Based on an excerpt from Our Daily Bread author Bill Crowder’s book of the same name.
In 2003, India stormed her way into the finals of the Cricket world cup. After the historic win against the West Indies in 1983, everyone believed that the millennium would bring the coveted cup home. Going into it the Australians were the favorite, a formidable foe, but everyone believed that the young Indian team which consisted of ‘the little master’ Sachin Tendulkar, and ‘the wall’ Rahul Dravid would pull off an upset. As millions of fans poised themselves in front of the television ready to bear witness to this great win, it was disappointment that ensued. The team lost by more than a hundred runs.
Two thousand years ago, it seemed that a far greater loss had occurred. A new Rabbi had appeared, bringing hope of a better day. Hope of rescue. Hope of a kingdom. Then, Jesus was arrested and tried. As Jesus hung on a Roman cross, His followers who witnessed His suffering felt only grief and despair. Jesus’ certain death was followed by a hasty burial and the darkest of dark weekends. For all of this, there were witnesses. Jesus was dead.
But, on the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the grave. Life overturned death. Victory overwhelmed defeat. And, there were also witnesses of this.
In the following pages, we want to consider someone who witnessed both the cross and the empty tomb—Mary Magdalene. And, she was not just any witness—Mary was the first to bear witness to the risen Jesus. Her story is worth knowing.
The old saying “The only things certain are death and taxes” has stood the test of time for a reason. Death is inescapable. Except when Jesus had to kill death to redeem the rest of us. Mary Magdalene bears witness to the victory of the cross by bearing witness to the empty tomb. Read more …
From the shock of Jesus’ arrest and trials to the brutality of the crucifixion to the fear that they were next, what a season of darkness Jesus’ disciples must have faced? Mary of Magdala was there. In these events, she becomes our guide and our proxy. Read more …
It is not a surprise that Mary did not want to be separated from the One who had rescued her from the depths of demonic oppression. In fact, even to the end, she was faithful when most of Jesus’ disciples had abandoned Him. She stood by the Cross and sat by the Grave. Read more …
Mary of Magdala, once demon-possessed but now set free, once grieving but now joyful, was the first person to see the risen Christ! For the first time in days, darkness had been overwhelmed by light. Death had been killed dead by the resurrection of Christ.
Read more …
Mary’s witness is clear, and her devotion is unmistakable. It is a declaration of the glory of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is the wonder of the Christ and what He does to change one single, individual, eternal life. Read more …
In the world of popular music, one of the most common themes, of course is the pursuit of love. Surprisingly, however, popular English music also addresses another significant and contrasting concept – the reality of death. On the Beatles’ Revolver album, we hear the lament of Father MacKenzie’s sad and solitary task of burying Eleanor Rigby, “wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave.” In another famous English song, the music captures the fears of a young soldier, cleaning his gun and wondering if he will ever again see the love of his life, while crying, “I am so afraid of dying.” Bob Dylan, the Folk singer fatally accepted his own mortality when he sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” In “I Love You This Much,” another artistesings about the funeral of a father who never loved his son but whose death is mourned nonetheless. Most recently, the singer Tim McGraw hit the top of the charts with a song dedicated to his late father, who died of brain cancer. The song title? “Live Like You Were Dying.” The list could go on almost indefinitely. Like love, death is an idea that seems to stay close to the front of our minds. We fear it, struggle with it, and do all that we can to avoid and forestall it.
The Bible deals with the theme of death from a very different perspective, however, in Romans 6:23 where Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” Death is more than just an enormous question mark. It is the ultimate reality. It entered the world because of the disobedience of our ancient parents in a garden of glory and to this day continues to hover over fallen humanity like a dark scepter that we cannot escape. The old saying “The only things certain are death and taxes” has stood the test of time for a reason. Death is inescapable. It is the one event in life for which there is no “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free” card. Except…
When Christ came into the world, it was to redeem a fallen human race. In order to do that, however, Christ had to do something pretty unimaginable – He had to kill death. He had to kill death dead. And making it even more unimaginable, Jesus had to kill death dead by dying. That was what the cross was all about. Killing death. The Son of God took sin’s penalty so that the guilty could go free; the wages of sin – death – have been dealt with and resolved. The resurrection of Christ stands to declare it. We want to explore the depth of that amazing truth – and we will do that by entering into the experience of a very special woman. This woman bears witness to the victory of the cross by bearing witness to the empty tomb. And her rescue declares life and hope and victory for all of us as well. We experience the resurrection in the heart and mind of Mary Magdalene.
What a brutal season of darkness the followers of Christ had experienced. From the shock of Jesus’s arrest and trials to the brutality of the crucifixion to the fear that they were next – all of it had driven them into hiding. The disciples had been devastated by the events of those recent days. Their sensibilities had been shaken by the death of the Master. That is what death does – it shakes us.
