John 20:11-18

Appearances of the Risen Jesus

John 20:11-18     Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene 

11 Mary was standing outside facing the tomb, weeping.  
As she was weeping, she bent down towards the tomb
12 and saw two angels in white,
one facing the head and one facing the feet,
where the body of Jesus had been lying.
13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
She replied, “Because they have  taken my Lord,
and I do not know where they have put him.”

Angels in white was a recognised way, in the literature of the period, of identifying heavenly messengers. In this instance, the unfolding narrative gave them no scope to reveal to Mary their message from God.


The word translated in English as angel simply meant messenger; within the tradition it meant messenger from God, a point further emphasised here by their being dressed in white.  Angels, therefore, were understood as revealers of mysteries otherwise inexpressible in human words or concepts. 

The modern reader has been badly serviced by artists across the ages, who have tended to depict angels as half-masculine/half-feminine persons with wings. Certainly, the literature had portrayed some angels who presented themselves in the guise of human persons. Within the general category of angels there were also cherubim and seraphim. Cherubim were seen as fearsome and strong heavenly beings, often with animal characteristics. Seraphim were often associated with fire and burning. Both cherubs and seraphs have been utterly misrepresented by most artists.

The angels were one facing the head and one facing the feet, of the now absent Jesus. The text used no indicative verb. Their tableau probably suggested the position of the cherubim guarding the “mercy seat” in the Temple’s Holy of Holies. The “mercy seat” represented the localised place of God’s invisible presence in the Temple, and, indeed, of God’s presence to the world. They had been guarding the body of Jesus. But now Jesus was risen. Effectively, God in Jesus was no longer localised in one particular spot. The stone had been rolled back: the Holy of Holies was empty. God in Jesus had exited the tomb to be available to the whole world. (This image of the empty tomb as an emptied Holy of Holies fulfils a similar purpose to the image of the tearing of the Temple veil in the synoptic Gospels.)

If the image was meant to be associated with the ancient ritual enacted at the Feast of Atonement, it emphasised the further message that God in Jesus had entered the world to remove the world’s sin through the shedding of his own blood, no longer in sign but in truth. 

Mary, though still outside the tomb, had noticed the empty cloths, but, like Peter, had not reached the conclusion that Jesus had risen. The empty cloths simply meant for her that Jesus’ body was no longer there; so, presumably, it had been taken away by persons unknown.

14 When she had said that,
she turned round, and saw Jesus standing there –
though she did not recognise that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus said to her,
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”  
She thought he was the gardener, and said to him,
“Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him,
and I shall take him.” 

In their resurrection narratives, the other evangelists had regularly referred to Jesus’ being seen but not initially recognised. It was their way of holding in tension the two facts of Jesus’ ongoing identity as well as the indescribable difference of his risen state. Like the disciples mentioned by the other evangelists, Mary saw Jesus but failed to recognise him.

Mary turned away from the tomb, and saw Jesus outside, in the garden, even mistaking him to be the gardener. The man in the garden may have carried another reference: to the original man, Adam, shaped by God and placed in the garden, with the commission “to till and keep it” [Genesis 2:15]. Through the love of Jesus, faithful unto death, the cultivation of redeemed creation was under way.

Mary’s turning round to see Jesus was truly an understatement. What she was about to see would turn upside-down everything the world had known. The movement to Easter faith requires turning one’s back on all previous assumptions and world views.

Recognition and Mission

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 
Turning herself around,
she said to him in Hebrew “Rabbouni! [Which means, Teacher!]

As the author had indicated in Jesus’ earlier discourse on the Good Shepherd: my sheep know my voice [10,14]. Mary reacted as  though to a resuscitated Jesus, the one whom she knew before, whom she could possess, whom she could love without further growth in insight and faith.

Mary turned herself around. The detail is confusing; she had already turned around to face him. The repetition served to underline the vastness of the change about to happen. The turning in question was an inner turning, from unbelief towards recognition. Mary, who had arrived at the garden in the dark, was about to turn from the darkness of doubt and despair into the wonderful light of hope and faith.

Both Jesus’ call to Mary and Mary’s response to Jesus speak of a tender intimacy and care.

17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling on to me;
I have not yet returned to my Father.

The translation would be even clearer if read as: “Do not keep clinging on to me”. It does not deny an intimate embrace, but tends to limit its duration, and, perhaps, its intent. The risen Jesus cannot be clung on to as one’s own possession. He offers an intimacy more wonderful than possession. As he had said in his Last Supper discourse: It is to your advantage that I go away... [16:7]. Only when Jesus has returned to the Father can disciples relate to him, as it were, from the inside: Abide in me as I abide in you... [15:4]. A perennial temptation of organized religion is to attempt to define and to hold on to the mystery that is God.

But go to my brothers,
and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and to your Father,
and to my God and to your God'.”

Jesus sent Mary as the first apostle (one sent) to the disciples to tell them of Jesus’ imminent ascent to the Father. 

He referred to the former defectors as brothers. Despite their deserting him, he had not deserted them. Before his death and resurrection, in the course of the Last Supper Discourses, Jesus had said to the disciples, No longer do I call you servants ... I call you friends [15:15].  Effectively, he now said, "I no longer call you friends … I call you brothers". Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life [11:25], had associated his friends in that resurrection, so that now they shared the same risen life of Jesus, living with his life -  brothers [and sisters] with him. His task completed, as brothers and sisters of his, Jesus' Father was finally their Father. Jesus’ earlier prayer to the Father: May they all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us [17:21], could now be fulfilled.

18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples,
“I have seen the Lord”,
and told them that he had said these things to her.

Mary’s faith had matured – she now knew that she had seen, not a resuscitated Jesus, but the Lord. This was not resuscitation, but resurrection; Jesus could now be recognised, through the deeper vision of Easter faith, as Lord. Her announcement was theologically precise. 

Next >> John 20:19-23