Chapter & verse: John 20:1-18
Helen Garton reflects on one of the most beautiful stories in scripture
The resurrection story of Mary Magdalene bumping into Jesus in the garden, where he had been buried, is one of the most beautiful stories in our scriptures. It is touchingly human, for not only does Mary not recognise Jesus, perhaps for the tears streaming down her face, but she supposes him to be the gardener. And when he calls by name, she reaches out towards him to embrace him tightly. ‘Were you there?’ says the spiritual hymn composed by enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century. Yes, we were and yes, we are there in the garden with Mary. The story is so vivid, and so down to earth, that we can imagine ourselves there. That is the profoundest theological question of all: were you there?
There is not much of the site where all this took place, because it has made way for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, if we go with the traditional location. I went there once on a visit organised by the Council of Christians and Jews. Our guide was the late Daniel Rossing, who showed us around the various chapels (all 22 of them) belonging to six different denominations, which are fiercely protective over their spaces. Daniel told us of his time working as the Director of the Department for Christian Communities in Israel’s Ministry for Religious Affairs.
One of his anecdotes concerned the space between two chapels belonging to two different denominations. It had become dangerous to visitors owing to the volume of people. Because it fell between two chapels, neither group was prepared to let the other repair the damage, lest they expand their territory. However, they were prepared to fix a lightbulb above the space so that eager pilgrims could see where they were going. But when the lightbulb went out, rather than fight over territory, Daniel would receive a call and meet with representatives of both denominations, replace the bulb while the representatives turned away, and then exclaim: ‘Ah, it seems to be working!’ I thought this was appalling, and asked Daniel what he thought about the Christians’ squabble as a Jew. I have never forgotten his response: ‘Isn’t that what incarnation is all about, people learning to live alongside each other?’…
Helen Garton is Minister of Cumnor and St Columba’s Churches, Oxford
This is an extract from an article published in the April 2021 edition of Reform