St. John’s Gospel twice (John 20:30 and John 21:35) mentions that Jesus “did” many other signs for the disciples after the Resurrection that are not found in Scripture. In fact, the Evangelist says that if all that Jesus did were written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Each Gospel has a different twist about the Resurrection appearances, and St. Paul also has a partial list in 1 Corinthians 15: 4-9. St. Mark says that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:19-20). St. Matthew says that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” after they first encounter an angel. He then skips ahead to Galilee where Christ commissions the apostles (Matthew 28).
St. Luke has an angel speak to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, but then Jesus Himself appears to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. They hasten back to the Eleven Apostles who are told that the Lord already appeared to St. Peter and who are in the process of recounting their story when Jesus appears to everyone there (Luke 24:33-53).
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St. John’s Gospel has more appearances than the others, beginning with Mary Magdalene, then the apostles minus St. Thomas, then a week later with St. Thomas, later an encounter with five of the apostles and “two others of his disciples” who are fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). St. Paul leaves out the women entirely. He mentions the appearances to St. Peter, to the “twelve” (which is curious because Judas Iscariot has died), to more than 500 persons at the same time, and then to St. James.
The kaleidoscopic quality of this reporting by the evangelists and St. Paul is a bit confusing, and there are various reconstructions of chronology that scholars have put forward. Was Mary Magdalene alone, as St. Mark and St. John imply? Why isn’t there a description of the first encounter of St. Peter with the Resurrected Jesus? How did the evangelists skip mentioning an event where 500 disciples saw Christ? This is all very puzzling and leaves us with questions.
Like, what about the Blessed Virgin Mary? She is not included in any of the texts about the appearances of the Lord after the Resurrection. Why is that?
Tradition has insisted that the mother of Jesus had her own private experience of her Resurrected Son. Six doctors of the Church were sure of it. St. Vincent Ferrer, the great Dominican preacher, assured the faithful that a man who was presumed dead but had survived shipwreck would not visit his friends before telling his mother he was alive. This saint’s conclusion was that the perfect Son of the perfect mother had to tell her first. This was echoed by St. Bridget of Sweden and famously by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the Spiritual Exercises.
St. John Paul II had a special insight about this supposed appearance of Christ to His Mother after the Resurrection. He noted that she was not in the party of women who went to the tomb supposedly to anoint Christ’s body with the spices and ointments they had prepared on Good Friday.
Where was Mary? Why didn’t she accompany the other women to the tomb? The pope-saint made the pious deduction that the Virgin did not go with them because she knew Christ had risen from the dead. How did she know this?
St. John Paul holds with the judgment of the other saints that Jesus had already appeared to Mary. Like St. Vincent Ferrer, he could not imagine the Lord neglecting the mother whose “fiat” had been crucial in the history of salvation and who had thus become the first Christian. I say that she was the first Christian because she was the first to believe in the Son of God, the Christ, who became flesh within her own womb. That is why Elizabeth praises her as “Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45).
This intuition of the appearance of Christ to His Mother is not a question of dogma. It is an example of the imaginative deduction by which saints have illumined our tradition. It is possible that someone could say, “I have no need of thinking of such a thing. I’ll stick with only what is written.”
No one is compelled to believe otherwise. However, the appropriateness of the meditation on this extra-biblical, private experience of Mary intuited by the holy company of the saints and its consonance with an Incarnational perspective that treasures the humanity of Christ in all its imagined consequences can be a source of “keen joy” as St. Ignatius said, “because of the great glory of Christ our Lord.”
Besides that, says the great saint and founder of the Jesuits, reflection on this can help us see the “ministry of consolation that Christ Our Lord undertakes” and enable us “to compare it with how friends console one another.
In the second prelude of the Ignatian meditation on this encounter of Jesus and Mary, the saint asks us to see the mise-en-scène, the details of the place where Mary lives and where we can picture her. I think that besides the physical circumstances—St. Ignatius talks about rooms where Mary lives and prays—there is an emotional setting.
That setting for me includes the human memory of Jesus about an incident in His ministry. He had met a widow mourning her only son outside a city gate. He had been moved with pity seeing her painful tears and told her not to weep. He gave the son back to the mother. What happened outside of Nain was the preparation of His meeting with His own mother. Again, Jesus gave a mother her son back. Again, I am sure, He told her not to weep.
[Image: “Christ Appearing to His Mother” by Juan de Flandes]