Formations 06.26.2016: Mary Magdalene and the Gardener

John 20:11-18

The Risen Christ Appears as Gardener to Mary Magdalene. Engraving (Wikimedia Commons).

The Risen Christ Appears as Gardener to Mary Magdalene. Engraving (Wikimedia Commons).

Halfway through drafting this post, I realized I was guilty of oversimplification in order to find a moral in this story. I hadn’t determined if I would praise Mary for recognizing Jesus’ resurrection or chide her for missing it at first. Still, I had managed to suggest that Americans had, in general, lost the ability to notice details as a result of reality TV and social media. So it’s likely I would choose the path of judgment and blame Mary for not realizing that obvious fact that Jesus, who had been quite dead a few days earlier, was up and walking around a graveyard.

A few years back, there was a story that went viral on Facebook. The world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell busked at a Metro station in Washington D.C. and made about $32 for forty-five minutes of solo performance. That is not bad pay for less than an hour’s work, but Bell is a musician who fills concert halls with people willing to pay an average of $100 a seat. Instead, only a few people paused to listen before resuming their commutes minutes later. The story ended with a sentence that diagnosed these travelers with an inability to pay attention to the beauty in their world and encouraged people to open their eyes despite their busyness.

It was a perfect illustration. Writing this post was going to breeze.

Still, I needed to remind myself about the details of this event. I found an article on the Washington Post, written by the journalist responsible for the original story, rather than the Facebook post that had gone viral. In a follow-up article, he takes the summarizer to task for omitting important details in pursuit of that tidy moral about being open to beauty, which is, by the way, an important lesson.

I read the original article, and it is fantastic. It weighes the various motivations that people had for either stopping to listen or walking on and considers the long-running philosophical debate of whether people can enjoy art in any context. After all, getting to work is important. Dropping children off at daycare is too. And we may even be able to learn something from the man who stopped to hear something beautiful because he was early on the day he would spend calculating finances. Humanity is presented in all of its complexity, so I read it with a healthy mixture of excitement and dread.

After recovering from that strong dose of humility, I came back to Mary Magdalene with every intention of hearing everything she could say to us. I resolved to not give an easy answer about what her encounter with the resurrected Christ meant. I failed. Every single time, I failed. This is more common when I write than I care to admit. I’m interested in religion and faith, so I mostly write about them. I’ve decided that when dealing with mystery, confusion is more common than enlightenment. This time I gave up amidst what is likely a mixture of laziness and honesty. This is, after all, a confusing story. Missing bodies are the subjects of crime shows and resurrected bodies belong to wholly other stories.

At best, we know that Mary goes to the tomb, recognizes the risen Jesus only after he addresses her, and accepts his instruction to go tell the disciples what has happened. There are more questions than answers, and I leave some of mine below. I do so partly because I think they are good questions, and mostly because I need help thinking about them. So if you have answers and if you questions, I invite you to be confused with me as we look for the risen Christ in unexpected places.

Gene Weingarten, “Gene Weingarten: Setting the Record Straight on the Joshua Bell Experiment,” The Washington Post, October 14, 2014, <> (accessed June 17, 2016).

Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” The Washington Post, April 8, 2017, <> (accessed June 17, 2016).


• Did Jesus look the same or different after his resurrection?
• Do voices sound different after resurrection?
• What do John’s angels look like? Do they glow? Do they look like normal people? Did people often hang out in empty tombs?
• Why did Mary not go in the tomb?
• Why did she stay there after Peter and “the one whom Jesus loved” left?
• Was the event spectacular or did it feel surreally ordinary?
• How did she believe that it was Jesus when she had seen him die a few days earlier?
• Was it Jesus’ voice or her name that changed everything?
• What would it take for me to recognize Jesus if that was me?
• As much as I hope for it, do I really believe in Resurrection?
• Would I have gone to the tomb?
• How would I respond to seeing Jesus? What would I say? Would I have gone to tell the disciples?

Reference Shelf


According to Mark a young man then told the women to tell the rest of Jesus’ disciples to go and meet Jesus in Galilee, just as he had promised them (Mark 16:7; cf. 14:28). The most manuscripts of Mark’s Gospel end the story there, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. In Matthew the women carried the news to the disciples, who went accordingly to a mountain in Galilee. There the risen Jesus appeared to them as a group and commanded them to make more disciples, teaching and baptizing among the gentiles (Matt 28:16-20). In Luke, the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples not in Galilee but in the vicinity of Jerusalem on the same day he was raised (Luke 24:13-51). Luke adds in the Book of Acts the surprising information that the appearances of the risen Jesus went on over a period of forty days in which he continued to instruct them about the Kingdom of God. John has an appearance of Jesus on Easter day in Jerusalem to one of the women, Mary Magdalene, another on the same day to ten gathered disciples, another a week later (still in Jerusalem) to the same group plus Thomas (John 20:10-31), and a fourth appearance at an unstated time, by the Lake of Galilee (John 21:1-14).

These varied accounts cannot be convincingly integrated into one coherent account. Whatever the disciples’ experience of what they took to be the resurrected Jesus transformed them from a scattered and fearful band of refugees into the nucleus of a powerful movement able to challenge and change forever the Roman empire within a few decades.

J. Ramsey Michaels, “Jesus,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 448.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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