What’s in a name? Well, as she was about to discover, everything actually.
He says to her, ‘Who are you looking for?’ And she replies in hope and exasperation, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, please tell me where.’
There is a moment’s pause. The warmth of the sun is overcoming the coolness of the early morning air. The mist is dispersing. We are standing on the edge of a moment that will change human history. The whole world will be baffled and enchanted by this conversation; seek to discover what it means and where it leads. Every knee must bow before it. But first it has to be received: not as an explanation, or the triumphant flourish of a trump card, but as an invitation, the chance to inhabit a different world.
He holds her in his gaze. He looks at her with great tenderness. He says her name: ‘Mary.’
And as she hears her name, it is like a shot of adrenalin pumped straight into her vein and now she is focused, alive and alert as she has never been alive and alert before. All her anxious restlessness ebbs away. She is wide awake. She is turned around: literally swivelled and re-focused. It happens in an instant. A moment of release and a most glorious moment of capture. She turns from the tomb where she has been anchored, glued to the grief and horror of all her loss, and she turns to him: quickly, resolutely, like iron filings to a magnet, like a flower turning its face towards the warmth of the sun. It is Jesus. She knows it instantly. And yes, a rose by any other name would be as sweet, but her name, spoken by him, is a healing. It is a reawakening.
Everything changes. A whole new world is born. It is brought to life by the uttering of a name. A word of recognition in a world bruised and broken by anonymity, random violence and hurtfulness: all the things that had crushed her and all the things that, in the end, had crushed him. Only they hadn’t! Somehow he had triumphed. Somehow love goes on. Jesus speaks her name, and joy – the joy of knowing and being known, of recognizing and being recognized – is planted in her heart again. That which was lost upon that cross and buried in that tomb is born again deep within her. She realizes it straight away, in the very unfolding of this moment: this man is a gardener – not the hired hand sweeping up the leaves in the municipal cemetery, but a new Adam, the one who will bring order and fruitfulness to
The sun can now be clearly seen. Its round, reassuring luminescence sits on the horizon. Everything is lit up.
In the rest of Jerusalem the city is stirring. People are getting up and beginning to go about their daily lives. The Passover festival has ended. Things get back to normal. And she stands in the garden and realizes that nothing can ever be normal again, that everything has changed.
She is known and loved. It is a miracle to her. It is, I suppose, what all of us want. This is how she saw it: it was her daily reality – the people who knew her didn’t love her. And those who loved her didn’t know her. But putting the two together? That always seemed beyond her: an impossible dream, a miracle that she had never even dared hope for until she met him. He had changed the rules. What was it he had said to that other hapless woman, caught in the very act of adultery, about to be crushed by the mob: ‘Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.’ He stood up to them: defiant, unyielding, but never brutal or arrogant; just the assurance that sustained him, that there was another way of living, another way of inhabiting this earth. He showed that it could be a place where justice and mercy embraced. And while they fidgeted in their anger, he sat down and drew pictures in the sand, and one by one they drifted away. Because that is the point; she realized it now – none of us have clean hands. We are all compromised and soiled by our wrong choices. We all need the reassurance that we are loved, even when we are fully known. We all need forgiving, but we don’t know where to find it. We all need the chance to start again, but have stopped believing it is possible. I am what I’ve become and I can no longer be what I desire. So when the crowds had departed he stood up and said to that woman, ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ And she said, ‘No one, sir.’ And he replied, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’
And that was what he said to the very men who strung him up on that cross: ‘I don’t condemn you.’ That was what he was doing. He was living it out in himself – and especially in his dying – this refusal to condemn. He didn’t want anyone to be lost. He didn’t want anyone to be so consumed by their own hatefulness that they would miss the forgiveness he was offering. But the more you hate, the more you see the world from your own perspective; the more blind you are to everyone else, the harder it is to recognize. Was that what had blinded her for a moment?
She wipes the tears from her eyes. She recognizes him. Her face breaks into a smile, the smile of recognition. Things click into place. A great peace is secured in her heart.
Yet at the same time, as she thinks about it, she is baffled: she recognizes him now, so how did she fail to recognize him before?
You see, there is continuity and discontinuity. The one who stands before her is the same man who was fixed to the cross: tortured, humiliated, beaten and killed. Of this she has no doubt. It is Jesus. She apprehends this the moment he speaks her name. And yet, at the same time, he is not the same.
But he is not a ghost. His presence to her is physical, tangible, touchable.
He is present to her with a different sort of life. At some deep level she comprehends this instantly, although she would never quite know how to describe it, still less explain it. Only this: one moment he was with her and she didn’t know who it was; and then the next – when he spoke her name – she recognized him.
