This Easter season, my heart has been captured by one particular detail of the Easter story – Jesus first revealing His post-resurrection identity to Mary Magdelene.
So what do we know about the background and history of Mary Magdalene that is relevant to this story? Luke records the following details from earlier in Jesus’ ministry:
8 After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
(Luke 8:1-3 NIV)
Mary was from the town of Magdala, a city on the southwest coast of the Sea of Galilee, one of the many places Jesus had likely visited and preached. Luke records that Jesus had cast out seven demons from her. Seven was the number of completeness; scholars believe this indicates that she was overtaken by evil in her former life, and was now clean and pure and whole, and a devoted follower of Jesus.
Per Luke’s gospel account above, Mary Magdalene participated with Jesus in His ministry, likely serving behind the scenes. Mary was also at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:55-56), and followed Joesph of Arimathea as he removed Jesus’ body from the cross, carried it to the tomb, wrapped it in a sheet, and rolled the giant rock over the mouth of the tomb (Matthew 27:57-61).
John, in his tender heart, recalls the beginnings of the Easter morning story:
20 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
(John 20:1-2 NIV)
Jesus had been buried just before sundown on Friday, before the Jewish mandate to cease all work. Saturday was a very long and sad day for all who knew and loved Jesus.
Early Sunday morning, the women (including Mary Magdalene) went to Jesus’ tomb to properly wash, embalm, and wrap Jesus’ body for burial. Because of the late hour on Friday, they did not have time to properly prepare Jesus’ body.
When the women arrived, the stone had already been rolled back, and Jesus’ body was gone! Mary Magdalene ran to where Jesus’ disciples were cloistered and reported the news. The disciples didn’t believe her, so Peter and John ran to the tomb to check it out for themselves (John 20:3-10).
Mary had run to tell the disciples about Jesus’ body being absent from the tomb; she then returned alone to the tomb, as John records:
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”
(John 20:11-13 NIV)
Distraught and heartbroken, Mary Magdalene didn’t know where else to go, so she went back to the place where she had last seen Jesus, where she felt close to Him – at His last known location – at His tomb. She looked inside once again, probably in disbelief. She likely wondered what could possibly have happened to His body – where could they have taken Him, and why?
As Mary Magdalene turned from looking into the tomb, she saw a man standing there. John continues the story:
14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
(John 20:14-15 NIV)
Then John recalls the most poignant moment of all:
6 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
(John 20:16 NIV)
Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus by sight.
She recognized Him by His voice when He tenderly spoke her name.
What is it about someone we love speaking our name? The recognition is automatic, the response is from the soul, the deepest part of us, and the heart connection needs no other words.
Of all the people to whom Jesus could have first revealed Himself, He chose Mary Magdalene.
Jesus could have revealed Himself first to:
- Pilate (Matthew 27:24-26) – “you were wrong about Me – I’m back!”
- Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19) – “you were right about Me.”
- The Roman soldier (Matthew 27:54) – “you were right about Me.”
- The Saduccees, who did not believe in the possibility of a resurrection (Matthew 22:23)
- His disciples
- His family, including His mother
Why did Jesus reveal Himself to Mary Magdalene first? Scripture does not say, why, it just says that she was first (Mark 16:9).
My thoughts? Mary Magdalene was the most faithful of all Jesus’ followers. She was there in His ministry, there in His trial, there at His crucifixion, there at His burial, and now, alone, there at his empty tomb.
Mary came expecting to see Jesus dead and honor His memory by giving His body a proper burial; instead, Jesus meets her alive and gives her hope and eternal life.
Mary came mourning, heartbroken and hopeless, thinking that Jesus was not Messiah as He had said; she went away with great joy, knowing beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus was alive, and that He is the Messiah as He had promised.
Mary came by sight, only knowing what she had seen and heard with her eyes and ears; she encountered Jesus by faith, hearing Him with her heart and soul when He spoke her name.
And Jesus shattered the human barrier of gender, meeting with Mary Magdalene alone. In the Jewish culture, this was a huge no-no But Jesus met Mary where she was, not as her friend, but as her Messiah, as her Savior and Lord. Their relationship had changed, but she still knew Him by His voice.
In an earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, a woman had come to a dinner party that Jesus was attending and anointed His head and feet (Luke 7:36-50). As a dear friend pointed out, what Jesus said about this woman also applied to Mary Magdalene:
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.
(Luke 7:47 NIV)
Jesus had healed Mary Magdalene from demonic oppression; she was forgiven completely and made whole, and she, in turn, dedicated her life solely to serving and honoring Him. This was not a matter of trying to repay Jesus; this was her humbly serving Him with honor and respect, knowing that she could never repay what Jesus had done for her.
May you see this Easter season with new eyes and see the tenderness of our Savior at this moment with Mary Magdalene.
I look forward to recognizing Jesus’ voice, calling my name one day.
I hope you do as well.
Have a Happy and Joyous Easter,