although even then it seemed as though he had always been looking for her. That was how it was for everyone who found him – who was found by him – his words and his presence seemed to chime with the deepest longings of the heart, not taking away all the other questions, but re-framing them within the knowledge of a great love, and the astonishing relief of receiving affirmation. To be loved and accepted; that was what no one else had ever
given her in life – not without condition – and she didn’t even know how much she wanted it (how badly she needed it) until it was found. Found in him.
‘Who are you looking for?’ She wanted to cry out: ‘I am looking for the one who saved me. Isn’t it obvious? The one who taught me how to be myself. Who accepted me. Who gave meaning back to me. Who put a spring in my stride. Who showed me other ways of living, and who taught me joy beyond possession, and who rid my world of fear.’
She had followed him. From the first moment she had heard of him to the day when she encountered him, to his unequivocal acceptance of her, and his protection when others had scoffed and scorned. She had sought him out. She stood behind him in the house of that self-satisfied Pharisee and
she had wept.
How strange! She had wept then as she was weeping now. And as her tears had fallen she had knelt at his feet and bathed them with her tears and dried them with her hair. Then she had kissed his feet and, breaking open the jar of ointment she had brought with her, she had anointed his feet. She shuddered with the memory. Those feet she had held, skewered to a cross.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he was full of righteous indignation. What is it about the religious, she thought, that they are so quick to judge? They take such delight in it. He puffed himself up. He was a proper, ‘pleased with himself’ man of God, knowing all there was to be known about the failings of others. He knew the location of every splinter. ‘If this man were a prophet,’ he said, looking around himself proudly, anticipating the applause, milking it, ‘he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him.’ And she remembered his pointing finger, his condescending tone, his lascivious eye. If he could not touch her himself, he would make damn sure that anyone else who did was contaminated in his place. And it wasn’t as if she had never experienced this before. No one was ever neutral about those in her trade. But it was worse in the presence of this accepting man, whose feet she held, because he had been pleased to receive her service – that was all – and this condemnation sullied him.
But he was never a weak man. And always impeccably mannered, always sure. He spoke back. ‘May I say something to you?’ he asked.
Another of his strange stories – a riddle: a certain creditor with two debtors, one owing 500 denarii, the other 50. Neither can pay. Both debts are cancelled.
‘Which one will love him more?’ he asks, nonchalantly, almost innocently. And the faintest whisper of a smile chances across his face. He leads them to condemn themselves. That was part of the mystery of his goodness. He never condemned anyone himself, just kept on pointing out the truth of things, till you either saw it yourself – God so loved the world – or crushed him in your rage. Which is, in the end, what they did. The logic of unfailing charity was always going to be too much to bear for those who had spent a lifetime avoiding it.
‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt,’ came back the reply.
And then he did smile. Not rudely. Not grinning. But an actual smile that even here recognition might dawn, hearts could be changed. That was what he was always after. He wanted to save them all. ‘You have judged rightly,’ he said.
And then he had turned to her: ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’
Then he looked at her very closely, so lovingly: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ he said.
That was the beginning of it. The new life. This knowledge of forgiveness; this chance to start again, to be the person you thought you couldn’t be: it was a revolution. And everyone else murmuring, reaching for their black caps: ‘Who can forgive sins?’ they mumble. Or what else could this money be spent on? What a waste, this costly oil. How grand to be so sure of yourself that you need no forgiveness, never need to look for anyone beyond yourself.
And now she looks again at the man beside her. It seems that he may know something. Who is he? Where did he come from?
She thinks to herself that he must be the gardener. Perhaps he has seen what has happened; perhaps he has moved the body himself. And she so longs to see that body one more time, to wash those feet again, to gently caress those wounds where the nails had been driven into him.
She had looked for him before and she had found him. She would look again. She would go on looking. She would do what she came to do.
She grips the jar of oil that she is still holding. There is new resolve in her: ‘Sir,’ she blurts out, ‘if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him.
Allow Jesus’ first words to Mary Magdalene to sink into your own mind.
In pairs or as a small group:
Read John 20:1-15.