How many times had Jesus told his followers that he would die and be raised again from the dead? I’ve never counted. But across the four gospels, it’s clear that he said it repeatedly.
And it’s equally clear that they didn’t understand.
Not even on Easter morning.
John tells us that early that morning, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb. Matthew, Mark, and Luke suggest that one or more other women were with her. Indeed, with Jerusalem people camping out everywhere for Passover, it would have been unwise for a woman to be wandering about Jerusalem by herself in the early morning darkness.
Out of deep love and a concern that he be properly honored, the women were probably eager to finish the proper burial rituals for Jesus. A few days before, with sundown approaching, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had needed to rush to get Jesus into the tomb before Sabbath began. It’s possible that in their haste they had left things undone; if so, the women may have gone to finish the job.
But when Mary came to the tomb, she saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance, and she could not see a body from where she stood. Immediately, she jumped with joy and exclaimed, “It’s true! Jesus has risen just like he said he would!”
Well, no, actually. That would make good theater, but that’s not what happened. Here’s John’s account:
Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” (John 20:1-2, CEB)
The “we” may mean “the other women and I” — but she doesn’t say who “they” are. The chief priests? The Romans? Some other shadowy enemies of Jesus? Who knows. In her distress, she herself may not have known what she was saying. All she knew was that she had expected to find Jesus in the tomb. If he wasn’t, something bad must have happened. Someone had taken the body.
Let’s just pause the story for a moment. I sometimes imagine Jesus smacking his forehead in frustration and thinking, Oy, don’t these people understand anything? Later, we’ll see that Mary persists in thinking that someone has carted away the body even when Jesus is standing right beside her (vs. 15).
But let’s appreciate the psychological side of Mary’s predicament. Much of Western tradition teaches us to think of ourselves as rational beings, with occasional flights of emotion-fueled irrationality. Present a reasonable adult with the facts, and they’ll reach (more or less) the right conclusion. On that score, Mary is letting her emotions cloud her judgment; strong feeling is keeping her from the truth. Or worse: she’s doing so because she’s a woman and that’s what women do.
I hope I never hear a sermon suggesting that.
If contemporary neuropsychological research has taught us anything, it’s that much of our picture of humans as rational beings is a lopsided conceit. That’s not to say, of course, that we aren’t capable of calm, rational reflection or reasoned argument. But we are also deeply emotional beings for whom (neurologically speaking) rational reflection is a latecomer to the party. We react first, then we think — and how and what we think is colored by our emotional reaction. Her anguished report to Peter and the beloved disciple is the flip side of her love and devotion.
And if Mary failed to understand what was happening, that basically put her in the same company as the other disciples. We may take the fact of the resurrection for granted, but Mary Magdalene and the others had to struggle their way into the truth of what was happening right under their noses.
That includes the men, as we’ll see next.