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Jesus said to her, "Mary!"
Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). -- John 20:16
The picture of Mary Magdalene standing before her Lord in the garden is one of the great scenes of the gospel. In all of Christian history and tradition there is scarcely anything more telling. Perhaps Thomas, a week later, saying, "My Lord and my God", might be similar to Mary's "Rabbouni!". And in every Christian life there must be a time, however gradually or dramatically it may be reached, when one clearly acknowledges Jesus as Lord and Saviour. As Paul later said,
Mary, the first witness to the resurrection, is a model for confessing Christians. She confessed him as Lord and she knew in her heart that God had raised him from the dead.
In giving us this account, John, writing in Greek, the international language of the time, makes a point of recording what she said in "Hebrew" (or Aramaic, the related language which was then the modern form she and Jesus spoke). There are only a few places in the gospels where the writers retain the original language, and they are points of high emotion and great dramatic impact, such as the cry of Jesus from the Cross [Mark 15:34], or the words he spoke when raising a little girl who was thought to be dead [Mark 5:41]. She said "Rabbouni" which, as John said means "teacher", but it was a special form of the word, not simply "rabbi" which was itself a term of great respect, but more, it was a form of address which was amongst the Jews then used almost exclusively in talking to God. She was continuing to recognize him as the teacher with whom they had journeyed from Galilee, and at the same time say that she now accepted him as divine. She was saying the same thing as Thomas said later, "My Lord and my God".
Mary is a model of discipleship. Her meeting with him is at one and the same time both a very personal encounter and also a meeting in which she shares with others. The personal emphasis is clear in the way she recognised him when he called her name, "Mary". The shepherd knows his flock one by one:
She knew him when he called her name. Others knew him too when he did other familiar things. The two who had walked with him on the road to Emmaus, without recognizing him, knew him when he broke the bread [Luke 24]. Failing at first to recognize him was typical of his resurrection appearances, for his resurrection body was different though he could be recognized as the same person with whom they had shared meals before he died.
It was not just from the sound of his voice that she recognized him. It was when he said, "Mary". She had already spoken with him, thinking him to be gardener, and had apparently turned away from him, probably to leave the garden, when the personal relationship he had with her was restated by the familiar use of her name. She not only turned back to look at him, but she reached out, apparently clinging to him. He said "Do not hold on to me" [John 20:17a]. Her physical attitude showed her love and devotion. Yet, we do not have here a personal relationship of mutual affection that excludes others, as the modern minds tends to expect between a man and woman.
I don't know why it is that modern people want to make a romantic couple out of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Perhaps it is to make sense of the relationship in human terms without believing in God? The fantasies that have been made up by popular cynics like Barbara Thiering are just that, fantasies, nothing but fantasy invented to justify disbelief. It is tied up with the question of who Jesus was, which is a genuinely challenging question. In the show "Jesus Christ Superstar", Mary sings, "I don't know how to love him", as if struggling with the possibilities. What kind of relationship could they have? We know of Mary Magdalene that she was a devout follower -- like many others -- one of those Jesus had rescued from evil, and who with a number of other women travelled with the twelve and served them as they went from town to town [Luke 8:1-3]. She could also have been the same woman as the one who showed great devotion by anointing his feet with precious ointment, and sat at his feet listening to him. It is most likely that when she said, "Rabbouni" she fell down before her Lord and held his feet. That is what Matthew tells us the disciples did when they met Jesus after the women (Mary Magdalene and others who had gone to the tomb) ran to tell them that he had risen:
[Those who fell and held his feet then might have included women. Note that John too implies that Mary was not alone for he records
They were not lovers in the romantic sense. Theirs was not an exclusive personal relationship like that. The first thing she did was to include others.
She went and told the others so they could share in the renewed and now new kind of relationship. That is what he told her to do:
Both Jesus and Mary knew that theirs was more than a human relationship. Why was it that he said "Do not hold on to me"? Jesus himself said it was because he was ascending to the Father. He was going back to where he had come from. The important thing for us is that he had "not yet" done so. This mystery has great depth. It is the same mystery as in the Lord's Supper which we celebrate today with special meaning on the day of his resurrection.
The importance of the delay was that the resurrection appearances formed a bridge between his earthly life in the flesh as the incarnate Word of God in which he was known by seeing and touching, and life in the Spirit in which he is known to his disciples at all times and all places in spiritual communion. That he whom we know in the Spirit is the same person as the historical Jesus of Nazareth is the essence of Christianity. Ours is not a religion of spiritual exercises through which people can reach out to God, but a response to God who reached out to humanity in our world in a particular time and place, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those who, like Mary, the first of them, were able to say that the one who appeared to them after they had seen him dead and buried was the same person as their crucified teacher make the essential link for us between our life in the Spirit and the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In those precious few weeks in which he met with them after resurrection those who became the apostles, carrying the good news to the world, shared in a time of transition in which they established a new relationship of faith that others could share without actually seeing him.
[As Jesus said to Thomas:
Jesus was telling Mary that she now had to learn a new kind of relationship in which others who relied on her testimony would share.
See how important it is that Mary was not alone but one of the group, that her relationship with Jesus, while personal, was more than that, for the communion she had with him was one to share with the community of faith. His presence was to be known henceforth in the fellowship of believers. That is where he promised to be present.
That was to be fulfilled especially in the Eucharist, at the breaking of the bread. When we share in his body, as members sharing the bread that had come down from heaven. It is no accident that the other time in John's gospel when Jesus referred explicitly to his ascension was when he was talking with the disciples about his flesh being the bread that had come down from heaven and that he would give them to eat.
He who would return to God was the one who would be known in the communion of the bread as he had been known in the flesh by those who recognized him when he rose from the dead. Mary Magdalene is a model of faith for us and one of those primary witnesses to the resurrection who form the link between the Jesus of history and Jesus of faith. They were precious moments indeed linking the material and the spiritual in time and place. So Christmas is fulfilled at Easter, enabling us in the flesh to have communion with God through the Word "who become flesh and lived among us -- we have seen his glory as of the Father's only Son, full of grace and truth." [John 1:14]
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