But here is the deepest mystery: Mary Magdalene is looking at the first piece in the jigsaw of a new creation – not a corpse brought back to life, but the first piece of a non-corruptible physicality. It is as if a piece of the future is brought into the present: a living signpost.
That is the outward reality – not an absurd contradiction of the rules of nature, but the sign and starting point of a new creation. The stone that was rejected is now the cornerstone of a new building, a new Jerusalem.
But she isn’t thinking any of this. It’s just there inside her, to be puzzled over, debated, disagreed with for ever. For her, in that ‘moment out of time come into time’, it is love that propels her. For here he is, her beloved, the one whom she is seeking, standing before her in the brightness of a new day, and with the wide expanse of eternity before him.
He speaks her name – ‘Mary’ – and her eyes are opened, her ears unblocked. Like Adam giving names to all the creatures, she is named. And with the gift of a name the gift of a place, the gift of belonging. As she hears her name, she receives the gift, and at last she turns away from the emptiness of the tomb and all its hopelessness, and towards the one who is her hope. In the wilderness of her grief, flowers blossom and bloom.
‘Rabbouni!’ she says, which means ‘Teacher’. It denotes respect. He was always their teacher, the one who instructed them. But it is also a friendly word of recognition, the name she would have used many times before as she travelled with him on the road. And as she says this word, she throws her arms around him. She wants to hold on to him and never let him go. He is alive!
When Mary says ‘Rabbouni!’ it speaks of continuity: the man standing before her is the one whom she saw crucified. When so many others had fled, she had stayed. She had even waited at the tomb that morning when Peter and John had drifted home. She wept and waited at the cross. She wept and waited at the tomb. Now those tears and that waiting are rewarded. So she holds on to the one who was lost to her.
But what is she holding?
The risen body of Jesus is not a resuscitated corpse, not someone like Lazarus, destined to die again. Jesus is alive with a new and different sort of life. It proceeds from what has gone before, but is also radically different.
Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He cried out, greatly disturbed in his spirit and deeply moved. So even the authorities who were watching him – always watching him, willing him to fail, urging him to falter – said of him, ‘See how he loved him!’
He stood there, facing down death, and he ordered them to take away the stone. And when Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tried to stop him, he rebuked her, saying, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’
So they took away the stone. And he looked upward and said, ‘Father’, and now she remembered the strangeness of that, and also the comfort – calling God ‘Father’ – ‘I thank you for hearing me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ And as she thought this, holding him, alone in the garden, she wondered with a rush of sudden anxiety: how will people know? How will people believe me, when there is no one else here to see?
Standing before the tomb of Lazarus, he had cried out so that everyone could hear, with a voice like thunder: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ But who will hear this?
He is alive with a different sort of life. She realizes it now. She can feel it in him. Lazarus rose from his tomb, still stinking of death’s decay and struggling with the grave-cloths that bound him. But here was Jesus rising with the dawn of a fresh, clear day. The grave-cloths that bound him are neatly folded. Left behind.
Lazarus rose to die again. Jesus is raised with the new life of eternity and the promise of the new creation.
Then she remembered what he said: ‘I am the resurrection.’ Just those first two words were shocking enough: to say ‘I am’, to take upon yourself that sacred verb, the words that were themselves the perplexing heart of the mysterious name of the active and ever-present God revealed to Moses. But that other word: ‘resurrection’. It is something different. ‘Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ And then he had added, looking around at anyone and everyone, issuing an invitation to all: ‘Do you believe this?’
And so she held him. Held him in the first flush of the new dawn of resurrection life; and she believed. How could she do anything else? But what she was holding and what she was believing were also a profound mystery. All she knew was that she believed in him. He had shown her another way of living, and he had come back from death and was standing with her. So what could be more natural than to hold on? With joy, she wraps her arms around him. The one who was lost is found. And she isn’t going to let him go again.
But there is always more to learn. And even as she is thinking this, he is gently untangling her. Not violently, not a rejection, but carefully and lovingly unwinding her arms from around his waist.
There is continuity and there is discontinuity.
Mary is clinging to the Jesus she knew in his earthly ministry. But she is also holding that first piece of the incorruptible new creation. It has been formed out of the death of the old.
It is the same Jesus: but the seed that lay dead and buried in the ground is now risen with a new life that cannot be clung to in the same way.
This does not mean he is a ghost. What she holds is still matter. (Later Thomas will be invited to touch and hold this same risen body that Mary is told to relinquish.) It is a sign of two things: first, the newness of the life that is continuous with the old, but now incorruptible; and again an inner meaning: one that speaks across the ages to all who have life sewn up – do not think you can define or constrain me. Every time I am buried I will rise. Every time I am defined I will shake myself free, and you will be led – kicking and screaming if necessary – into new definitions and new understandings. But they will never be enough. There will always be more. For to know Jesus is to know God. ‘To have seen me is to have seen the Father’ – that was what Jesus had said on the night before he died. And to know God is to plumb the very depths of the infinite love, and of the very
verb ‘to be’, through which the world was made and in which your own life is held.
