You can just imagine it, can’t you? It’s early in the morning – too early for ordinary people to be around. A woman, crazed with grief, traumatised after watching a beloved friend publicly humiliated and tortured to death, his body put hastily in a tomb with minimum ceremony except to drape his naked corpse, because everyone had to be back home before sundown. Then, unable to do anything the next day without breaking every religious law you could think of, she is finally able to go back, to pick up with her grieving, at least to see the body, presumably to begin the proper laying out process. Poor, bewildered creature: after all the trauma of two days ago, now she finds that the body is not there. What on earth have they done now? Who could have done this extraordinary, mean, meaningless thing?
What to do? Well, she could rouse some of the men and see what they can suggest. They are as baffled as she, and arrive only to confirm what she already knows – the grave is empty and, odder still, the grave clothes are still there. At this point, the Prayer Book wants to leave it: Mary left at the tomb, the men gone back home. I think you’ll agree that that was a story half-told and the Lectionary nowadays insists we get to the point. Mary is left by the men, but then she finds she is not alone. The most extraordinary encounter takes place. It is so intimate, so sensual that it is hard to read or hear without a tug at the heart or perhaps a tear.
This woman who has seen her most loved man cruelly executed is powerfully reunited with him. I think Jesus knew what he was doing when, brought back from the dead, alive and bodily present, but in some extraordinary way not as he was before his arrest and death, he made this connection with perhaps his closest woman friend. Mary of Magdala is the first witness of the resurrection of the body. It was to Mary of Magdala that God demonstrated in his body that death is not the end of our love story between people and God, God and people.
Of course, as you might expect, men and women were in many ways then much as we are now. When she was ready, she rushed back – as requested by Jesus - to share her good news with the men. We are left to imagine how they reacted. Actually I can sympathise. If a woman I loved rushed to me to say she had met a dear mutual friend whom we had seen killed, I think I might suggest she at least sit down and draw breath before, I might hope, telling me a more rational story. But that takes us on to the next part of John’s gospel, and that’s not for today.
Apart from the sheer good news of Jesus’ triumph over death, the promise to us that death is not the end of the life vouchsafed to us by God, there is the important story of how women are called to be witnesses to that life in a way that is different to the (no less) valid vocation of men. That we are equally and differently called to be disciples, and also apostles, that is, people who have a message to share about what Jesus has revealed to them. And the headline of that message is that even a cruel death cannot overcome love and the life to which God calls us in its abundance. Christ is risen today. Alleluia.