In over twenty years of pastoral ministry, I have stood by the graves and the grieving families of many people. Too many, I guess. Yet it seems from those experiences that one of the things that is ever-present in episodes of grief is the hunger to do something. Grief demands an outlet, so we look for something to do, to show our love one final time. I felt this deeply in 1980 when my father died. People – wanting to do something to help – brought food, sent flowers, mailed cards, and offered words of comfort. Family members, especially the seven kids that had called the deceased “Dad,” shared memories, attended to details of the memorial, and saw to the care of our mom. The days crawled by, and it seemed like nothing we did made any appreciable difference. Nothing could dull the pain of this deep loss, and I found myself unable to express my sorrow except to stand vigil by the casket – a silent sentinel of pain that wouldn’t go away. Unable to do anything else, at least able to stand watch.
I suspect those feelings are very similar to the emotions Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (along with Salome and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward) must have felt as they made their way to the tomb of Jesus. Helpless to do anything but grieve, they had found a final way to express their love and devotion to the Christ. In their haste to beat the Sabbath deadline, the burial party had not ministered to the body of Jesus as thoroughly as possible. With their arms loaded with spices and embalming supplies, they left early in the morning to go to the tomb and finish the burial ceremony.
It is wonderfully appropriate that Mary of Magdala should be there. In these events, she becomes our guide and our proxy. She stands in our stead to bear witness of the events that would reshape the world. Who was she?
FoxNews.com (an English news agency) reported the following story in April 2003:
Nineteen-year-old Ryan Allen (an American) was wondering why the car salesman was taking so long to check his credit. After an hour and a half, the manager of the car dealership came into the room with a strange question. “‘Have you ever been to Yemen?’ to which Allen replied in the negative. Turns out that he shared a Social Security number with Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni man thought to be one of the planners of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, who was held in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location. After the April 10 discovery, the dealership called the police, who called the FBI, which refused to do anything about the matter since Binalshibh had already been arrested. Finally, Allen didn’t get his car, and a spokesman at the dealership refused to comment to the Press, but that might be the least of his problems for the near future. Binalshibh – and by association, Allen as well – is on a list kept by the U.S. Treasury that orders U.S. banks to block assets of suspected terrorist financiers and enforces sanctions against some countries and suspected drug overlords.
What unfortunate consequences for that young man – all because of mistaken identity. The reputation of Mary Magdalene has also suffered greatly over the years due to a kind of “mistaken identity,” but perhaps nothing has done more damage to her name than the spate of media efforts – from The Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code – that have taken her from the role of a true worshiper of Christ to that of an alleged lover. Add to that the fact that, for years, film presentations of the life of Christ have followed traditions that presented Mary Magdalene in one way, and one way only – as a prostitute. It is important to note that there is absolutely no biblical evidence to support such a representation. This woman was much more than some kind of amoral glorified groupie. She was a true believer – and privileged beyond all others! What we do know of her is found in this account of her conversion in Luke 8:1-3:
Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.
What do we learn here of this Mary, called Magdalene?
- She was of Magdala. Some say she was called this because she was “a plaiter of hair,” but it more likely is a reference to a region east of the Jordan River in the lower Galilee, an area that was probably not far from the chief city of Tiberias. Magdala is believed to have been a region with a number of villages, any of which Mary might have called home.
- She had been demonized. She had been possessed by no fewer than seven demons! Imagine what her life must have been like as she lived under the torment and control of these fallen angels who had possessed her body. Look at one account of the horrible life of a demoniac!
And one of the crowd answered Him, “Teacher, I brought You my son, possessed with a spirit which makes him mute; and whenever it seizes him, it slams him to the ground and he foams at the mouth, and grinds his teeth and stiffens out. I told Your disciples to cast it out, and they could not do it.”
And He answered them and said, “O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with You? Bring him to Me!”
They brought the boy to Him. When he saw Him, immediately the spirit threw him into a convulsion, and falling to the ground, he began rolling around and foaming at the mouth.
And He asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood. It has often thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us” (Mark 9:17-22).
- She had been rescued. Christ had found her in this terrible condition and had exercised the power of heaven to deal with the fallen spirits that were consuming her life. Jesus had cast those demons from her and set her free. Her life was instantly changed!
- How did she respond? By becoming a devoted follower of Christ who not only talked the talk, but walked the walk. She put her money where her mouth was in support of the ministry of Christ and His disciples. Her life, values priorities – all had been changed, radically transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ! Of course, one of the unfortunate realities we often deal with in the family of God is people who are all charged up for Christ when they first trust Him and then cool down spiritually. Would Mary of Magdala be just another casualty?
Study: Examine the many times that Luke mentions women in his gospel account—far more than the other three gospels. What are the different ways they are portrayed? Why do you think he featured women so prominently?
Reflect: Loss of hope is a devastating experience. When have you felt hopeless? What caused it? How did you respond/recoverfrom that hopelessness?
