The discovery by two disciples of the empty tomb, and Mary Magdelene’s encounter with Jesus, in John 20.1–18, is one of the main options for the gospel reading for Easter Sunday. And it is, in many ways, the most appealing choice, because of its polished literary form, its focus on individuals, and its description of the moments of recognition.
The passage is full of features worth noting, many of which make it quite characteristic of the Fourth Gospel:
- The double meaning of timings and descriptions which have both literal and symbolic significance.
- The selection of individuals to focus on, including one-to-one encounter with Jesus, when there were clearly others present.
- The repeated ironic theme of reversal, expressed in both implicit and explicit ways.
- The importance of seeing and believing leading to faith.
- Literary and thematic connections with earlier passages in the gospel, particularly chapter 1 (the ‘prologue’) and chapter 11 (the raising of Lazarus) as well as chapters 9 and 10.
The narrative begins where the previous part of the story had left off, at the tomb where Jesus had been laid. There is simply no mention, here or in the other gospels, of anything of ‘silent Saturday’; the followers of Jesus rest in grief and silence as Jesus rests in the tomb. Where Matthew and Mark offer absolute time markers (‘after the Sabbath’) this gospel typically uses a relative time mark ‘On the first day of the week…’ The first week of testimony to the risen Jesus (‘about a week later’ John 20.26) matches the first week of testimony in chapter 1.
Mary Magdalene becomes the central figure in this episode, which is interesting since she had made no appearance in this gospel prior to her presence being noted at the cross in John 19.25 (though Luke 8.2 notes that she has been accompanying Jesus for some time in his ministry). Though she alone is mentioned here, it is apparent that she has not come alone, since she tells the men that ‘we do not know’ in verse 4. In the light of this gospel’s focus on individuals, there is no reason to think that this account contradicts the mention of other women in the three other gospels—it is just being selective.
(The illustration is a 12th century Spanish ivory plaque, with the superscription ‘D[omi]n[u]s loquitur Marie’, ‘The Lord said “Mary.”‘ I like it chiefly because it looks as though Mary and the risen Jesus are engaging in a dance of joy together, their clothes swirling around them as they dance. It seems to be a great expression of what the resurrection means.)
For full details see the related article on The Empty Tomb and the Risen Jesus in John 20.
(Note: this was my first ever foray in the world of YouTube videos. Do feel free to give feedback or make comments—but note that I have since eliminated the shaky camera!)