Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to 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.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Yesterday, around the world, churches read this passage or another of the resurrection accounts found in the gospels, celebrating Easter. In every gospel account, a prominent commonality is present: it is the women who, first, go to the tomb. In part, their presence is explained by the folkways of the day, i.e., on the Friday of Jesus’ death, his body needed to be placed in the tomb before sundown to avoid violating the Sabbath purity customs and, therefore, the women were returning at the first available opportunity to perform their culturally assigned task properly to prepare Jesus’ body for its formal burial. Yet, cultural expectations do not entirely explain their presence at the tomb that Sunday morning.
Recall the persisting theme found throughout the gospels, i.e., the female disciples more clearly understanding the challenging, radical character of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, encouraging them to behave contra the culturally expected norms. For instance, consider Mary’s presence at Jesus’ feet, the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, the Samaritan woman who speaks publicly, directly with Jesus, etc.
These irregular, unexpected behaviors are not exclusive to women in the gospel’s but the persisting presence of these culturally atypical female behaviors generate an overarching, prominent gospel theme: the gospel writers’ are highlighting the presence and response of these women as an indicator that Jesus’ resurrection signals what Augustine called an eighth day of creation. The resurrection is a recreation and restarting of everything, a retooling of all cultural expectations, societal protocols, and “natural” orders. If the inevitability and ultimacy of death can be denied, so too, the inevitability and ultimacy of all of life is drawn into question and into the recreating powers of resurrection.
So, there, Mary stands at one moment the very embodiment of propriety and expectation as she fulfills her predictable duties to prepare Jesus’ body, yet, then, in the next moment she becomes the very herald of new life and this new world. Subtly yet provocatively, Mary’s encounter with the resurrected Christ puts to death one role—her culturally ordained role of the old world, replacing it with another role—a role almost as shocking to our sense of what is “natural” as the idea of resurrection itself.
In that resurrection moment, Mary becomes the first preacher of the gospel! In her being sent to tell the good news, Mary is, also, the first, missionary, apostle, and evangelist of the church. The consistent inclusion by each of the gospel writers of Mary’s new position, as subtle as their emphasis might be, underscores this point. Two thousand years later, such a point continues to sound radical to us given the church’s tendency over the centuries to marginalize women’s voices, deny their formal leadership, and underwrite those conclusions through narrow appeals to scripture.
Nevertheless, the role of Mary in the Easter drama is undeniable. And, our annual reading of this text offers each of us a regular reminder that even the church (maybe especially the church) can resist the most radical, challenging yet unquestionably central elements of Christ’s new kingdom. Resistance becomes natural. Once in power, to resist these claims is natural because these claims’ call perpetually to pursue change, i.e., perfection, threatens our recently acquired and now more comfortable positions. Such resistance, we presume, is more palatable than the culturally distasteful and often costly consequences of continually pressing toward that new kingdom’s ever-dawning horizon.
Every institution seeks to formalize what was once radical and innovative, risking domesticating a God whose character, so the stories of Easter attest, is to break out of the very boxes and tombs we design to contain. The God of Easter is not containable, and the progression of the kingdom that slips out of the tomb on Easter morning cannot be returned to the confines of the grave. The church must strive to balance its traditions while remaining innovative.
Despite our resistance, each Easter, the sun spills over the horizon, rewashing us with the light of new life and renewing our call to pursue Christ’s far-reaching kingdom.
Importantly, Christ’s crucifixion declaration that “It is finished” is not a claim that his kingdom has finished its work but that the old kingdom with its expectations about life, death, roles, status, gender, class, sex, peace, war, power, weakness, and wealth is finished. Christ’s new kingdom has only just begun. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonheoffer from his Sanctorum Communio, Christ’s kingdom might have been realized on the cross but remains to be actualized in us through the persistent working of the Spirit. That means that there is still much to be done (and undone) as we co-struggle to craft the kingdom into its perfect form.
Thus, this reading-as-reminder serves as a kind of penance and caution: (1) We read the text and repent for our misappropriation of the story’s power, a power used to deny the radical recreating tendencies of the gospel story and ask for forgiveness from those whom we have denied their centrality and significance within the gospel story. (2) We read the story and are cautioned not to delimit the recreating powers of the Easter account too quickly, denying still others their chance to move from the margins into the God’s recreating, new kingdom.
Like Mary, may we, too, go to the tomb assuming we know what is expected of us only to be surprised by having our expectations shattered, replaced by God’s new, transforming expectations for us, our communities, and the world.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.