Do you think this strange? Even when you do not fully know yourself? Even when you glimpse the untold potential of your own living? Even when you are endlessly finding new things in yourself? New things in the people around you and especially in the ones you love the best? Or when you glimpse again your deepest desires for yourself and dream again of the person you can be and not just the person you have become?
Love grows. It grows and multiplies. It receives and draws more strength. It is the same for ever, and it is born anew each day. Therefore this new life will also mean a new presence, and an endless leading into new truth. And as soon as you start thinking you have got it worked out, God will rise up. ‘I am the resurrection,’ says Jesus. And even for Mary, beyond this presence here, in this garden now, there will be a new and unconstrained availability: the promise of the Spirit. Of course there will always be temptation: a temptation to cling, a temptation to hold. We will doggedly hang on to all those comforting experiences of where God was for us in the past. But where is he today? Where is he now? Even as you try to hold him, he evades your grasp; he is dancing ahead of you with new challenges and new delights. ‘He is not here. He is risen.’ That will always be the strange message of Easter.
In the same moment of her holding, there is also a releasing. He receives her and he lets her go, liberates her to be herself. ‘Go to my brothers,’ he says to her, ‘tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ He propels her into the world.
More footsteps pounding the path. She is running again, and there is joy and purpose in her stride. God’s future has broken into the present. She finds the disciples where we all must stand, crossing frontiers and on the edge of dramatic discovery, and blurts out the astonishing message of the first Easter Day: ‘I have seen the Lord.’
They stare at her in dumb disbelief. They are on the same edge of that new creation where she was minutes earlier. A place where we all must stand, weighing the evidence, hearing the story, deciding how to respond. For there are other explanations: stolen bodies, wishful thinking, mass hallucination or plain deception. But those who cross over into this new land on this first Easter Day will take this story to the ends of the world. Will die for it. Is this a price you’d pay for a deception? Or is the wildest explanation the only one that makes true sense of what happens next? That he is risen; that there is new life.
So that is where they are standing when Mary stumbles into the resigned hopelessness of their situation. They have to decide.
Her story tumbles out; all that has happened, all that he has said. They keep on staring, their eyes wide open, their faces puzzled and perplexed. She says that he had seen her sorrow. That he had acknowledged her searching. That he had spoken her name.
These are such treasures. To be met at the point of the most crushing sadness. To find your heart’s desire. To be known by name. Out it all comes. In a jumble of emotion and passion. And she can’t tell whether they believe her or not.
Some turn away. One or two start interrupting with questions or complaints. Some scoff. But she is steadfast. ‘I have seen the Lord,’ she says again. That is the plain, brute fact of it, and none of their demanding proof or clarity, or any amount of ‘Why her?’ can change it. She waited by the tomb. She saw someone. She thought it was the gardener. He spoke her name and she suddenly realized it was him. That was what had happened. She was there in the darkness and she saw the light. She couldn’t say more, but she wouldn’t say less either.
And he had asked her to come and tell them. That was what she was doing, she said to them proudly and defiantly.
Mary is the first witness – the first person to tell this good news. That is how it will become known – good news for all the world.
She is the apostle to the apostles. And for those who still question the truth of this story, consider this: would anyone making up such a story choose a woman like this to be its central witness?
No, it is Jesus who commissions her. He meets her in her grief and points her back to life and to the proclamation that will form the mission of his Church. For this is all that Christian people have ever had to tell: ‘He is risen.’ And Christian life begins when we receive for ourselves the astonishing truth of this claim. This is our story: on the first day of the week, very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. And she saw the stone rolled away; and lingering there when Peter and John had left, she saw the Lord. And though she held him, and though it was good to feel him near, he commissioned her to tell others. And that is what she did. She told them what she saw. And they told others. And others, hearing that story, had their own lives changed, and they passed the story on, down through the ages, crossing the generations, century after century, person after person, one at a time, receiving and telling this astonishing story, trying to work out what it meant; whole communities formed by its telling, propelled, by its power, over and over, right down to this moment: my sitting here telling this story, trying to tell it in a way that might make us stop, and, hearing it as if for the first time, receive it afresh, know its transforming power, share it with others.
Go and tell. ‘I am ascending to the Father,’ says Jesus. That is also why you cannot hold on to me. My presence with you will be different now. But your destiny with me is assured. But note this: the Father of Jesus is now their Father as well. His God is their God. A new community is born. It is born
out of the impact of the resurrection and the telling of the story.
Jesus knows us by name and tells us that his God is our God. But he also tells us not to cling to him.
In pairs or as a small group:
Read John 20:16-18.