As we read and consider the awful suffering of our Lord on the cross it is, to a degree, alleviated for us because we know that his resurrection with full joy and release from pain and suffering is to follow in the next chapter. However for the disciples and most of the followers of Christ this wonderful fact was hidden from their eyes. They did not know or believe it, even though they had been told of these coming events by the Lord himself.

As we follow through those last hours of intense suffering we come to the ninth hour of the day when the Lord cried, “It is finished”, and bowed his head in the blessed release of death (John 19:30). For our Lord it was the end of a life of bitter struggle – the struggle of obedience to his Father’s will, the struggle of the ‘condemnation of Sin, in the flesh’. For his disciples, however, the cry had a different meaning. All they had hoped for and expected over the last three and a half years was ended, as the words of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus indicate (Luke 24:19–21).

What would you have done through those six awful hours, three of them engulfed in darkness and culminating in a frightening earthquake? We do not know what the eleven apostles of the Lord were doing or where they were, apart from John. Toward the end he was at the foot of the cross with the Lord’s mother.

But a faithful little group of women disciples were also there. This group had followed their Lord from Galilee. Of them we read: “And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children” (Matt 27:55–56). These women “followed Jesus”; they had come from Galilee, travelling the long dusty road with their beloved Lord, listening to his gracious words and marvelling at the miracles he performed. They loved him and would have carefully attended to his every need as they lovingly “ministered unto him” (Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:55–56).

Mary Magdalene

One of the striking facts we note throughout the crucifixion and then the resurrection of the Lord is that Mary Magdalene was always there. She is always mentioned first among the women ministering to the Lord, and more often than any one of the disciples during this period. But before we consider such loving and faithful service, we need to go back and find out more about her in the earlier period of the Lord’s ministry.

It is in Luke 8 we first meet her. There we read: “And it came to pass afterward, that Jesus went throughout every city and village, preaching and shewing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God: and the twelve were with him, and certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:1–3). Again we note that Mary Magdalene is first mentioned. We are also told that she was among some who were “healed of evil spirits and infirmities”, and the particular malady from which she was healed was of “seven devils” or demons (Grk daimonion).

To understand what this means we have another incident in the same chapter where Jesus healed the demented man who called himself Legion because he believed that his intense bouts of insanity were caused by these so-called demons. Jesus “commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man” and after he was cured the local people found Legion “out of whom the devils [demons] were departed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind” (or as the Greek means, “of sound mind”) (Luke 8:29, 35). It is reasonable to deduce that, like Legion, Mary suffered from some form of severe mental illness: but to suggest more than that or try to diagnose her actual problem is not wise. We know today that those with severe mental illness go through fearful mental anguish as each wave comes upon them. What a relief it would have been for this poor woman to be healed of this wretched sickness with all its confusion, depression and anxiety, and now be in her right mind. One could only feel an intense appreciation and thankfulness to the one who had healed her. Her loving response was to do all she could to minister to her Lord!

Ministering Mary

It is unwise to go beyond the revealed facts about Mary. She is called Mary Magdalene. This is possibly because she came from Magdala, a town near Capernaum, on the shores of the Lake of Galilee. It would be only speculation to identify her with the Mary of the little family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, or likewise with the woman of the street who came to Jesus while he was dining with Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). Mary Magdalene stands aloft in her own right as we read of her. The hallmark of her character is that, after being ministered to by her Lord and healed, she was always found ministering to him. From the moment she was healed wherever we read of her she is ministering to her Lord. In this she is a remarkable example to us all, especially to sisters, who in their God-given role have this great opportunity and ability to serve those who labour in the Lord’s work.

To learn to minister to others is not difficult but we must show thoughtful sympathy and care for the one in need, and not be self-righteous and critical. We need to put ourselves in that person’s particular predicament, whether it is not of his own making (as with our Lord) or whether he has brought such a situation upon himself by his own folly (as we so often do). Think what you would want others to do to help you – and do likewise for your brother or sister (Matt 7:12). God has given us all the ability to do this if we carefully and prayerfully seek His guidance. Discerning sisters like Mary, thankful for their high and holy calling in Christ, will feel deeply the pain and anguish of others in need in the ecclesia and be careful to minister to them. Mary Magdalene certainly demonstrated that ability and was richly rewarded by her Lord.

At the foot of the cross

The next time we meet Mary is on that dreadful day of the Lord’s crucifixion. We see her and those other women travelling to Jerusalem and the Passover. She would watch her Lord constantly ministering to the needs of others and thankfully recall her own healing. In this she is a lesson to us all. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). We are among that “many” who have been recipients of his “ministering”. Do we always remember what he has done for us and endeavour in our lives to reflect that “ministering” to others? Mary Magdalene did – she never forgot!

And so on that awful day of her Lord’s suffering she and the other women from Galilee were afar off, possibly from a deep respect for their Lord whose clothes had been taken by the rough Roman soldiers. But they were there, longing again to minister to him in his hour of great suffering.

Mary once again observed an opportunity to minister to him. At the foot of the cross stood Mary his mother, in agony watching the words of Simeon being finally fulfilled before her eyes: “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35). With disregard for all else and with loving compassion Mary Magdalene moves to the foot of the cross to be with her. She was there to minister comfort and love, just as the Lord had shown to her. There is not a mention of a word passing between them but she was there – a silent comforter to minister compassion and support. Are we as prompt to show such care and support to those in need? Or do we often let opportunities slip by because it just is not convenient, or we did not notice, as we were too preoccupied with our own affairs? We are all guilty of this. But Mary was very attentive to her Lord and his mother in this time of their greatest need.

