Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." 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. (John 20:11-18, NRSV; the Gospel for Tuesday in Easter Week)
This is, of course, the ultimate lesson to justify ordination of women to the episcopate, because it establishes the apostolate of Mary Magdalene. Mary saw in the tomb what even Peter and the Beloved Disciple did not: the angels in it, and the Lord freed from it. Sadly, I can’t really say, “of course,” because those who oppose ordination of women know the verse; they just argue around it. Even our Christian Orthodox siblings, who, based on this verse and parallels in the Synoptics, call the Magdalene “Apostle to the Apostles,” will not take that next step and recognize this as at least as clear a call as Jesus gave to the Twelve.
But that wasn’t what struck me this year in reading this verse, either as part of the Easter Gospel (in the RCL) or on Tuesday in Easter Week. What struck me was Jesus asking her the question, “Whom are you looking for?” What struck me was that we had seen that question before. In the Passion Gospel according to John, read on Good Friday, Jesus asked that question of the crowd who came to arrest him.
Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus replied, "I am he." Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, "I am he," they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" And they said, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. “(John 18:4-8a)
I found myself wondering if that wasn’t what really convinced Mary who this was. I wondered if she wasn’t in Gethsemane, unnoticed but faithful as always, and heard that question the first time. I wondered if she knew the Lord when she heard once again not only that voice, but that question.
From there, Mary went to the Eleven and shared her good news. Even then, they did not believe her. It wasn’t simply that she was a woman, although that was a difficulty. The fact was that the story didn’t make sense. These were people who knew dead. People died at home, with family. People died in executions, in public. People died in the streets, lost in the night, only to be discovered in the morning. These were people who knew dead, who knew that the dead didn’t come back. That’s why Peter and the Beloved Disciple had dived into the tomb. They knew a body in the tomb made sense. What they had seen had shocked them, but it could have had an explanation. But now Mary reported that she had seen the Lord, that he was risen, that he would see them all soon.
And, of course, this story still doesn’t make sense. If you watch enough of the Discovery Channel or the History Channel, you’ll see lots of shows by folks trying to make the story fit into some framework, naturalistic, historic, or political, that makes sense to them. This is not to reflect badly on those channels. And many of the shows make their best scholarly efforts with integrity. But, they’re still trying to make it make sense.
Conspiracy theorists are doing the same thing. Dan Brown wrote a novel – for all the facts that seem to be woven in, it’s still a novel – that tries to make sense of the story in ways that make sense to him. And before The DaVinci Code, there was Holy Blood and Holy Grail (if you’ve been watching the news, you know the authors of that book sued Brown for plagiarism – unsuccessfully.) And before Holy Blood and Holy Grail was The Passover Plot (by Schonfield; 1965). And before that – well, the effort goes all the way back to the very beginning.
While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, ‘You must say, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day. (Matthew 28:11-15)
But all these efforts to make sense are like Peter and John. They’re still looking into the tomb. They are still looking for a dead body. They’re still looking for the Messiah they had expected, the Davidic king who would send the Romans packing, or at least make them take notice. They’re still looking for the wandering wonder worker, the traveling preacher. They’re not looking for Jesus because they’re not looking for the Risen Lord.
Jesus’ question is still pertinent: “Whom are you looking for?” Whom are we looking for? If we’re looking for Jesus, we have to hear Mary’s story and look where Mary looked. We have to listen as Mary listened, to hear that familiar voice asking that compelling question. We have to look beyond what makes sense, into the mysterious darkness of the garden, to seek and encounter our Lord. He is not dead. He is risen!
“Whom are you looking for?” If you’re looking for Jesus, don’t go looking in an empty tomb.