Apply: Experiencing grief is a significant part of life in a broken, dying world. How could Mary’s devoted love—even in the midst of her grief—offer us an example of how to respond to our own grief?
In Luke 7:47, Jesus said that the one forgiven much loves much. In the same way, I think the one rescued from the darkest pit most wondrously wants to bathe in the warmth of the light. So it is not a surprise that Mary did not want to be separated from the One who had rescued her from the depths of demonic oppression. In fact, even to the end, she was faithful when Jesus’ disciples (apart from John) had abandoned Him.
She stood by the Cross
But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
No, her devotion didn’t wane. Her love didn’t cool. Even at the cross, heartbroken and devastated, Mary Magdalene stayed right there. Mary witnessed the brutality of the cross and the horrors of the suffering of Christ while most of the disciples were in hiding. She could not walk away. She was compelled to stay because this was where the Christ was – and she had to be with Him. While the disciples secreted themselves away, the women stayed at the scene. Watching. Suffering. Wondering. Weeping. Nothing could describe the deep sadness of their hearts at the moment Christ breathed His last from the cross of love and yielded His spirit to the Father. Yet there they were, Mary Magdalene among them. The devotion of her heart could not be set aside by the passing of time, by public opinion, by danger, or even threat of death. The hymn writer who penned these poignant words probably expresses Mary’s love for Christ as well:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul on Thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
The love of Christ that had redeemed Mary held her in its wonderful, devoted grip. And even at Christ’s death, that love would not let her go. In his Gospel According to John, G. Campbell Morgan says of this love, “I never read [of this] without feeling rebuked at the loyal loving devotion of Mary Magdalene.”
She sat by the Grave
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were looking on to see where He was laid (Mark 15:47).
Nothing could drive Mary Magdalene and the other women from the side of their fallen Lord as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea performed the grim and grisly task of removing the body of Jesus from the cross. Faithfully they followed the mournful little procession as they made their way from the Place of the Skull to the tomb – purchased by the Arimathean for his own burial but now given to the Lord he loved. Sadly they watched as the spices and wrappings were hastily applied in order to try and complete the burial before sundown – and the beginning of Shabbat. Every step of the way, these women were there. Every step of the way, their deep love for Christ overshadowed the danger of publicly identifying themselves with an executed “criminal.”
Every step of the way, she was at His side – yet how tragic. She becomes to us the very image of grief. As the darkness of night deepens to match the darkness of the sorrow in her heart, Mary Magdalene sat by the grave –her heart filled with questions that had no answers.
How could the One who commanded demons die at the hands of mere men?
How could the One who gave her life lay lifeless in a tomb?
How could the One who had brought light to her heart now be darkened by death?
In the darkness of gloom and grief, however, there existed the brightness of hope – hope in the One who had rescued her and redeemed her life. Even the nature of the questions calls for answers that go beyond our natural points of reference. As the hymn continues, it carries the promise of that hope.
O Joy that seekest me thro’ pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thro’ the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb (John 20:1).
Firsts are notable. Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Sunil Gavaskar was the first cricketing debutant to hit over seven hundred runs in a single test innings. Bhanu Athaiya was the first Indian to win an Academy Award. Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian to win a Nobel prize for literature. Kalpana Chawala was the first Indian woman in outer space. There is something remarkably satisfying about being first – about boldly going where no one else has ever gone before.
However, Mary Magdalene is, arguably, the most significant “first” in human history! After the days of darkness, marked by the knowledge that the Lord of life was buried in a tomb, she is the first at the gravesite, and she will be the first to see the risen Savior – and we are not surprised! She comes brokenhearted, but she comes with a devotion that surpasses even the apparent certainty of death. It’s important that we see that Mary had not come believing, but hurting. She had not come with a sense of anticipation, but with brokenness and grief. Yet what she lacked in understanding she made up for with love and faithfulness. And on that first resurrection morning, she would learn in a wonderful new way the truths of two Old Testament Scriptures:
- Proverbs 8:17: “I love those who love me, and those who diligently seek me will find me.”
- Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning!”
Mary arrived at the tomb and found it empty. Fearing grave robbers, she ran to tell the disciples what she found. Then, following Peter and John, she returned to the tomb to mourn. The death she had witnessed had been disturbing; the disappearance of the body was even more distressing. Peter and John left to return to the rest of the disciples, but Mary sat at the tomb and mourned the loss of the body of Jesus – and the loss of what must have seemed like her last opportunity to serve the Savior. As she mourned, she encountered the risen Lord!
The sound of her name
But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping; and so, as she wept, she stooped and looked into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white sitting, one at the head and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been lying. And 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.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, and did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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!” (John 20:11-16).
It is highly significant that the risen Christ first appeared to a woman. In first-century Israel, women were generally viewed as being of low value and considered of little or no importance – but not to Christ! He valued women and treated them with a dignity and honor the world of that day would have found shocking.
Mary, brokenhearted by her loss, wept at the side of the tomb –