April 26, 2015

The Theotokos as the First to See the Risen Christ

By John Sanidopoulos

The Gospels and the tradition of the Church are pretty clear that two women first saw the risen Lord. We know one was Mary Magdalene who is exclusively spoken of in the Gospel of John, and the other we know was another Mary, but the identity of this Mary initially is not told. The tradition of the Fathers is clear that this Mary was the mother of Jesus, the Theotokos.

One way we know this is from the iconographic tradition of the Church, where two women are depicted together as being first witnesses of the risen Jesus. The woman in red (or sometimes blue), the traditional cloak color for the Theotokos, is the Virgin Mary, who is also sometimes depicted with her name engraved near her halo. This depiction goes back centuries, the earliest of which that we know of comes from a miniature of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection in the Rabbula Codex (Syria and Palestine, dated 586-587 A.D.). The first scene shows two women at the tomb and the second scene shows them at the feet of Christ. One of the women has a halo, which indicates that she is the Virgin Mary, just as she is depicted in the Crucifixion scene. These scenes became the standard iconography for the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers during the Paschal season, and even flourished in the Middle Ages of the West as well.

We also have indication that the Theotokos was the first witness to the resurrection of Christ from several sources in the apocryphal literature of the early Church. Though most of these writings are rejected as heretical or non-canonical, they still indicate a belief that was circulated among the early Christians.

Origen (3rd cent.) speaks of a text named Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, and indicates that the following tradition existed already in the second century:

She [the Virgin Mary] opened her eyes, for they were lowered in order not to view the earth, the scene of so many dreadful events. She said to Him with joy, 'Rabboni, my Lord, my God, my Son, thou art resurrected, indeed resurrected.' She wished to hold Him in order to kiss Him upon the mouth. But He prevented her and pleaded with her, saying, 'My mother, do not touch me. Wait a little, for this is the garment which My Father has given me when He resurrected me. It is not possible for anything of flesh to touch me until I go into heaven.
This body is however the one in which I passed nine months in thy loins ... Know these things, O my mother. This flesh is that which I received in thee. This is that which has reposed in my tomb. This is also that which is resurrected today, that which now stands before thee. Fix your eyes upon my hands and upon my feet. O Mary, my mother, know that it is I, whom thou hast nourished. Doubt not, O my mother, that I am thy son. It is I who left thee in the care of John at the moment when I was raised on the Cross.
Now therefore, O my mother, hasten to tell my brothers, and say to them... According to the words which I have told to you, go into Galilee: You shall see me. Hasten, for it is not possible for me to go into heaven with my Father, no longer to see you more.'

A more known work, the Book of the Resurrection of Christ supposedly by Bartholomew the Apostle, known to Saint Jerome, and probably from the fourth century or late third century, contains a detailed account of Mary's search for the body of Jesus, and Jesus' subsequent appearance to her:

And the Savior appeared and in their presence mounted on the chariot of the Father of the Universe, and He cried out in the language of His Godhead, saying, 'Mari Khar Marih' whereof the interpretation is, 'Mary, the mother of the Son of God.' Then Mary, who knew the interpretation of the words said, 'Hramboune Kathiathaari Mirth'; whereof the interpretation is, 'The Son of the Almighty, and the Master, and Son.' And He said unto her, 'Hail, My mother. Hail, My ark. Hail, thou who has sustained the life of the whole world'....Then our Saviour stretched out His right hand, which was full of blessing, and He blessed the womb of Mary His mother... The womb of Mary is blessed by God the Father and by the Holy Spirit as well...

These apocryphal texts indicate the love and reverence for the Virgin Mary by the early writers. Their romanced accounts attempt to put into words Christ's own gratitude to His mother Mary. There is another body of literature, however, that deals with this theme from the perspective of speculative theology. These are the catechetical and homiletic sources of the early centuries.

