Turning toward Jesus with Mary of Magdala

Today much attention is directed toward turning: the downward or upward turns of the stock market; turning around the economy, failing companies or health care. Although Jesus did not have Wall Street or health care to contend with when he walked the Earth, he was undeniably focused on turning things around. When the verb "turn" occurs in the New Testament, it usually involves Jesus saying something significant about discipleship.

  • In Luke 14:25-33, Jesus turned and addressed the crowd, giving tough directives about the detachment from family and possessions required of committed disciples.
  • When Peter misinterpreted the meaning of discipleship in his reaction to Jesus' first passion prediction in Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus turned and said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.' "
  • When Samaritan villagers failed to be hospitable to Jesus and his disciples in Luke 9:51-56, Jesus turned to rebuke James and John for wanting to call down fire on the village.

If turning is a harbinger of important communication about discipleship, John 20:1-18 bears closer scrutiny. In this passage, the act of turning is done by Mary of Magdala, who is called to proclaim Jesus' message of discipleship. Rather than confirming our historically misinformed image of Mary as a prostitute or sinful woman, this segment of John's Gospel portrays a woman who turns toward Jesus and is commissioned as the "apostle to the apostles."

After seeing the stone removed from Jesus' tomb early in the morning and informing the disciples, Mary stayed behind. She looked in the tomb, and "turned around and saw Jesus there." Mary did not recognize him until Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni," which means Teacher. Then she received an admonition ("Stop holding on to me") and a mission ("Go to my brothers and tell them . . ."). Mary announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord," and nothing is the same for them again.

It is understandable that Mary does not recognize Jesus right away. After all, she witnessed his crucifixion and death. She knows that his body was placed in the tomb and she is in shock from finding the stone removed and the tomb empty. Certain that someone has stolen the body, she is focused on finding out what happened. Any one of these alone would cause upset; but the combination of them allows us to grant Mary some leniency for not recognizing Jesus. We can pardon her for turning only partially toward the man who she thinks is the gardener until she turns fully toward the man she now recognizes as the risen Jesus.

I would like to suggest that Mary's turning toward Jesus in John 20 serves as an example of two key elements of discipleship:

  • Overcoming the obstacles that prevent us from recognizing him in his various manifestations.
  • Giving up the other things we're holding that prevent us from hearing and delivering his message.

Overcoming the obstacles to recognizing Jesus

Mary was challenged to recognize Jesus in a manifestation with which she was unfamiliar — risen from the dead. However, Jesus continued to invite her to overcome the many obstacles this presented and to remain open to him by turning fully toward him.

Like Mary, the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) were challenged to overcome obstacles that prevented them from fully recognizing Jesus. Consider what they were doing — going away from Jerusalem, away from their community of disciples, and away from the implications of their call to discipleship. Even Jesus' passionate response ("Oh, how foolish you are!") fails to elicit recognition from them.

When Jesus blesses, breaks and gives bread, their eyes are opened and they recognize him, but he vanishes from their sight. In retrospect, they realize that their hearts had been burning as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them, but they did not fully recognize him until they turned toward him again in the familiar act of breaking the bread. This recognition enables them to turn back to Jerusalem, to return to the community of disciples, and to embrace their new mission of recounting how Jesus was made known to them.

With Mary of Magdala as our guide, we pray for perseverance to continue to turn toward Jesus as many times as necessary to recognize him in his various manifestations. We ask for the grace of openness to overcome obstacles that present themselves as we commit ourselves to a closer following of Jesus.

Letting go

"Stop holding on to me," Jesus says to Mary. "How odd!" we might think. The most incredible thing has happened, and Mary cannot touch Jesus? Perhaps Jesus knew that her preconceived notions and her desire to be secure with him would prevent her from completing her mission. With this admonition to Mary, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves what we are holding that hinders our mission.

The boy with five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:1-15) can help us to answer this question.

Because barley loaves were considered the food of the poor, it is likely that what the boy was carrying was all he had to eat. Had the boy held on to his loaves and fish, he would have remained just a boy in the crowd and the people would have remained hungry. But because he lets go of what he holds, he becomes a true follower of Jesus and people are fed in abundance.

Likewise, had Mary continued to hold on to Jesus at the tomb, she would have remained someone who was drawn to Jesus' life and good deeds, but would not have been a disciple of the risen Jesus with the ability to proclaim to others, "I have seen the Lord." With Mary of Magdala as our guide, we pray for a spirit of letting go of all we have in order to receive all that Jesus wants to give us.


As we recognize the increasing need to turn our world around, we must turn more radically toward Jesus. Turning toward Jesus with Mary of Magdala as our guide makes sense, because she has been there; she knows the way. She will teach us to surmount the obstacles that prevent us from recognizing Jesus, and she will show us how to let go of our false security so that, with our whole being, we can receive and fulfill our mission to tell others, "I have seen the Lord."

[Ann Marie Paul is a Sister of Christian Charity from Passaic, New Jersey. She is director of the Passaic Neighborhood Center for Women, a collaborative ministry of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, and its religious communities.]

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