From Despair to Joy
In his gospel, John likes to tell the story of Jesus through personal encounters Jesus had with people. In telling the story of Jesus’ resurrection, John begins with an encounter the risen Lord had with a woman whom we know as Mary Magdalene.
For close to three years, Mary had been part of a group of devout women who followed Jesus and helped care for His daily needs. Jesus had become the joy of Mary’s life and the strength of her soul. Like many others had, Mary found in Jesus the words of life.
But then came the hideous day when she stood at the foot of an executioner’s cross along with Jesus’ mother and some other female followers, and they witnessed the horror of the crucifixion. She watched the nails driven through His wrists and feet. She heard Him cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” She watched Him struggle for each breath He took, and she wept when He took His final breath. She watched as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea laid His corpse in a tomb, and a great stone was slid into place, sealing the tomb. Then she and the other women followers went to a home to prepare spices and perfumes that would be used to anoint His body.
The next day was the Sabbath, so they could do nothing, but Mary’s grief percolated. She went to bed Saturday night, but she could not stay asleep. Stirred by anxiousness and desperation, she gets up early—while it is still dark. Though there were no street lights in Jerusalem, she hurries to the tomb. She feels driven to be near Jesus—even if He is lying dead in a tomb. That’s what grief does to a person. Even when your loved one is dead, you can’t bear to be apart. You wear the shirt they used to wear; you postpone clearing out their closet; you leave their voice on the answering machine and listen to it again and again; you go to their grave to be near them. That’s what Mary Magdalene does.
At the tomb, she finds that the stone has been rolled away and the body is gone. Filled with bewilderment, confusion, and aggravation, she runs back into the city to tell Peter and John. It’s not that they can do anything, but it’s too much for Mary to handle on her own. She longs for someone to stand beside her in her sorrow and confusion. But Peter and John are also overwhelmed with grief and confusion. They rush ahead of her to the tomb, then turn around and leave again, leaving her alone again in her sorrow. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens to people who are mourning; they get left alone to bear their sorrow by themselves.
In His mercy, God sends angels to console her, but Mary is inconsolable. The other gospels report that the angels announce Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, but Mary cannot take that in. That’s what happens in grief. Good news is inconceivable so we cannot take it in.
Jesus Himself appears before Mary and asks her, “Why are you weeping?” But Mary cannot recognize Him. Her senses are so fogged by despair that she cannot accurately see what is before her eyes—until He calls her by name.
There is something deeply powerful about being called by your own name. For Mary it lifted the fog of despair from her soul.
Apparently, she turned to Jesus and clung to Him. That only makes sense. When you lose someone who is dear to you, then suddenly that person reappears, you cling to that person. You hold him or her like you will never let them go again.
For Mary, despair has been turned to joy!
At this, Jesus gives her two commands.
With the first, He tells her, “Do not hold on to Me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”
The most natural thing for Mary to do is to cling to Him—to cling to His physical body. But any physical body—even a resurrected body—has its limitations. If Mary clings to His body, how can He also be with Peter when Peter gets locked in prison? How can He be with Thomas when Thomas brings the good news to India? How can He be with John while John is imprisoned on the island of Patmos? How can He be with Paul in jail in Rome? How can He be with you wherever you may go? Not even One who walks on water can be with all of His people around the world at the same time if He is confined to a physical body that Mary can cling to. The reason Jesus tells her not to cling to Him is so that He can ascend to heaven and send His Spirit to fill the hearts of all of His followers.
With the second command He tells her, “Go to My brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.’”
The great good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not to be kept to ourselves but shared with others so that everyone can know the wonderful news that Jesus is alive forevermore and that we need fear death no more!