The first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared was Mary Magdalene, one of his devoted followers (John 20:11-18). He had delivered her from seven demons and in response she used her wealth and provided material help for Jesus and his disciples. She had shown recently that her devotion was much stronger than that of Jesus’ male disciples – she had remained at the cross until he died and then followed his body to the tomb where he was buried.
It does not seem to have entered the minds of the male disciples to do anything about the body of Jesus that had been placed in a borrowed tomb. Yet Mary and her female friends, marked still with tender love for Jesus, had resolved to engage in a last act of love for him. They did not mind the potential danger of helping one who had been crucified as a criminal. Nor did they have a clue as to how to remove the large stone from the entrance to the tomb. Love does not have excuses for not honouring Jesus, and so they made their way to the garden of Joseph. Jesus was their world, even when they thought they could no longer have it.
Why did Jesus appear first to Mary? I think that those who suggest it was because of her deep love for him are correct. If there is one feature in the lives of his disciples that the risen Jesus will not resist, it is overflowing love. True, Mary’s love was uninformed, yet it was pouring out of her heart.
Before she came to the tomb that morning, she had been sad because her hopes had been dashed. But in the garden she is still miserable, even although she has both the evidence of the empty tomb and the angelic explanation of the resurrection of Jesus. Sadly she had not listened carefully to the words of the heavenly messengers. That is evident in her continued belief that Jesus was still dead. Sorrow can deafen our ears to the words of comfort. Neither had she fully absorbed the significance of the empty tomb, although it was enough to convince John (John 20:8). Sorrow can blind our eyes to what may be obvious to others.
But there was another cause for her sorrow. The reason why she was crying was because all these helps could not make up for her the sense she had of the absence of Christ. As David McIntyre pointed out, ‘The historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite convincing to the historian, but the lover of Jesus may crave for something more intimate.’
It was not enough for Mary that she had known Jesus in the past; she wanted more than a memory of what once had been her contact with Jesus. And she had not forgotten why she had come to the tomb, which was to care for the dead body of Jesus. Spiritual love at times be may be irrational, but it is better than clinical theology. Such love is always marked by a desire to serve, and Mary wanted to serve Jesus by taking care of his body (similar to the way a devoted servant will look after the affairs of his dead master).
After Mary had repeated her desire to take care of the body of Jesus, he spoke to her personally. He called her by the name her intimate friends would have used, ‘Miriam.’ This was the voice of the Good Shepherd calling his own sheep by name.
She responded to Jesus with an expression of great love. When she says, ‘Rabboni,’ she means ‘my dear Master’. It expresses deep affection. According to Leon Morris, no-one would use the title in speaking to another human; instead it was used in addressing God. So Mary was marked by devout adoration. She virtually says the same as Thomas did later on when he addressed Jesus as ‘my Lord and my God’.
In her heart, there was recognition of Jesus. How often had she heard his sweet voice speaking personally to her! One word from Jesus removed the darkness from her soul and replaced it with eternal light. In her heart also there was rejoicing. The sweet voice that had comforted her and guided her before was still speaking to her. One word from the risen Jesus removed the sorrow of her soul and replaced it with great joy.
So Mary had the great privilege of hearing the first words spoken on earth by the resurrected Christ: ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ These words echo down to us in our sad situations and ask us, ‘What are your priorities?’
Are there any lessons for us from this incident? Surely it tells us not to stop with the messengers (angels) but to persevere and meet the risen Master; it tells us not to stop at the sign (the empty tomb) but to seek the risen Saviour until we are satiated with his joy; it tells us that the greatest privilege is to serve the risen Christ in whatever way he chooses for us.