What did you see upon the way?

Published on 01 Apr 2021

‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see upon the way?’ [1]  The first thing, which Mary of Magdala saw, was that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb [2].  She thought, initially, that the grave had been robbed. ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb’, she said ‘and we don’t know here they have put him.’ [3]   Faith in the resurrection began, for Mary, with an experience of loss. The body of Christ had been stolen, it seemed. He had already been taken away by death itself.  Now, his remains might have been pillaged by grave-robbers?  It seemed that his corpse had been spirited away by his enemies?  Part of the crime of Calvary was the theft of the Saviour.  Jesus came into the world to save us and was punished for his goodness by being put to death.  By his execution, he was driven out of the life into which he had entered in order to bring blessing and transformation.  It turns out, however, that his death is salvific.  His sacrifice is good for everyone else.  The crimes committed against him are stages in a process which has many good consequences. Before the truth sinks in there is the pain of a great loss.   We are bereft of Christ. We needed more time with the One who has been taken from us. There was more to be said and understood.  Some feelings of guilt can arise.  Did we do enough to protect him?  Were we among those who ran away?   Did we deny him?  There emerges an uneasy consciousness of having played a part in what has happened. For the suffering and death of the Son of God responsibility is widely shared.

‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,’ she said.  Mary of Magdala, so faithful, so close to the Lord in his suffering, did not, at first, understand why the tomb was empty. The suggestion of a robbery is a lie, which will eventually be put about the Lord’s opponents. The chief priests and the Pharisees went in a body to Pilate and said, Your Excellency, we recall that this imposter said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I shall rise again’. Therefore, give the order to have the sepulchre keep secure until the third day, for fear his disciples come and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ This last piece of fraud would be worse than what went before [4].  Mary Magdalen is a reliable witness not a fraudster.  She was, however, at the beginning, confused by the emptiness of the tomb.  Her initial thought that the body had been removed by persons unknown was reasonable but mistaken. It may be that we too sometimes mistakenly overlook the resurrection.  Like Mary Magdalene, we have contemplated the cross and the death which took place on it.   Sorrow can distract us from what comes next.  Jesus had often spoken of his resurrection but his followers did not understand  what he was talking about.  This bafflement can persist.  Sadness may stifle faith.

‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see upon the way?’ Mary of Magdala’s second answer to that question is that after her first, dismayed awareness that the tomb was empty, she was preoccupied with her own grief. Mary stayed outside near the tomb weeping [5].   There is plenty over which to weep.  The seeming absence of the body of Christ is an emblem of the absence of much else that is good,  beautiful and true.  Mary was not to blame for what had happened but her tears are those of a disciple of One who takes the blame for everything.  She is a model of penitence.  She shows her fellow disciples who have more with which to reproach ourselves how to ask for pardon.  Some of our wrongdoing may have been seemed to the Lord like blows aimed at him.  God can be pained by what we do.   Jesus was abandoned by most of his friends as well as tortured by his enemies.   We have hurt him by what we have not done as well as more directly.  A lot of our spiritual mistakes are sins of omission. We are quite capable of committing evil but often we merely omit to do good.   Jesus may seem to have disappeared from our life.  The spiritual life has been allowed to languish.  There has been neglect of prayer, of worship, of attention to the scripture and the sacraments and of charity.  What has happened to the body of Christ? What has been done with him?  Is it our omissions that have concealed him?

‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see upon the way?’  The still weeping, she stooped to look inside the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet.  They said ‘Woman, why are you weeping? ‘They have taken my Lord away, she replied, and I do not know where they have put him.’ [6]  The angels are what Mary of Magdala next sees.  That these messengers are in the tomb suggests that God’s will has been done here.  There is now no reason to weep.  Mary, however, still baffled, continues to seek a corpse. She had witnessed the burial [7]. Jesus, tortured to death, had been respectfully entombed.  Joseph of Arimathea, brought a shroud, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the shroud and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock [8].  The body had earlier been anointed at Bethany.   What she has done for me is one of the good works [9].  Even amid great sorrows, kind acts continue to performed.  She has done what it was in her power to do: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial [10].  The goodness of the anointer and the burier are acknowledged by the presence of the angels.  Funeral rites, gratefully received, are now superseded by divine life.

‘Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?’ She turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognise him [11].  Mary Magdalene tells, with great humility, the story of her slow learning about the resurrection. The risen Lord echoes the question of the angels: why are you weeping? [12]  Her sorrow had been justified but the moment for it has passed.  Sadness and its causes are understood but now there is a invitation to react differently.  Who are you looking for? [13] Jesus, who knows us so well, and who so respects our freedom, never stops asking this question.  Are we truly seeking him?  Can he answer our questions?   Even the best of us continues to make mistakes.  Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.’ [14]  Mary can never have spared herself in the recital of her obtuseness. She continued suspicious and slow.  She was dealing perhaps not with grave robbers  or the enemies of the Lord but with a gardener, perhaps over-zealous, perhaps incompetent.  Jesus said ‘Mary’.  She knew him then[15].

Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, addresses each of us by name. Can we hear him?  Our own questions, the foolish and the profound, subside for a moment. He utters our name, warmly but interrogatively.  Can we hear him? See him?  Believe in him?   The Lord is hidden. We are required to do some finding, and to go on doing so.  His love has no end [16].  God sends messengers to help us to find his Son after the resurrection. Three days afterwards, God raised him to life, and allowed him to be seen, not by the whole people, but only by certain witnesses God had chosen beforehand [17]. Part of the discovery of the resurrection is that now among the strengths hidden within us is the presence of our saviour.  Now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God [18].  The hiddenness may be in our prayer.  Or, good works can be hidden.  The disciples of Jesus, humbly, obscurely and without fuss we are allowing the divine life to be shared out in a world which has great need of it.  Where have they taken him?  If the risen Lord is found in the heart of each of us, what Easter joy.  We have faith and trust for what lies ahead. ‘What did you see on the way?’   We looked tentatively into the place where we expected to find the redeemer. Did we find it empty?  Were there messengers?  The Lord has filled the universe with his presence. Is he still hidden?  We continue to overlook him and to fail to find him. The One who has risen awaits our delighted discovery.

Homily by Father Peter Gallagher SJ

[1]              Roman Missal, Victimae paschalis, Easter Sequence, 10-11 Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via

[2]              John 20.1

[3]              John 20.2

[4]              Matthew 27.62-64

[5]              John 20.11

[6]              John 20.11-13

[7]              Mark 15.47

[8]              Mark 1

[9]              Mark 14.6

[10]            Mark 14.8

[11]            John 20.14

[12]            John 20.15

[13]            John 20.15

[14]            John 20.15

[15]            John 20.16

[16]            Psalm (118) 117.1

[17]            Acts 10.40-41

[18]            Colossians 3.3