The Gospel reading for Mass today (Jn 20.11-18) contains one of the great literary images in Scripture.

Mary Magdalene, after having found the tomb of Jesus disturbed, and fetching Peter and John, stayed behind at the tomb, weeping, after the others had left. After conversing briefly with two angels she saw inside the tomb, she turned away from them in her tears, and in doing so, encountered the risen Jesus – whom she mistook for the gardener. After a few brief words, she turned away from him, too. And then Jesus spoke a single word to her that wholly rocked her world: “Mary!”

Mary Magdalene by Pietro PeruginoI don’t know if it’s possible to grasp the intensity of what must have happened within Mary at that moment. Of course, she recognized him in his calling to her, and she turned back to him, but her heart must have stopped in mid-beat. This man was dead – she saw him die, she saw him laid in the tomb – yet he was calling her name. It must have been simultaneously completely surreal, and quite terrifying, yet John tells us – not that she reacted in fear or disbelief, as we’d expect – but that she called back to him, and embraced him.

Her deep, abiding love for Jesus is made abundantly clear by John, and we can perhaps begin to imagine her feelings if we imagine our own reaction, were we to suddenly and unexpectedly encounter a loved one we were grieving over because we thought for sure he or she were dead. Yet she knew he was dead. She had heard him say “It is finished,” she had seen the blood and water flow from the lance wound to his side after he’d died. She could not have cried “I thought you were dead!” She knew he was dead. She could not have been relieved that he hadn’t died – she knew he had died. Yet … he called her name.

Mary’s universe was turned upside down in that moment, when she heard her name on the lips of a man she loved deeply, who had died two days earlier. Nothing now was impossible. Something brand new had broken in upon humanity. Hearing her name like that delivered her across the great chasm of grief and suffering that is the oppressive presence of death in our lives. Hearing him call her name must have triggered a joy so powerful she could taste it, smell it, feel it in every muscle in her body.

It is the word we all ache to hear, isn’t it?

Lord, I’m not worthy to receive you,
but only say the word,
and my soul shall be healed.