She remained there: and as the evening drew on she would have identified with his thirst, heard his cry of anguish, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And then his final words, “It is finished”, as he bowed his head and laid down his life for the sins of the world. No doubt she would have felt the thrust of the spear as it pierced the side of the one she loved, her Lord. As Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus took his body and wrapped it in clean linen with myrrh and aloes, Mary and the other women watched (Matt 27:61). They “beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid” (Luke 23:55).

At times we can be too cold and calculating and miss the need for sympathetic love for others. The cold doctrinal fact was that Jesus was dead and “the dead know not anything” (Ecc 9:5). One could have said to Mary and the other women, “Sisters, he is dead. There is no point in ministering to a dead Jesus.” But “love never faileth”, and she loved her Lord to the end, as he had loved her. In the days following she and the other women bought spices to anoint their Lord. We can imagine their care in selecting the spices, the tender preparation of them and their discussion as they grieved and remembered all that their Lord had done for them.

Loving ministration is rewarded

Then came the monumental morning of the first day of the week!

The writer of Proverbs penned: “I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me” (Prov 8:17). How true this proved to be for Mary! She and the other women were up early and on their way to the sepulchre. Their spirit is summarised in these words from the Song of Solomon: “I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not” (Song 3:2).

What a shock it was for these women to find the stone removed from the sepulchre and the Lord’s body gone. It was Mary Magdalene who was first to report this to the disciples with these words: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him” (John 20:2). Peter and John were quickly on their way to the tomb. They saw that the Lord’s body was not there and departed again. Not Mary – she wanted to minister to her Lord!

We know the exciting events that follow so well. There were two angels in the sepulchre who said to her, “Woman, why weepest thou?” Let us pause here and think about this. These were angels in white (Mark 16:5). It is as if Mary did not stop to think who these people could be. She was so preoccupied with her mission – to minister to her Lord. She answered: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Here for the first time Mary identifies Jesus as her “Lord” and we see the deep personal attachment she had to him. Do we have that same loving attachment to him or is he to us just the Lord Jesus Christ as a doctrinal fact? Do we express our affection for our Lord and what he has done for us like Paul when he said, he “loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Mary Magdalene, when calling Jesus “my Lord”, reminds us of the bride in Psalm 45. There the bridegroom’s garments “smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia”, as did the Lord’s, and the bride is exhorted, “he is thy Lord; and worship thou him” (v8,11). Mary saw him as her “Lord”.

Following Mary’s comments to the angels she turns and sees the Lord, but supposes him to be the gardener. He says to her, “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” Mary was so overcome with grief that she answered: “Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). Her simple yet unrealistic answer is so beautiful – the practical impossibility of her being able to carry her dead Lord never entered her mind!

The “gardener’s” answer was all that she needed to hear – “Mary”. It is one of the beautiful things between very dear friends – the way they say each other’s name. There is that warmth of knowing that the one who has called your name is the one you love and the one who loves you. And here when the Lord spoke Mary’s name she immediately knew it was her “Lord”. She had first heard it when he had healed her from her fearful sickness, and then so often after as he showed his love and appreciation for her loving care as she ministered to him. Let us remember that our Lord knows us all by name. He will soon return and we will hear our name called. Will it be spoken in warmth and appreciation for our continual ministering to him according to our ability? Or will it be in sternness to pass judgment upon us because we did not lovingly minister?

Mary’s reply was simple yet so expressive of how she understood her Lord – “Rabboni” or Master. Is that how we see our Lord – as our Master and Teacher? Her joy and love is meaningfully demonstrated as she wanted to hold him – never to let him out of her sight again. But this was not the time to be “ever with her Lord”. So he instructed her, “Touch me not [‘Do not cling to me’ esv]; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (v 17). What warmth in this expression – “my brethren”! They had all forsaken him and fled three days earlier, but he still saw them as his brethren. There is comfort in this for us all.

“He appeared first to Mary Magdalene”

If we did not know to whom the Lord was first to appear after his resurrection we could well have thought it would be to John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, or Peter because he was to be a rock-like figure in the ecclesia. But we see it was to a faithful woman – one who showed her love and appreciation for her Lord and never forgot his ministration to her. She was a servant, ministering in whatever ways she could to her Lord. Herein lies the greatness of Mary the servant. “Ministering” is the same word as “serving”. She understood what her Lord meant when he said: “I am among you as he that serveth [or ‘ministereth’]” (Luke 22:27), for she had been ministered unto by him.

Would we have ministered unto the Lord as Mary did? We can and should. If we consider the parable of the sheep and goats, divided into two groups at the Judgment, we see that what made the difference between these two classes was their ministering (Matt 25:31–46). The faithful sheepclass, who had constantly seen the needs of others and ministered to them were told: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (v40). The rejected goat-class who were told to depart said: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?” (v44). They were too interested in their own matters to be observant of the needs of others. Opportunities to minister were missed, or possibly not even considered by them. Let this not happen to us when we appear before our Judge. If we fall into this class we will hear those fearful words: “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (v45).

Loving ministration will be rewarded by the one who came to minister and give his life a ransom for many. For Mary initially it was at the garden tomb with one word from her Lord, “Mary”, and she will no doubt again rejoice to hear his voice on his return. We will soon stand before the judgment seat of our Lord. May we hear our name spoken with love as Mary did, followed by the words, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matt 25:34–36).