Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples with her had followed the dead body of their Rabbi from the foot of the cross to the tomb on that Friday. On the Sabbath they mourned the loss of their great friend and teacher and prepared for the task of making Jesus’ body ready for burial at the new week. Early the first Sunday morning after the death of Jesus Mary expected to find the tortured body of her great mentor. She expected the difficult task of preparing a loved one’s body for burial. Though she was a disciple of Jesus, though she had seen him do many miracles, though she called him Lord, Mary did not fully understand who Jesus was. In the garden where the tomb Joseph of Arimathea had provided lay, Mary’s expectations of Jesus collided with the reality of who he truly was and her entire world changed.
The disciples – male and female – had very clear expectations of who Jesus was. Jesus was a modern Elijah. He was a great and powerful prophet, a teacher, a healer, the last great prophet of Israel who would bring in the “Day of the Lord” and reestablish God’s kingdom. As they watched Jesus die on the cross, the disciples saw their hopes and dreams for the future crumble before them. Their expectations had been false. In the end maybe there was no rescue from Rome. They should expect oppression and death without rescue.
As the disciples approach the news of the empty tomb, they all approach with the expectation that the twisted body of their beloved friend and Rabbi will be found inside. They approach the tomb with the expectation that Rome has once again won and that Jesus was just another Messiah promising claims he could not back up. Mary Magdalene and the other women disciples first come to the empty tomb with expectations of finding the decaying body of their failed prophet. Peter and the other men disciples disbelieve the reports of the empty tomb, not because the news comes from women, but because they, too, expect the dead body of an innocent man executed by the state as a terrorist. Even when they see the empty tomb with their own eyes all the disciples’ first thoughts are towards grave robbery rather than a literal resurrection. The execution of Jesus has led his closest followers to expect only more bad news.
The expectations of the disciples – both pre and post crucifixion – cannot be met because they are expectations made for a prophet and a revolutionary political leader. Though Jesus’ ministry contains elements of both, he is neither. Jesus is the Son of God eternally begotten of the Father. He is the Word made Flesh. He is truly God and truly man. What the disciples do not understand is that it is not in the nature of God to act as they expect. The story of Israel and the Hebrew scripture had been pointing to the true character of God for centuries, but it took the self-emptying act of love of Jesus on the cross for it all to become clear. The God of Israel is a kenotic God of love. He is a God of three persons in complete unity. Together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reign, create, serve, and love. The true, eternal God of Israel is too beautiful and complex to be contained in the temple or even in the simple idea of a singular god.
In Jesus, God became man and in raising from the dead after suffering on the cross, God defeated death and the Devil. What initially looked like an extreme failure and completely fell short of the disciples’ expectations was actually God being God. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God was living out his very nature. Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the Risen Lord. She is the first witness of the incredible depth of God’s love for humankind. There in the garden full of so much sadness, Mary experienced the unimaginable joy of the unexpected triumphing over the forces of evil, darkness, and oppression in the world.
Coogan, Michael D. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal, Deuterocanonical Books: With the Apocryphal, Deuterocanonical Books. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001.
Laymon, Charles M., ed. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible: Introd. and Commentary for Each Book of the Bible Including the Apocrypha, with General Articles. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.