Image: 'Not the Gardener' by Lucy Stothard.
The following is a fictionalised retelling of John 20: 1-18, as well as what we know about the life of St. Mary Magdalene. Mary is believed to have been the first saint to experience the mystical marriage.
Anointing the body would have been the job of his wife, if he’d had one.
As it is, the duty falls to her. The irony isn’t lost on her as she calls to mind the rumours, things said about their friendship which, before all this, would have made her blush.
And Mary of Magdala is not the kind of girl who blushes easily.
They’ve got the wrong idea, anyway. She was his confidant, his disciple. He taught her things about God. Made a believer out of her. But it was never like that. Was it?
On Friday night she stays with his mother at John’s house. The three of them sit up together until dawn and weep. Peter is there too, his expression listless. They don’t even have the strength to pray and even if they did, they wouldn’t have the words.
The following night, they decide unanimously to try and get some rest. But it’s no good. Every time she closes her eyes she sees his face, barely recognisable in his agony, eyes and mouth full of blood.
It’s still dark when she gets up, dresses, hurriedly fixes her veil in place. It’s not safe for a woman to go walking around in the dark. She doesn’t care. What more could they take from her?
From memory, she finds her way to Joseph’s tomb. Dawn is just about breaking by the time she arrives, the eastern sky gradually taking on a hue of a blue that reminds her of birds’ eggs. At first, she can only make out the outline of the rocky structure, and a sick feeling wells up within her at the thought of him lying there, cold, alone, dead.
When she sees that the stone is not in front of the opening, she wonders whether she’s accidentally gone to the wrong place. Further inspection in the dim morning light reassures her that no, this is definitely it. The sick feeling intensifies at the realisation of what must have happened: they’ve taken him away. Couldn’t they let him rest, after all this?
The empty tomb confirms her suspicions and, distraught, she drops the heavy box of spices she’d brought with her and runs, all the way back to the house.
At first, the men don’t take too kindly to being woken up. Once she tells them what has happened, they jolt into action and soon the three of them are running, John quicker than any of them. He darts into the tomb and, a minute later, comes out shouting joyfully: He has risen – just as he said he would!
Mary takes a deep breath and tries not to be annoyed by his naivety.
Soon John and Peter have gone but she stays, not knowing what to do or where to go. In the end she crumples, body wracking with sobs as her tears fall to the dry, dusty ground.
A soft rustle in the bushes startles her and makes her look up. She glances round for a moment or two, trying to figure out the source of the noise.
Another rustle, nearer this time. Someone is moving around just out of sight, weaving in and out between branches heavy with spring blossoms. She strains her eyes in the near-light and can just make out the figure of a man. For a moment, she dares to hope. Could it be?
No. Of course not. She remembers that this is a private garden for the wealthy. It’s the groundskeeper. He’s getting nearer, now. Not wanting him to see that she’s been crying she sniffs, hastily wipes her eyes, tweaks her veil and smooths her dress. The gardener stops a few feet away and speaks.
She tries to keep her voice level and free from emotion, as though it were the most normal thing in the world to be kneeling in a garden at the crack of dawn. “Yes, sir?”
“Why are you weeping?”
So much for putting a brave face on it, although she has no idea how he could tell. She decides to be matter of fact. “They have taken my Lord away, that’s all.”
The gardener doesn’t say anything.
“And - and I don’t know where they have put him,” she adds at length.
She can’t quite make out his face, but it seems like the gardener is smiling now. She wonders how he can be so insensitive and is about to say at much when he says a word that nearly makes her heart stop: “Mary.”
“Rabbuni!” All propriety flies out of the window and she leaps to her feet, flinging her arms around him. Jesus is very obliging, holding onto her for a moment or two before gently trying to disentangle himself.
Oh, no. She’s not letting go of him. Never, ever again.
“Don’t cling to me,” he says, “because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go and find the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Mary has no idea what he’s talking about but she finally, reluctantly, loosens her grip. The dawn is brighter now and she can see his face at last. His eyes have changed colour to the most striking, iridescent blue she’s ever seen, and they are filled with a fierce, burning love that makes her feel very important and very small all at once.
Knowing that no more words are necessary, she obeys.
Forty days later, Jesus goes to Heaven. Nine days after that, something even more unbelievable happens.
Several years later, far too many to count, and she’s living in a cave in a strange land. Decades of fasting and penance have left her looking too-thin and tired; the beauty that used to stop men in their tracks has long gone. Silvery hair falls, tangled, past her waist.
But she’s not alone. He’s with her when she lies down and when she wakes up, a living flame of love in her heart whose voice the solitude allows her to hear quite clearly. He speaks to her daily, sings of his love for her and all mankind. Sometimes she even sees him.
It’s been a long time since he asked her to be his Bride, a marriage of spirits that raptured her soul in love and ruined her for the world.
But at least the rumours aren't unfounded any more.
by Lucy Stothard