Sunday, 8 April 2012

a reflection for Easter

Jesus said to her "Mary."
John 20:16
original watercolour © Teresa Newham 2012

For this year's Easter card I turned to John's Gospel. It takes a different approach to the other three Gospels - they tell Jesus' story  as it happened, stressing various elements for their particular audiences: followers of Jesus amongst the Jews (Matthew), the Romans (Mark) and the Gentiles (Luke). John was writing in the contemplative tradition - his Gospel was known in the ancient church as the "spiritual" Gospel, and is full of rich imagery.  John also - albeit discreetly - tells us that he is an eyewitness to the events of Christ's life, passion and resurrection.  He has enough standing within the Jewish community of Jerusalem to be allowed to witness Jesus' trial;  from the Cross Jesus charges John with the responsibility of taking care of His Mother (by implication extending God's family beyond natural blood ties to encompass us all).

The other Gospels tell us that on the first Easter Sunday some women came to Jesus' tomb.  John chooses to focus on Mary Magdalene.  Arriving at the tomb, she sees that the stone placed there to protect it has been rolled back, and hurries to tell Peter and John.  For those of us brought up on the story of Jesus, it's easy to forget how they must have felt at this point - we know what is going to happen.  But Mary and the disciples have had their world shattered. Jesus himself - whom they had seen do such loving and wonderful things, and who had given them such hope - humiliated and put to death for political ends.  Their own lives in danger.  What does Mary's news mean?  at this point, do they recall Jesus's words at the Last Supper: "A little while, and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you will see me"  (John 16:16)?

Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection
Eugène Bernand 1898 - original at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris
This beautiful painting by Eugène Bernand perfectly depicts their situation.  They don't know what's happening.  John (traditionally beardless) is clearly praying as he runs. Can it be true?  Peter's sense of urgency is palpable.  John outruns Peter and arrives first at the tomb, but in deference to Peter's authority waits for him to go in first (allegorically Peter represents faith and John understanding; morally they represent the  active and contemplative missions of the church).  Jesus' body is gone. The grave-cloths are still there, so the tomb has not been burgled; grave-robbers would have taken the cloths and left the body.  What is happening? what should they do?  John tells us that the disciples went back to their homes.

Mary, however, stays behind, weeping.  Her love for Jesus leaves her rooted to the spot where she last saw His body;  she sees two angels sitting where the body had been but doesn't understand the implication of their question: "why are you weeping?" because Mary does not yet realise that there is no need to weep.  When Jesus appears to her she thinks He's the gardener and begs Him to let her have the body, convinced that she will be able to take it away and deal with it herself.  And then . . .

. . .  Jesus calls her by name, as He does each one of us.

Mary responds by crying out "Rabboni!" (Teacher) - this is how she has addressed Him in the past.  He replies "Do not hold [on to your old idea of] me" - because he is no longer as he was before - and sends her to tell the disciples that He is ascending to His Father in heaven.  So, according to  John, the first person to see the risen Christ is Mary Magdalene - a woman, and moreover, a woman with a past.  And when she returns to Jerusalem again, she is the first person to deliver the Good News, when she tells the disciples "I have seen the Lord".  By now, she knows who He is.

Easter blessings to you all!


  1. A beautiful exposition of perhaps the most profound of all the Gospel passages about the Resurrection, explaining a text rich in complex theological detail with clarity and spiritual insight.

  2. Well done M. As a runaway Catholic I always love a good gospel story. I'd not seen Bernand's painting before. Thanks for sharing the story with images.

  3. thanks for your comments! I have to admit I've visited the Musée d'Orsay twice and never noticed Bernand's painting - recently cleaned, it is (if you'll pardon the pun) a revelation. I first started to appreciate the richness and depth of John's Gospel during my RCIA classes (I've been a Catholic for a whole year now!). Jon & I have been able to continue studying it with a local bible group.