Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
My friend John Ballenger is one of the most creative people I know. He’s a member of my Preacher Camp group, and last year, when we got together to plan our preaching for this year, it was his assignment to come up with some good ideas for Easter. John came up with 41 pages of ideas, many of them good ones, but the one that captured my imagination was this one called “The Well-Remembered Word.” John asked us to imagine a memorial service for Jesus, held several years after his ascension, where some of the people who had known him best and loved him most would gather to remember him, and since I have a good imagination, I pictured it like this.
I pictured John, the Beloved Disciple, who was teaching and preaching in Ephesus in the latter part of the first century, wanting his church to hear from some of those who had actually spent time with the Lord. And so he started thinking about an event, maybe a weekend conference called “Remembering Jesus.” But the more he thought about it, and the more he thought about Jesus as the Word made flesh, the more he started thinking of it as, “The Well-Remembered Word.” Yes! He could almost see the brochures now. He would invite not only the members of his own church in Ephesus, but all the other churches in the region: Smyrna, Sardis, Pergamum, Thyatira, Laodicea, and Philadelphia. And as speakers he would invite Mary Magdalene, Thomas, who was sometimes called the Doubter, those two disciples who had walked with Jesus on the Road to Emmaus, and, as the Disciple Jesus Loved, he would share some of his own memories. It would be wonderful! And, if he could remember to do it, he would ask the speakers to write down what they were going to say so that the church would have it forever.
And that, my friends, is where the ball was dropped. In my imagination they did it, they had that conference. John flew Mary in from Magdala, Thomas from India where he was serving as a missionary (and actually that’s when John made the decision to charge a small fee for conference registration, in order to cover the cost of airfare and accommodations and printing the full color brochures [which did not come cheap in the first century, I assure you]), but those two disciples from Emmaus, who were real Christians and wanted to save John some money, walked, as they usually did, but this time all the way to Ephesus. It took about two weeks. But the conference, once they got there, was everything John had hoped it would be. Christians came in from all over and sat there in awe as people they had only heard about in the Gospels shared their memories of Jesus. John’s only regret when it was over was that he forgot to ask the speakers for a copy of their remarks.
So, what we have for this series is my best guess as to what those eyewitnesses might have said. It may be inspired (as I said, I have a good imagination), but it will certainly not be inerrant or infallible. Please don’t go around telling people that you now know what Mary was thinking as she went to the tomb. But I’m going to do my very best to draw my inspiration from the Scriptures themselves, rather than myths or legends or Dan Brown novels, so that you can follow up later on your own, and see how much of what I said holds true. Are you ready? Here it is, then, the first chapter of the book the Beloved Disciple should have published after that incredible conference, a chapter called, “Mary Remembers,” in which she may have said:
Let me begin by thanking our host, the Apostle John, although I have to smile when I say “Apostle” because I’ve known him since he was a teenager. And let me say how good it is to see a few others I’ve met along the way: Thomas, the two disciples from Emmaus, and of course Luke, who once interviewed me for a Gospel he was writing. If I had known he was going to include everything I said I might not have told him so much. I might not have told him about those seven demons that he mentions in chapter eight. But maybe that’s where my story begins, because that’s how I met Jesus in the first place.
I had been tormented by those demons for so long I had a name for each one. I could feel them waking up inside me and when they did it was misery. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I gnashed my teeth and tore my clothes. And then one day I heard about Jesus, this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, who was making his way from one village to another healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, raising the dead, casting out demons, and above all preaching the good news of the coming Kingdom. Apparently he was telling people that when the Kingdom came there wouldn’t be any more sickness, any more death, any more…demons. But I couldn’t wait that long. I wanted him to do something right then. I didn’t even wait until he got to my town, to Magdala: I went looking.
When I found him there were crowds of people pressed in around him, long lines of people waiting to be cured, some hobbling on crutches, some carried on stretchers by their friends. It was a good day for me. The demons hadn’t bothered me in weeks. But I knew it was only a matter of time. And when I finally stood in front of him he knew it, too. He looked into my eyes, “the windows of the soul.” He saw what was in there. He said, “Demons, listen to me. Stop tormenting this woman. Come out of her, I command you.” He said it so calmly, but with such authority, as if he absolutely expected to be obeyed. And he was! It wasn’t dramatic. I didn’t fall to the ground and start convulsing, but I could feel it: the light that was inside him driving away the darkness that was inside me like the sun coming up in the morning. It broke across my own face, and I smiled for the first time in years. “My name is Mary,” I said, although he hadn’t asked, but he smiled too and repeated it: “Mary.” And somehow that word, on his lips, was the sweetest sound I had ever heard.
But no, it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t like we were in love or anything although some people have suggested that we were. And in case you’re wondering, I wasn’t that woman Luke wrote about in the seventh chapter of his Gospel, the one who wet the Lord’s feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Remember? When he was at the home of Simon the Pharisee and Simon was thinking, “If he knew what kind of woman she was he wouldn’t let her touch his feet”? No, I was not that woman, and I was not that kind of woman. Some people have made that suggestion, too. Some preachers have said as much from the pulpit. Shame on them. But do you remember what Jesus said about that woman? He said that she showed such great love for him because she had been forgiven of so many sins, and then he said, “The one who is forgiven little, loves little.” Well, I was not that woman. I did not wet his feet with my tears or wipe them with my hair. But if I had thought of it first I might have. Greater love hath no one than the woman from whom seven demons have been cast out.