Rabbula Codex

Tatian was the first writer in the second century to indicate that the Theotokos saw the risen Lord on the day of His Resurrection. However, he seems to have confused the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene in his account of the episode of the "Noli me tangere" or "Do Not Touch Me" (the title given to iconography of Christ's encounter with Mary Magdalene). More significantly he also raised the point what was to become the fundamental thesis of all the most orthodox writers touching the subject - that a meeting at which Christ announced His resurrection to His mother was no less than a logical necessity in the completion of His ministry.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 315- ca. 386) wrote a Discourse on Mary Theotokos in which the Virgin is made to speak the following to the Apostles James, Peter, and John, ten years after the Resurrection:

Ye saw the sufferings which the Jews inflicted upon Him when He was raised up on the Cross, and that they put Him to death, and that His Father raised Him up from the dead on the third day. And I went to the tomb, and He appeared unto me, and He spake unto me, saying, 'Go and inform My brethren what things ye have seen. Let those whom My Father hath loved come to Galilee.'

Among the Greek-speaking Fathers, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa identify the Virgin Mary as one of the women in the post-resurrection scene. In the West, St. Ambrose (4th cent.) notes that the Virgin Mary deserved to see Christ after his Resurrection. Ambrose's discussion is particularly interesting in that he relates the symbolism of Christ's unused tomb to that of the Virgin womb; so he remarks that Christ's rising from the dead repeats the Virgin Birth. Sedulius the Poet (5th cent.) takes up this theme and expands on the imagery of the womb and the tomb.

In the East, the theme begins to be more prominent in the ninth century. The earliest known source is found in a homily of George, Metropolitan of Nicomedia, on the Presence of the Virgin at the Sepulcher. As Breckenridge writes:

George of Nicomedia avoided the pitfalls of scriptural inconcordance by suggesting that the Virgin can be assumed to have been present at the sepulcher on Easter morning before the other women arrived; he intimated that the reason she was not mentioned is that the texts speak only of the women who came to the tomb; while she was already there. In other words, Christ's mother, the only one of his followers to have had perfect confidence in his ultimate triumph, remained at his tomb from the time of its sealing until that of the arrival of the other women on Easter morning. George described the long vigil by the silent tomb, and finally the prayer of Mary to her Son, in which she expressed complete faith in his glorification, requesting only that he vouchsafe her a glimpse of him when he did arise from the dead: "When you have come, and the joy of Resurrection is accomplished, first of all, appear to announce this to your Mother." And so, although, as George readily acknowledged, the Scriptures say nothing of it... George proceeded to describe it, not at all in terms of the sort of encounter between two people given by the gospels in the case of Mary Magdalene or the other women, but as a mighty vision of glory, worthy only of an apocalypse... His solution is essentially the one employed by several later Byzantine writers such as Metaphrastes, Theophanes Krameus, and Gregory Palamas.

Saint Gregory Palamas, in his Sermon on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women, addresses the issue directly and offers an apologetic for the case that the Theotokos indeed appeared first at the tomb of Christ. Below is a detailed account given in the book by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos in his book Gregory Palamas As A Hagiorite:

In the homily of St. Gregory Palamas for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women, analyzing the holy texts of the Scriptures with many reasonings, he ends by concluding that the Theotokos saw the Risen Christ and indeed saw Him before the other women, and she alone was granted to clasp His feet. But let us look more analytically at this teaching.
The Myrrhbearing Women followed Christ 'with the Mother of the Lord' and remained with her and made ready to anoint the Body of Christ with spices. According to Mark the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary sat in front of the tomb and watched the burial of Christ. The phrase 'the other Mary' meant 'the Mother of God herself in any case'. The Panagia was also called Mary the mother of James and Joses, who were children of Joseph her betrothed, by another woman.
According to St. Gregory Palamas, the Panagia was the first to come to the tomb with Mary Magdalene. 'First of all the Theotokos came to the tomb of the Son of God...'. The other Mary 'was the Mother of God in any case.' All the other myrrhbearing women went to the tomb after the earthquake and the flight of the guards, and therefore they found the tomb opened and the stone rolled away. However, 'the Virgin Mother was present when the earthquake took place, and when the stone was rolled away and the tomb opened, and the guards were present.' The guards fled after the earthquake, 'but the Mother of God was elated at the sight.' 
At the same time St. Gregory Palamas teaches that that life-bearing tomb was opened for the Theotokos and it was also for her that the angel of the Lord flashed like lightning because it is for the Theotokos and through the Theotokos that all good things were opened. According to St. Gregory, this angel was the archangel Gabriel, the one who at the Annunciation said to her: 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God' (Lk. 1:30). As soon as he saw her hastening to the tomb, he too hastened to announce to her the resurrection of her Son. 
The women fleeing from the tomb were seized with fear and great joy. According to St Gregory Palamas, fear was in the other women and Mary Magdalene, while the word 'joy' is said about the Mother of God 'because she understood the words of the angel and surrendered completely to the light, being completely purified and divinely favored, and with all these things she knew the truth and believed in the archangel since he had for a long time appeared credible to her because of his deeds.' The Panagia was favored, she had been made pure and had attained deification; she had also seen the archangel Gabriel and been assured at that time of the credibility of his word, and therefore also now she was granted this great experience.
With the information about the resurrection of Christ which was given by the archangel Gabriel, the Panagia, 'joined by the other women,' went back to where she had been. Then Christ appeared and said 'Rejoice'. The Evangelist says: 'They came to Him, clasped His feet, and worshipped Him' (Matt. 28:9). St. Gregory Palamas says that just as the Theotokos alone of all the women understood the meaning of the angel's words, so also she was the first of the women 'both to see and to know the Risen One, and she was the first to fall down and clasp His feet and become His apostle to the Apostles.'
Mary Magdalene was not with the Mother of Christ when the Lord met her. This is seen first from the fact that when Mary Magdalene had just met the Apostle Peter she said to him: 'They have taken my Lord away, and I don't know where they have put him;' second from the fact that she was weeping, because she thought that they had taken Christ, she did not recognise Christ, and Christ did not let her come near Him. So therefore the ever-virgin Mary was the first to come to the tomb and she first received the message of the resurrection. Then came the other myrrhbearers as well.
St. Gregory Palamas uses all these things to interpret the related accounts of the Evangelists. But he adds that the Panagia was the first to see the resurrected Christ, was counted worthy of divine conversation, became an ear-witness of his, touched Him with her hands, 'as was right and just.' Actually, this is right and just. For, on the one hand, we cannot believe that all the other women went to the tomb but not His Mother, nor that Christ gave the joy of His appearance to all the others first and not to His Mother. Therefore it was both 'right' and 'just' that His first appearance was to be to the Panagia.
But the point is why did the Evangelists not speak clearly, but wrote it in a shadowy way. And at this point St. Gregory indicates that the Evangelists did not refer to it openly, 'not wanting to offer the Mother as witness, lest they give unbelievers reason for suspicion.' There was a possibility that the unbelievers, as soon as they heard that the Mother of Christ saw Him first, might doubt the resurrection. St. Gregory says that now that is not the case, because this is being said to the faithful.

In light of these facts, well does Saint Jerome comment to Helvidius in his work The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, saying:

What a poor and impious view we take of Mary [the Theotokos], if we hold that when other women were concerned about the burial of Jesus, she, His mother, was absent; or if we invent some kind of a second Mary; and all the more because the Gospel of Saint John testifies that she was there present, when the Lord upon the Cross commended her, as His mother and now widow, to the care of John.


1. James D. Breckenridge, "Et Prima Vidit: The Iconography of the Appearance of Christ to His Mother," Art Bulletin, 39 (1957).

2. http://www.vic.com/~tscon/pelagia/htm/b1.en.saint_gregory_palamas_as_a_hagiorite.09.htm#s13d.

3. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/eastertriduum.html#item2.

4. St. Gregory Palamas as an Hagiorite by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.