There is an ancient tradition in the Church which tells us that the first witness to the Resurrection was in fact Our Lady. We rarely hear of that today, although a number of religious families and churches have reflected on it: Franciscans, for example, have a tradition of devotion to Our Lady as the first witness and in some of their churches there are paintings or mosaics of the encounter.
The Scriptures proclaim that Mary Magdalen was the first public witness, and indeed it that encounter we see the renewal of humanity as the new Adam meets, in the garden, with a woman who symbolizes the new Eve, reclaimed by grace. That encounter is important for the Church for it is a reversal of what happened in another garden at the Fall when man and woman disobeyed God and the community of mankind lost their inheritance: with the Resurrection of Jesus mankind becomes, once again, the heirs to God’s kingdom. The encounter with Our Lady is different.
Pope John Paul II in his homily in Guayaquil in Mexico in 1985 reflected on this special appearance of the Risen Jesus to Our Lady and concluded that it must have happened. He said: “The Gospels do not tell us of the appearance of the risen Christ to Mary. Nevertheless, since she was so specially close to the Cross of her Son. She must also have had a privileged experience of his Resurrection”. And if we reflect on it, was appropriate. Mary is the first and principal co-redeemer of the human race, sharing in perfect union with her Son the passion that was his, but also hers by participation. She was now Mother of the human race and in those hours between the crucifixion and the Resurrection, she alone held the hope of the Church in her heart, and we rightly call her Mother of the Church and Type of the Church.
Jesus’ apparition to Our Lady is deeply personal: it is the Son coming to his Mother, to the one who bore him and raised him. That encounter will remain, for now, locked in the Hearts of Mary and Jesus. But while we cannot enter into it yet, there is also a message for us as we consider Our Lady as the faithful disciple, the most perfect follower of Jesus: in this context we understand that Jesus comes in a most personal way to those who follow him and that the Resurrection is as much a personal mystery as a community one: we are saved as the Church, the people of God, but that corporate identity is one comprising of individual souls: each of us must also be saved and renewed. So today, as we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, we are also called into a personal encounter with Risen Lord, and through lives of fidelity to him enter into his Resurrection as the promise of our own.
We have just completed our Lenten observance. Throughout those weeks we have sought to be renewed through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The great solemnity and season of Easter brings our penance to a culmination as we celebrate not only the victory of Christ, but the mystery we hope to have fulfilled in our lives. Human flesh defeats death in the person of Jesus, our human flesh hopes to be victorious too as we incorporate ourselves into his life. Lent, as a season of renewal is one in which we come to terms with the fallen nature of our humanity, and through our willing cooperation with grace, die to ourselves in order to be born into Christ, and so, like Our Lady, encounter in the most personal way possible the Risen Christ who brings with him our resurrection.
Another aspect of the Lord’s appearance to his Mother which we might consider: Mary received this privilege because she shared in the suffering of her Son: as she also bore the Cross in spirit, and as her Heart was also pierced with the sword of sorrow, as Simeon foretold, she shares in the Resurrection of her Son, first in the encounter early Sunday morning and later in her Assumption. Here the Lord teaches us a profound message for our suffering and darkest moments – in participating with him in his suffering by our suffering we will come to share in his Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is indeed the symbol of hope for humanity in its darkest hours, and it is also the context in which we may also enter into the mystery of the Cross, not as something which will defeat us, but ultimately as that which will save us. Our crosses, whatever they may be, if embraced in union with Jesus, can be a sign of victory if we allow them to be.
A third aspect of the encounter between Jesus and Our Lady on Easter Sunday speaks of the triumph of hope. When all the disciples ran away, even when the most faithful could not see through their grief, Mary remained the woman of hope. Holy Saturday is the day when the Church enters into the hope of Mary as we wait by the tomb for the Lord to emerge in victory. Mary, the Mother of hope is, therefore, the first to greet her Son as he rises from the dead: her hope is fulfilled in the vision of her Son in glory. And so in imitation of her we seek to orient our own lives into the spirit of hope through our faith and our love. For us Christians the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate symbol of hope: a hope that tells us that even death, the great destroyer, will crumble.
For those who put their trust in Jesus there is nothing – absolutely nothing, that can overcome them – not even death. He is our strength; he is the one who can take this meaningless living and make it the most significant and meaningful adventure on the face of the earth: look at the lives of the Saints. In them he took ordinary lives and made them extraordinary, not only in the reward they received after death, but also in the example they left behind. They are the people of the resurrection: the people of hope, and Mary is the supreme example among them, and she is also the supreme teacher formed as she is in the spirit of her Son. In these weeks as we contemplate the vision of the Risen Christ, perhaps we might so with Mary at our side so we too may share in what she saw and what she received.