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The Strangeness of the Easter Garden

As we turn from a lengthy consideration of the passion and death of the Lord Jesus Christ in John’s gospel, we encounter a rich description of the empty tomb and Christ’s first resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. John’s description is full of rich symbolism and rich theology based on the event of Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection itself, however, is not described at all. And while it might be strange that John includes no details related to such a significant event, it is not the only strange thing about John’s narrative. Now, by strange I mean elements that are surprising or unexpected. This strangeness actually enriches the already rich narrative as it presents to us an event, a fact in history, that breaks all molds and transcends every category we have: the dead have been raised!

What I would like to do with this reflection is highlight four aspects of John’s narrative in the first part of chapter 20 that support this idea of the strangeness of the Easter garden.

First, John’s narrative is highly telescoped and narrowly focused. That is to say, he skips events in the unfolding chronology and gaps details that were either already known or irrelevant for his purposes. To wit, John only identifies Mary Magdelene as present in the garden in v1, but she says in v2 that “we do not know where they have laid him.” Who are the others? John makes no mention of others; his narrative is narrowly focused. Or for another example, the exchange between Mary and the angels appears unfinished, and she is said to have turned around twice to the gardener, i.e. Jesus, in vv14 and 16, which suggests that John is telescoping or collapsing the sequence of events to focus on what’s most important. If this narrative were read like a history textbook, it would make little sense, because it was never meant to be a precise history, a detailed blow-by-blow, but a rich narrative about a rich place with rich significance.

Second, John’s narrative is filled with seemingly irrelevant details. While the narrative is telescoped and focused on the whole, it is at the same time minutely interested in the relative pace per kilometer, as it were, between two disciples as they have a friendly footrace. Moreover, this narrative is very much interested in the state and place of grave clothes, especially the burial cloth that normally covered the face. This attention to detail in what appears to be irrelevant details casts the whole narrative in the light of an eyewitness who was so deeply impressed by the event that even small details left their imprint on his memory.

Third, the strangeness continues in Mary’s apparent lack of fear when visited by angels. If you know the Scriptures, then you know that almost always the appearance of a heavenly being brings with it a great sense of awe or dread. But John gives no indication that the normal fear-inducing response affected Mary. Instead, she simply repeats to these two men who are dressed in white her concern over the whereabouts of Jesus’ body. Neither their sudden nor their radiant appearance seemed to affect her in the slightest, which adds to the strangeness of the narrative and suggests that Mary herself was very much wrapped up in the mystery of the missing body of her Lord.

Finally, we must include here Mary’s whole interaction with Jesus, and especially Jesus’ words in v17, which have occasioned no small amount of interpretive angst. Strange indeed is it that someone so familiar with Jesus would not recognize him until he called her name; so also, it sounds strange to us, especially us, that Jesus would address Mary the way he does in v17. Without wading into the interpretive quagmire, I will simply say that Mary’s clinging may have been a desperate attempt to make sure that the very body whose whereabouts she had been so concerned about would not go missing again. Jesus’ “rebuke” can then be read as more of a reassurance to her that he wasn’t going away anytime soon.[1]

Pulling all these things together, the strangeness (though we are better off saying richness) of this account of the resurrection (though we are better off calling it a post-resurrection account), contributes to the authenticity of its eyewitness testimony to an event that broke all molds and transcended every category that any of the eyewitnesses had up to that point. Truly that first Easter Sunday was a day that changed everything, and in his presentation of it John helps us feel the strangeness and richness of that day.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 641–45.

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