But I did do something: I began to follow Jesus, and along with a few other women began to provide for him and his disciples out of my means, limited as they were. Susanna was with us, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, and a few other women like myself who were just so grateful to Jesus we would have done anything for him. It gave us the opportunity to learn from him when we stopped for the night, after we had cooked supper and washed up the dishes, Jesus would sometimes sit by the fire with his disciples just talking and he always let us sit close enough to listen. I began to call him “Rabbi,” and sometimes even “Rabbouni,” as if I were the teacher’s pet. But he didn’t seem to mind; he could tell I was taking his teaching seriously. And I was! I got to watch him help and heal, I got to hear him preach and teach. I liked it best when he talked about something he called “the life of the ages.” He made it sound as if, when God’s kingdom finally came on earth as it is in heaven, all of us would be living the life of the ages—life that was abundant, and overflowing, and everlasting—which sounded like just the opposite of the kind of life I was living before I met him. But in the meantime it was enough to follow him, to provide for him and his disciples, to listen to his teaching, and to learn what real love was all about, the kind the Greeks call agape.
It was about sacrifice.
We could feel it coming, those of us who were paying attention. He started talking about it well before it happened, but even his closest disciples seemed to dismiss it. Jesus would say he was going to Jerusalem where he would suffer and die and Peter would say, “God forbid, Lord! That will never happen to you!” But he kept on saying it, and some of us could see why. The things he said didn’t always sit well with people. When he talked about bringing in the Kingdom of God some people thought he was trying to replace the existing kingdom, to pull Caesar off the throne and put God there instead. It sounded like insurrection. And to others the way he talked about God, as if he were his father, made it sound as if he were the Son of God. It sounded like blasphemy. For both the religious and political authorities Jesus was becoming a problem that needed to be solved.
So, when we got to Jerusalem we begged him to be careful. We could see how they were watching him. But that didn’t stop him. He was out there day after day, teaching and preaching as always. If anything he was more open than he had been before, almost as if he were asking for trouble. So, what a relief to get to that Upper Room, and lock the doors behind us. That’s where we had the Last Supper, and of course we women were there. Who do you think did all the cooking and serving? But because we were there we heard everything, and it became clear, the longer he talked, that he was trying to get us ready to do all this without him. I didn’t want to do it without him. If he had asked me I would have said so. But he just kept saying, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. I’m going to prepare a place for you. I’m going to go and come back and take you to myself so that where I am you can be also.”
And that sounded good.
But what happened next was horrible. We went to the Garden of Gethsemane and that’s where Judas betrayed him with a kiss (!) and the soldiers arrested him and took him away and for the longest time we didn’t know what was happening. He was at the home of the high priest where they were interrogating him, calling him a criminal, charging him with blasphemy—anything they could think of to get rid of him. The next morning they took him to the governor’s palace where they claimed that Jesus was going around saying he was the King of the Jews. Well, that led to a long conversation with Pilate that didn’t go well, apparently. Pilate condemned him to death, but only after his soldiers had flogged the Lord and put a crown of thorns on his head and dressed him in a purple robe, saying, “Hail to the King!” They were making fun of him, is what they were doing, and it was one of the saddest things I had ever seen. Jesus just stood there with his head bowed, taking it, as Pilate said, “Behold the man!”
You know the rest of the story. You know they crucified him. I was there, and I stayed there the whole day, standing at the foot of the cross beside his mother and a few others (John, you remember; you were there). It was horrible. Just to stand there and watch him die; to see the blood running down his legs; to see him suffering, gasping for breath. And yet, through it all he was what the sign above his head said he was: the King of the Jews.
I was there when he said, “It is finished” and breathed his last. I was there when the soldiers pierced his side and blood and water gushed out. Only when they were absolutely sure that he was dead did they take him down from the cross and give his body to Joseph of Arimathea, who put it in a new tomb where nobody had ever been laid. I followed him to the garden. I saw where he put the body. I was planning to come back. I couldn’t the next day, because it was a Sabbath, but oh, how I wanted to! And even before the sun came up on the following day I was up, making my way to the tomb, feeling my way through the darkness. I don’t know what I was thinking I would do. Maybe just sit there. But when I got there the stone had been rolled away, and when I looked inside Jesus wasn’t there. I went running back to tell the other disciples, “They’ve stolen his body!” Peter and John jumped up and ran back with me, but when they got there they didn’t find him either. They went back to tell the others but I stayed behind, and when I looked into the tomb this time I saw two angels sitting there. They asked me why I was weeping and I said, “Because they’ve taken away my Lord!” And when I turned around there was a man standing there who asked me the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
People have asked me ever since why I didn’t recognize it was Jesus, but can I tell you this? I watched him die. No one has ever been so completely dead. The last person in the world I expected to see alive and well was Jesus. And yet there he was. I knew it as soon as he called my name, as soon as he said “Mary.” As I told you, it was the sweetest sound I had ever heard, and even sweeter under those circumstances, when I thought he was dead and gone forever. To hear him call my name, to see the light in his eyes and the smile on his face? I couldn’t help myself. “Rabbouni!” I said. I ran to him, I hugged him hard, until he finally had to pry me loose and say, “Mary, don’t hold on to me. I’m not finished yet. I still have to ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. But go and tell my brothers that you’ve seen me, alive and well.” And then he was gone, and I was there in the garden, all alone. I wandered back to where the disciples were staying in a daze, still feeling the warmth of his body, his breath on my face. When they opened the door they just looked at me. They could tell that something had happened, something big, but they didn’t know what. So, I told them. I said,
“I have seen the Lord.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023