Mary Magdalene was feeling lost. The man she mistook for a gardener had asked her why she was crying and who she was looking for at the empty tomb. She answered as if he hadn’t spoken at all: Please, sir. Please, tell me where he is, where you’ve taken him. You don’t have to do anything else, just tell me…I have to know.
The risen Jesus stood there looking at her for a moment as Mary turned away from him in her grief. Perhaps she didn’t recognize him because he looked somehow different in his resurrected state.
But the voice: she knew that voice. And it was calling her name.
She spun back in a flash of recognition, crying out, “Teacher!”
It’s a joyful moment. I imagine her falling to the ground and grabbing his feet, clinging like a lost child who has just been found, holding him like she would never let go again.
But this is not the Hallmark Channel. Mary’s story is but a moment in something much greater. John writes:
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 20:17-18, NRSV)
From the very beginning of his gospel, John has placed an astounding claim before his readers: This man Jesus is the eternal Word, walking amongst us in the flesh of a living, breathing human being. Jesus, indeed, has repeatedly said that he had been sent by the Father and would return to him.
Much of the dramatic conflict in the story centered on how people responded to Jesus’ claims, most notably, perhaps, in chapter 8, in which there was a running argument between him and his opponents. The Pharisees claimed that he could not give testimony on his own behalf. Jesus replied that the Father also testifies for him — and that they didn’t recognize this because they didn’t know the Father (vss. 12-20). The argument deteriorated further as Jesus’ hearers stood proudly on being children of Abraham and then, by extension, children of God (vss. 31-41). But Jesus responded that no, they were not children of God, but children of the devil instead (vss. 42-47). And eventually, Jesus’ opponents tried to stone him for blasphemously appropriating the divine name to himself (vss. 57-58).
Re-read John 20:17-18 again in that light. Jesus tells Mary not to cling to him because the story must continue; he must return to his Father, as he always said he would. But listen to how he says it. My Father and your Father; my God and your God.
“My”: Jesus is still uniquely the Son, as he has been throughout the story.
But also “your”: through the cross and resurrection, a new family has been created. The story cannot end with Mary’s joyous embrace of Jesus. She is commissioned to go tell the news to the other disciples, whom he now calls his brothers.
And that is what she does — Mary Magdalene, the first apostle.