Mary Magdalene at the Tomb

The first portion of John's Gospel relating the Resurrection is remarkable; so rich and deep in meaning - it is difficult to decide how to approach it. Let's just look at a few simple concepts, starting with John's application of chiastic parallelism.

(A) Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.

(B) So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

(C) Then the disciples went back to their homes.

(B’) But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" 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, "Rab-boni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God."

(A’) Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (Jn 20:1-18)

The parallels (repetitions) between (A) and (A’) include Mary coming/going, also what she saw. (Note underlined phrases.)

The parallels between (B) and (B’) are more extensive. First is the obvious repetition of Mary’s exclamation regarding that her Lord has been taken away and they don’t know where they’ve laid him. Obviously, Mary thought that “they” had stolen Jesus’ body. Second is the repetition of stooping to look into the tomb, first by “the other disciple” (whom most believe to be St. John himself), then by Mary. Third is the mention of “they did not know;” it is interesting that Peter, John and Mary have such trouble recognizing or understanding the Risen Christ. It is because the Holy Spirit had not yet come to help them.

Sandwiched between these “bookends” is the central statement (C): Peter and John went home. Per 19:27, John had taken the Blessed Mother to his own home. She, the icon of the Church, was at “home;” the images of home and church are here combined, as they should be. Home is the place of family, of marriage, of children and of everyday human life. These are the analogous images of the spiritual life, the divine Life we share with the family of the Holy Trinity; we describe our relationship with God in terms of matrimony, we ourselves being children of God. The spiritual life of Christians is one of family, in the family home. Jesus has risen, we are now welcome to our true “home;” this is the fundamental, the central concept in this narrative at the empty tomb.

There are two important points for us in the (B) section. First, we note that although John arrived at the tomb first, he waited until Peter arrived, and Peter entered the tomb first. Many see this as a comment on the primacy of Peter. Second, we note that John saw the burial clothes and “believed,” even though he “did not know” that Christ must rise from the dead. In other words, John had no pre-existing belief that Jesus should rise from the dead; like Mary Magdalene, he would have assumed that Jesus’ body was stolen. But he saw something that, in itself, caused John to believe: the burial clothes. Whether the body was moved or stolen, the burial clothes would have been taken and certainly not lying in the manner John saw. He believed because of the evidence he saw, not because he was expecting a resurrection.

There are several points in section (B’) of interest. First, is that when Mary first saw Jesus, she supposed Him to be the gardener. As John mentioned in 19:41-42, the tomb was in a garden; this garden was Golgotha, the place where Jesus, the new Adam, was crucified. As the cosmic drama of the first Adam was in a garden, so the cosmic drama of the second Adam was also in a garden (both His crucifixion and His resurrection). The first Adam was a gardener; he was directed by God to “till” the garden of Eden and “to keep it” (Gn 2:15). Here John reminds us of the parallel between those two Adams, by introducing an identification of Jesus with a gardener.

A famous point of interest is Jesus’ admonishment to Mary: "Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is clear to most that Mary was so overjoyed to see Jesus alive that she embraced Him (as would you or I!). Jesus tells her to stop, and for a strange reason: He has not yet ascended to the Father. What does that mean? As Jesus had already taught, His physical presence was secondary to His spiritual presence, which is a far more intimate communion with us, entering into the deepest recesses of our hearts. This spiritual presence was to come by the sending of the Holy Spirit after Jesus returned to the Father. Jesus was then engaged in that Pascal work of His death, resurrection and ascension, which is a single work of redemption culminating in Pentecost and the “sending” of the Holy Spirit into the hearts and souls of believers; therein we “embrace” Jesus far more intimately than mere physical contact. Jesus was teaching Mary – and us – that a real intimacy with Jesus is through the Holy Spirit, to come after He ascends to the Father.

Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (Jn 16:7, 13-15)

In this text from the Last Supper discourse, Jesus taught that he must go to the Father to send the Holy Spirit, and through that Holy Spirit we will receive “what is mine,” that is, what belongs to Jesus, which His own divine Life, given to us. Furthermore, what Jesus has is what “the Father has;” we have here a clear explanation of what we receive: the very Life of the Holy Trinity, from the Father to the Son, through the Holy Spirit. This is divince intimacy, this is the true “embrace” with our Lord. This is the embrace that Jesus told Mary Magdalene to await. Mary is then sent to the Apostles to inform them of this teaching, which she did. Because she was sent to teach the Apostles this beautiful doctrine, we call Mary Magdalene the “Apostle of the Apostles.” (The word “apostle” means one who is sent).

That is an interesting study, considering chiastic parallelism. But John’s Gospel is a literary marvel of chiastic parallelism. From a study by Peter Ellis, Professor of Biblical Theology at Fordham University (1), the Gospel as a whole can be divided into five, large sections forming an A-B-C-B’-A’ chiastic parallel structure. Each of those five sections can be further broken down into five subsections which are also of the A-B-C-B’-A’ structure (except for the main C section, which is the central theme of the Gospel and stands alone as a single, short section). Furthermore, these 21 resulting “sequences” then have a corresponding inverse parallelism with each other, as a whole. For example, sequence 1 has parallel structure with sequence 21, sequence 2 with sequence 20, 3 with 19, 4 with 18, and so forth. The text we are looking at here is sequence 20, which is parallel to sequence 2 (Jn 2:1-12 – The Wedding Feast at Cana).

Let’s look at those parallels and explore how this resurrection scene is likened to a matrimonial narrative. In both sequences, we have a Mary. In both, Jesus calls Mary by the title, “Woman.” (A common explanation for this title of “Woman” is to compare with Gn 2:23, where Eve is referred to as “woman;” as Jesus is a type of Adam, so Mary(s) is a type of Eve.) Both sequences start with referring to a day of the week (“first,” “third”). In both narratives, the disciples are mentioned, and they “believe” based on what they witnessed (Jn 2:11; 20:8). In both sequences, Jesus tells a “woman” that his time has not yet come, using the same Greek words for “not yet” (“O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." (Jn 2:4); “"Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” (Jn 20:17)) There are word parallels, for example at Cana there were six stones jars laying (Greek: keimenai) there, while at the tomb the linen clothes were laying (Gr: keimena) there. There are more examples. But what is the point of this parallelism; what is the connection? In both stories, that which was before (water/physical Jesus) is transformed into something greater (wine/glorified Jesus). Also, we must look to the “woman” in each story as Eve, Jesus as Adam – and such women represent us, the Church. At Cana, “the Church” asks Jesus to provide wine, an obvious reference to our Eucharist, where we ask Christ for His Eucharistic presence. At the tomb, “the Church” also asks for Jesus’ presence, leading to an embrace with the glorified Christ. Both sequences describe our “embrace” with Christ, this union and sharing of life, which is at the heart of Christianity. At Cana it is described in shadows and symbols of the fulfillment yet to come; at the tomb the fulfillment has arrived historically, but true fulfillment is still yet to come.

One final topic for us to consider: we can now see the element of matrimony in the narrative at the tomb. It is fairly well understood that John’s narrative follows a passage in the very matrimonial OT book, Song of Songs.

Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. "I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves." I sought him, but found him not. The watchmen found me, as they went about in the city. " Have you seen him whom my soul loves?" Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. (Song 3:1-4)

The parallels are striking and these words could easily be placed on Mary Magdalene’s lips. She sought Jesus at night and could not find Him. She met those holy watchers, the angels, in the tomb and asked them if they knew where He was. Then she found Jesus, and she would not let go of her embrace, wherein Jesus taught her of that eternal embrace that was to come, where He will be “brought into her mother’s house,” which is the Church and her Sacraments, where the matrimonial acts between God and man take place and Jesus is with us in the flesh for our embrace.


1. The Genius of John, Peter F. Ellis, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1984. (For more on his chiastic parallelism in John, click HERE and HERE .)