Mary Magdalene, Doubting Thomas, and What It Means to "See the Lord"

John the Evangelist is particularly keen on establishing what all the Gospels hold as true: that what the disciples encounter in the forty days of Easter are the first fruits of the new creation. John’s theological vision begins with the Eternal Word who, in the Resurrection, unites the Creator with the new creation.[i] Easter is thus pure revelation: an historical event that comes to but not from history itself. Any attempt to translate the Resurrection event into a purely philosophical or scientific register, or even to explain it exhaustively according to a specific theological system, is always bound to fail from the start. The Resurrection cannot just fit in with preexisting worldviews; rather, it establishes the definitive worldview.[ii]

To submit the Resurrection to any independent procedures of verification or interpretation is to miss the central question with which this singular event is concerned. This question is what each of the gospels, in their own way, attempts to address: who is this person, Jesus of Nazareth? The Resurrection offers the complete answer, one that is not deducible from other evidence alone. On the one hand, the risen Jesus is who he was prior to death; on the other, a radical change has taken place. The continuity and the discontinuity together signify the uniqueness of this person, in whom the meanings of life and death, space and time, history and salvation are hidden and revealed.[iii]

At the end of John’s Gospel, the tensive relationship between shock and transformation is operative, beginning especially with Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. Mary goes to the tomb while it was still dark (John 20:1, RSV) in search of the dead body of the one whom she had loved. She is unrelenting in her search for his corpse, even after she finds the tomb empty (20:2), encounters two angels in white (20:12), and eventually turns to stand face to face with Jesus, who issues a question of identity: Whom do you seek? (20:15a, RSV). She persists in her desire for the dead body and thus is prevented from seeing the Living One. But when Jesus speaks her name— Mary—she turns again (20:16). In the offer of her own name from the lips of the One who knows her, she recognizes the stranger she previously accused of hiding a dead body as the risen Lord himself. Mary’s cycle of storytelling is broken as she encounters the living body she sought among the dead. Seeing the Lord is, for Mary, a matter of recognizing the one she loved and beginning to see him anew in his fullness.[iv]

Joseph Ratzinger observes that the full transformation for which this encounter calls actually concludes with the confession of Thomas the Apostle. Whereas Mary went in search of a memorial, Thomas would only be satisfied with new hope if it passed through and did not disregard where his hope died, on Golgotha. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the significance of Thomas’s demand. While it is easy to consider him as the doubter who is culpably unwilling to believe, we might think more deeply about how the seriousness with which he takes death contrasts sharply with the engrained tendency, especially in modernity, to deny death. The condition he sets for believing in this wholly unexpected possibility is that this proposed reality not arise from anything like a wish for anesthesia on his part. He cannot change his memory; his memory must be broken and then re-created. It is as if Thomas resists—in anticipatory fashion—the sort of cheap versions of hope that would lure us out of the painful realities of real loss for the sake of a more pleasant and palatable pseudo-reality—one that is, in the end, little more than the projection of a fantasy. Thomas looks hard at reality, holding with such firmness to what he knows as real that he will only move from it if a surpassing reality should break upon him, one that validates the truth he knows even as it surpasses it.[v]

For Thomas’s sake, then, Jesus offers his wounds because Thomas will not forget the cross. That revolution of recognition that began with Mary and was later shared by proclamation and then as the gift of peace to fearful disciples hereby enters into the stage of completion. Thomas responds in unadulterated faith to the crucified, risen Jesus: My Lord and My God (20:28, RSV).[vi] He has clung to no other wish and so now Thomas can cling in faith to the One who is the Incarnation of hope in his Resurrection. Here with Thomas, the first question Jesus asks in John’s Gospel—What do you seek? (1:38, RSV)—finally elicits a fully appropriate response as the seeker implicates himself without reserve in naming what and whom he seeks. So it is that John arrives by way of narrative detail at the same conclusion at which Matthew arrives by way of narrative brevity: the Resurrection invites worship and issues a mission (see Matt. 28:9–10, 16–20; cf. Mark 16:15–20 ).[vii]

On the narrative level, this twofold account of Jesus’ meetings with his disciples presents a double shock. First, the disciples are shocked to recognize the unknown stranger as the One they have always loved, the One who was crucified. In the absorption of this first shock, the disciples themselves are shocked into a new way of seeing and being. They cannot accept Jesus according to their old expectations and assumptions, their previous limitations and preset ideas, or their unwillingness to accept themselves as the ones both guilty of unfaith and now offered mercy. The Resurrection’s impact on them forces them to evacuate their sense of self in order to receive anew the gift of who the risen Christ calls them to be.[viii]


        [i] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003) 667; cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 205.

     [ii] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth II (San Francisco: Ignatius) 274–75; cf. Karl Rahner, “Experiencing Easter,” 165; and Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 277.

     [iii] See Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 712, as well as 680–82; cf. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth II, 242–43.

     [iv] Balthasar speaks of the transformation that occurs with Mary whereby this spark of presence changes empty absence of the search for the dead body into fulfilled absence of her ungraspable teacher (see Balthasar, New Elucidations, 58–60). Augustine speaks of the sacramental relationship between the Lord’s bodily resurrection and our inner resurrection in regards to the way in which we seek and desire, specifically in reference to this episode with Mary Magdalene (see Augustine, The Trinity, 158 [IV.6]).

     [v] I refer the reader to the meditation on death and Christian hope that Guardini provides in The Last Things, 27–28.

     [vi] Ratzinger claims that the entire Gospel builds toward this moment when sensing becomes worship at the recognition of God’s glory (see Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching, 303); cf. Luke 24:36–43., in which Jesus offers his wounds to the disciples so they might recognize him.

     [vii] For the decisiveness of “mission” in the Easter event, see Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 224–25; cf. Balthasar, A Theology of History, 89–90.

     [viii] See Rowan Williams, Resurrection, 34–35 and 88–89; cf. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, 76–77.

[This post is an excerpt from my Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), used with permission]