Photos by Ian Adams, taken in the Barbara Hepworth Studio and Garden, St Ives
Ian Adams, mission spirituality adviser at Church Mission Society, asks how we might live in these demanding times as a people of witness to the resurrection of Jesus.
The compelling account of Mary Magdalene’s garden encounter with the risen Jesus, as told by John in his Gospel, is a personal story. It is also marks the beginning of a communal witness to the resurrected Jesus, soon inspiring a movement that continues even now to bring God’s grace, mercy and peace to the world.
As individuals, as a society, as a movement and as the Church, we may find in this remarkable story a model for life and for mission – a way to understand, to live and to share the Christ story.
This begins in lamentation.
The necessity of weeping
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”John 20:11–15a NRSV
Mary weeps. The angels see it. Jesus sees it. In both cases they ask Why are you weeping? I suggest that this is not an admonishment. Mary is right to weep. Her loss has been great.
In these demanding times surely we too are right to weep, to mourn, to lament. For our own losses. For our mistakes. And to mourn alongside those with whom we live and work. To enter into the suffering of the world, and that of the people among whom we have been placed.
In any work of healing it is vital to give space and voice to our losses. To be healed they need to be recognised. So it is important for us to be open to weeping. And to hear the question Why are you weeping?
But lamentation is just a beginning. Let’s not miss Jesus’ second question. For whom are you looking?
The possibility of encounter
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).John 20:15b–16 NRSV
Mary encounters the risen Jesus. But she does not yet know it, supposing him to be the gardener. In a sense, she has got it right. Jesus is the great gardener, in whose care she will flourish in all seasons of life. But true recognition comes as she hears the risen Jesus speak her name. Mary!
A good question for us to ask might be this: could Christ the gardener be close by? Am I alert to his presence, or am I overly occupied with other things (however worthy they might be)?
And could the Church rediscover its nature as a space in which all may hear their names spoken in love? A community in which we find ourselves recognised. A garden in which holy encounter may take place. Are we open to such encounter?
But encounter is not the end of the story.
The joyful path to sharing
Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.John 20:17–18 NRSV
Mary’s response is to embrace Jesus. That is natural, good and right. Jesus’ response is not a rebuke to her action, but rather a call into something more. To go and to say. And so, in John’s telling, Mary becomes the first witness to the resurrection.
And if the story begins in lamentation, and pivots on encounter, it now bursts into joy. Mary goes and tells what has happened: I have seen the Lord.
The God story is one of love and devotion. And our embracing of the one who embraces us is natural, good and right.
But what might we do with our stories of the one who embraces us; with the experiences of our encounters with the risen Christ? Not just keeping them to ourselves, but allowing them to spill out from us, small gifts to our world, glimpses of God’s closeness.
What might our I have seen the Lord look like? What might be the actions we commit to this season? What might we say, and how might we say it?
Stories change us, and stories change the world. Could there be a more compelling story than that of Mary Magdalene’s encounter in the garden with the risen Christ? How might we live and share that story this Easter and Pentecost?