My favorite part of the Easter story is when Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene. This part of the story gets me every time. I’m fascinated by it.
See, Mary Magdalene had had a hard life. We tend to skip over the verses where it says, “and Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus cast out seven demons from.” We read that and think, “Wow – that’s pretty cool,” but that’s where our thoughts end. Some speculate that Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus are the same person. What if that were true? Even if it’s not, let’s take a look at who Mary Magdalene was.
We know she was from Magdala. We know she was possessed by seven demons. We know that after her freedom, she followed Jesus faithfully. If she was also the sister of Lazarus, then we also know that she eventually returned to live in Bethany with her family, saw Lazarus raised from the dead, and anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and dried them with her hair. We know for sure she was also at the crucifixion, the burial, and the resurrection of Christ. She was one of the first to not only see Jesus personally, but it was also her testimony that was one of the first given to the disciples about Jesus’ resurrection.
“Possessed by seven demons.” That’s a phrase we don’t hear too often these days. But, demon possession occurs. Did it occur more often in Jesus’ day? Maybe. Merely because the Holy Spirit had not arrived so there were more people to be indwelt by an evil spirit than there are today. How did Mary become “possessed”? We don’t know; although some speculate that she worshiped Molec – a god who demanded child sacrifices and whose priests knew how to perform abortions. He was an evil god that Jehovah had commanded the Israelites have nothing to do with. Regardless of what she was involved in, the point is that she was possessed. We know today that demons tend to take on the name of whatever they are doing. For example, if you ask a demon what their name is, they tend to give you something like, “Adultery;” “Lies;” “Fornication;” “Drunkenness.” The name “Legion” means “many” and that was exactly what was wrong with the man, Legion – he was possessed by many, many demons.
Who tormented Mary? We can wager guesses, but we have no idea who these demons were. We just know she had seven – meaning, seven distinct evil spirits who ruled and controlled her life. Just having one evil spirit in you would mean that you don’t have control – they rule over you – you are theirs. To have seven spirits living inside of you would be literally madness. It would be chaos. We can picture a crazed woman roaming the hillsides of Magdala, probably well-known, probably ill-kept, probably lonely and left alone.
And then enter Christ. We know that the demons know God and tremble. They are forced to bow the knee and obey our King of kings and Lord of lords. We are not given the encounter between Jesus and Mary and her demons. It’s just a verse or two that say, “and Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus cast out seven demons from.” Such a simple phrase and yet we know, this was huge! This encounter would’ve been dramatic and probably traumatic for everyone involved. Mary would have seen and experienced firsthand the power of Almighty God. We can pretty much guarantee that she had tried to get rid of her demons – maybe even had others try to get rid of her demons. But, when Jesus came into her life, the demons fled. They trembled before the Son of God Himself and Mary was set free.
Makes sense that she followed Him, doesn’t it? To see this power and then not want to be near it again would seem odd. Mary was a faithful follower. If she was Mary the sister of Lazarus, then we know she was a faithful student, willing to just sit and listen to Jesus teach for hours on end. If she was also this same Mary, then we know that she was grateful. She wanted to show Jesus her love, her gratitude, her unworthiness. She was willing to humble herself by using her hair to wash His feet. She was willing to give up what she had and broke her vial of expensive perfume on His feet. She knew Jesus personally. She knew Him intimately. And she loved Him dearly.
If she was Lazarus’ sister, she also would have seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. She would have witnessed for a second time, the awesome power of Almighty God. She would have known His power over death and life.
Mary was present at the crucifixion. We can assume if she was a faithful follower, she was also there at the “trial” and the walk to Golgotha. She witnessed this powerful God being humiliated, tormented, crucified, and rejected. She of all people knew His power. Yet, she watched Him die. I wonder if she thought she was watching her hope die? I wonder if she was confused and no longer knew what was true and real anymore? I can picture this broken woman, sobbing at the foot of the cross, in agony, in immense heartbreak, crying out – “Why?!”
The pain would’ve been palpable. And then to watch Him taken off the cross, wrapped in burial cloths, and lain in a tomb. I can’t picture her leaving until the stone is rolled in front of the tomb and she is forced to go home before nightfall. I bet she memorized the entire scene because it would be three days before she would be able to return to say her last goodbye.
Those two full days must’ve been interminable! I can’t even begin to imagine the grieving that would’ve taken place. The pain, the emotions would’ve been overwhelming. The questions would’ve been haunting!
Sunday morning. The slow walk to the tomb. The memories, the thoughts, the questions – and yet the only thing these women are recorded discussing is how to move the stone. Women grieve differently than men. The men were afraid and their fear drove them to stay home and not go to say final goodbyes in person. The women had to touch His body. They would not be content handing the burial spices to the guards and trusting them to do such a sacred thing. They had to go. They had to go early. They had to go quietly. They had to go. They had to touch Him. They had to see Him. They had to talk to Him. They had to go.
But, He wasn’t there! How do you handle that? I can imagine their emotions were at their peak. To find something diametrically opposite than what you’ve been anticipating for three days would be more than a surprise. No wonder they had questions! No wonder God chose to answer them. The angels tried to explain, but you know women – they probably didn’t even hear them. They had already drawn their own assumptions; Mary, in particular, doesn’t seem to be the first to rejoice.
We see her left behind at the tomb. I picture her staggering back out into the sunlight and not even noticing the other ladies take off back toward town. I picture her wandering aimlessly through this beautiful garden, blinded by early morning sunlight and an immense flow of tears. I picture her actually physically looking for Jesus’ body, being thoroughly confused and possibly even angry.
She is so busy looking for a body, that she doesn’t notice the actual Man standing in front of her. She has been sobbing and I wonder if that isn’t part of why she thought this Man was the gardener. She begged of him, “Where did you put the body?”
My favorite part of the story is when Jesus calls her by name. “Mary.” Her name. And she knew Him because He called her by name.
Jesus could’ve chosen to appear to anybody He wanted to. He could’ve gone to John – the most beloved disciple. He could’ve gone to Peter – the man who was to build His church. He could’ve gone to Thomas – who He knew was going to doubt His resurrection. He could’ve gone to His mother – His own mother. But, He went to Mary.
Mary – alone. Mary – grieving. Mary – questioning. Mary – lost. Mary – dejected. Mary – hopeless. Mary – defeated.
He met her in the garden, during the time of her greatest pain, and He called her by name. And, she had spent enough time with Him that her name was all she needed to know it was really Him. Jesus never had to prove Himself to her; He just had to call her by her name. That was all she needed.
We’ve all been in our own gardens before. We’ve seen the power of God in mighty ways, but then something huge happens and we end up wandering in the garden, wondering where God is and what is really true? Did we imagine everything that happened before? Is God really real? It is there – in our own personal gardens of grief – that Jesus meets us and calls us by name. Mary answered with “Rabonni” – teacher! She didn’t answer with “My Lord” or “My Friend” or even “My Savior.” She answered with “teacher.” I wonder if that’s because she realized she had more to learn. She was in this garden of grief because she didn’t understand all the truth of the matter yet. She needed to learn.
If we are spending time with Jesus, and then we hit a garden of grief, we should be able to recognize when Jesus shows up in the middle and calls us by name. Yes, He’s there for comfort, but He’s also there to teach. The story for Mary was not over; it was in the process of being completed. Jesus had to teach her how it all wove together. He wants to do the same for us. He wants to meet us there, call us by name, and teach us where to go from here.
Lisa Biegert, March 23, 2008