On this Good Friday when we remember Jesus’ crucifixion, we look forward to Easter morning, the promise of resurrection, and the hope of eternal life.
Let’s begin with the touching story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb. Her life had been changed forever by her encounters with Jesus. Mary Magdalene was likely a single woman, which we can surmise from her name. In the first century, if a woman was married, she would often be identified as Mary, wife of . . . . If she had children she might be Mary the mother of....But this Mary was referred to as Mary Magdalene—that is, Mary of Magdala, a town on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee.
Not only was Mary likely a single woman; she was a woman who had had a troubled past. Luke tells us that she had had “seven demons” (Luke 8:2). A demon in the first century could be anything from an unexplained physical illness to a psychiatric disorder to an addiction of some kind. It also could indicate a deep spiritual wrestling that might have involved an actual spiritual entity. Any of these meanings could have been covered by the word demon.
Whatever had afflicted Mary, she was a troubled person until she met Jesus, who set her free from the demons. She seems to have had some financial means despite the demons that had plagued her, because after her deliverance at Jesus’ hands she is named as one of several women who followed Jesus and the disciples wherever they went and supplied some of the financial resources that made their ministry possible (see Luke 8:1-3).
I’ve always loved Mary’s song in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” It captures what must have been the range of feelings Mary had for Jesus. He had utterly changed her life.
It is not hard to imagine just how deeply she loved him. Her love and courageous devotion to him were shown by her presence at the cross (John 19:25), by her accompanying his body to the grave (recorded in each of the Synoptics), and by her being the first to arrive at his tomb on Easter morning.
She came to the cemetery at dawn on Sunday morning—weeping, her faith in tatters, her heart broken. She couldn’t stay away, but she was full of sorrow. Twice John tells us that she wept as she stood there, and as she did, she represented each of us who has lost someone we love dearly. We’ve all known Mary’s sadness—the grief that comes in waves, and the tears that won’t stop. If the death is untimely or unjust, as Jesus’ death was, the sorrow is even greater. Our hearts break. We weep as Mary wept for this man who had loved her and whom she dearly loved.
The Angels Inside the Tomb
In John’s account of the Resurrection, Mary looked inside the tomb and saw two angels. I want to pause for a moment at this point in the story to consider some unique features of John’s account.
In each of the Gospel descriptions of the empty tomb, there is at least one angel. (The word in Greek means “messenger,” and these would look like people. In fact, Mark simply describes a young man dressed in white.) In John’s account there is an interesting detail included. He tells us there are two angels, and they are sitting inside the tomb on the ledge “where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot” (20:12).
Why does John tell us the angels were sitting? Further, why does he tell us the precise location where they were sitting (at the head and the foot of the place Jesus had been)?
I believe these details are an allusion to the so-called mercy seat of God—that is, the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, as described in the Book of Exodus. This “seat” was God’s symbolic throne on earth. It was the place where God’s covenant with Israel was kept. (The Ten Commandments were under the lid.) In Exodus 25:22, God said to Moses, “There I will meet with you.” Once a year the high priest was to slaughter a bull and a lamb on behalf of the people, and he was to take some of the blood and sprinkle it on the mercy seat. This seat was constructed with an angel on either end.
Is it possible that John, in describing the angels in Jesus’ tomb, is trying to point us to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Was he hoping we would see that this place where Jesus’ body had lain was the new mercy seat and that here, by his own blood, Christ had reconciled humanity to God?