When Mary Magdalene came to the tomb on Easter morning, she was frantically looking around for a dead man. Mary was carrying a sorrow that has left its mark on most of us—the pain that locks in at the loss of a loved one, a life prematurely taken. She was thinking of things that could have been said or done that could now never be said or done.
A great love can end in great despair, and Mary was left with only memories.
Jesus standing on a hillside, speaking to a small ring of men. Jesus, walking through a crowd of thousands with the same familiarity and confidence. Jesus, glancing over his shoulder with a grin, checking to see if the women were keeping up on the dusty Galilean road. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.
When memories are all you have to live on, they do not fill you. They hardly nourish. But when you love someone this much, you are willing to sift through memories like cold gray ashes, looking for something solid. Nothing much appears.
Mary went to the tomb the first time shortly after Jesus had died cruelly at the hands of the Roman executioners, with the Jewish big shots mixing it up in the crowd, rock stars in a mosh pit, gesturing affectedly, leading the catcalls. Leaving the mob scene, following Jesus’ corpse, Mary had looked at the tomb, hewn from cold stone, and gone home. His body had looked so little like himself.
She came back Easter morning. That was when she discovered that the tomb had been broken into by grave robbers. She broke down. She could hardly see the path for tears, but ran back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ other friends.
After a few of the disciples came to examine the crime scene themselves, Mary came back too. She wandered back alone, walking slowly. She wanted to spend some time alone by the grave and cry. Maybe if she went there, to the garden, alone, she could cry until the tears would stop coming.
But when she got there she was horrified to see angels. They shone, they exuded muscle without lifting a finger—they must have been young angels; do angels age?—and then one spoke. He asked her why she was crying.
The answer was obvious, and Mary gasped it out. Then the angels disappeared. They had played their part. There was someone standing behind Mary, and she turned to see who it was: the gardener.
Everyone conceivable was showing up at the tomb but Jesus. Angels and a gardener were up early in the morning, visiting an isolated tomb, and a corpse had vanished. Why was it that this morning everything was working backwards?
“Why are you crying?” asked the gardener. “Who are you looking for?”
Mary did not have much dignity left after the angels. “If you have taken his body,” she said, “just tell me where you have dragged it and I’ll take care of it. I’ll take it away.” She would have been willing to patch up the rents in the grave clothes. She would have been happy to do it.
She glanced back to the tomb, and the angels were still gone, and then someone said, Mary.
Mary turned back around to face the gardener and then reality came flooding in.
Later, Mary thought it was strange and funny that she had been looking for a dead Jesus while the live one stood behind her. She laughed about it until the tears came; it seemed like she just couldn’t stop crying that day.
How come we run to Jesus with such low expectations? Because we forget what Mary forgot. Christ had told all his friends that he would be back, that the grave would not be able to keep him down. But Mary had forgotten two important facts about Jesus: He can do anything. And he always does what he says he will.
Everything could be taken away from Mary—everything but Jesus. He trumps loss, beats death, turns sorrow into light. As Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Christ has turned all our sunsets into dawns.”
To be fair to Mary, Jesus appeared young again when he stood in the garden—younger than she had ever seen him—strong and healthy, with not a sign of care left on him. There was even a lightness in his bearing, a flowing alacrity in his movements, that had not been present before, that made him look like a new man. Although if Mary had looked carefully, she might have seen the rough holes in his hands and feet, so out of place. The dark gaps punctuated Jesus’ healthy flesh sharply. But Mary did not notice this at first.
I know that Jesus waits beside the tomb today, in the moment of great heartache. We might turn and see him. We might even find a more fitting use for the grave that Christ vacated centuries ago. Something else could be buried there, something dark and clinging that was defeated. Death, Jesus says, has been torn to shreds. When Jesus appears, pain and sadness will have to go running for their lives. They end up in Jesus’ old grave, and Jesus, though he’s just one man, is strong enough to roll the stone back in place. He provides this service with a smile.
Jesus stands so close by you might mistake him for someone else. Often we do, because our expectations for Christ are far too low. We come to the tomb, hoping for a few moments of solace or some quiet prayer. We forget that Jesus has left the grave and has far bigger plans in mind.
When we stand before God at the end of time, we will say joyously, like Thomas, “MY LORD and MY GOD!” I wonder if Christ will reply, Yes. Then with a smile: And once I was your gardener.
Will this be slightly embarrassing?
This post was inspired by a message by John Vanderhorst: "What Mary Didn't Know," April 16, 2006.