Did The Risen Lord Visit His Mother?


By Timothy Matkin

Most people would assume that the Sunday gospel readings in Eastertide would just take each of the resurrection appearances one-by-one in sequence. In fact, that’s just what we see in Easter week. Each of the gospel accounts is read chronologically during the octave. But the Sundays are different, though it starts out chronologically.

On Easter Sunday, we hear about what happened that resurrection morning. On the following Sunday, we hear about what happened the following Sunday when Jesus appeared to “doubting” Thomas. The gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter (Year C) concludes, “This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” The other two readings on that Sunday tell us about encounters with the risen Lord in the visions of Paul on the road to Damascus and John in his revelation in exile on Patmos. But this is the last time we will read about an appearance of the risen Lord until we commemorate his ascension into heaven.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter? Nothing about resurrection; it’s all about the Good Shepherd. After that, we get gospel readings from the long discourse of Jesus in the upper room on Maundy Thursday. But then, of course, we don’t necessarily get an account of every appearance of the risen Lord anyway. In fact, St Paul basically tells us as much.

In 1 Corinthians 15, that wonderful chapter on the resurrection, he begins: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor 15:3-8).

Notice that the list includes some appearances not in the gospels. Notice the reference to James, presumably the one who is described as the “brother of the Lord,” mentioned separately from his appearance to the Twelve. The gospels don’t tell us about this personal appearance of the risen Lord to a member of his extended family.

On the other side, notice how one appearance of the risen Lord from the gospels is missing from Paul’s list. In each of the accounts of Easter morning, the gospels tell us he appeared to Mary Magdalene, and told her to go report the event to the apostles. But she is nowhere to be found on Paul’s list.

So now that we’re satisfied that the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are not exhaustive, let’s consider a question: What about Our Lady? Did the risen Lord visit his Mother?

We have to begin by saying that we do not (and cannot) know the answer for the simple reason that the scriptures do not tell us. They are silent. If that meeting did occur, it was a private moment, another part of the hidden life of Christ. It was for family, not for the rest of us.

And since Paul does tell us he especially appeared to James, it’s hard to believe that he did not also appear to the blessed Mother of the Lord. When we close our eyes and picture in our mind the Pieta, with Mary embracing the body of her dead Son, taken down from the cross after his cruel execution, it’s hard to imagine that same Son not delivering the blessed news of his resurrection to her personally.

In reflecting on this question in the early middle ages, Christians of the Eastern tradition—Byzantine, Coptic, and Oriental—gradually came to the same conclusion that it must have happened. In fact, they further concluded that the blessed Mother must have been the first to see her crucified Lord risen from the dead. St Ambrose is the first to mention the tradition in the West.

Some might object that the gospel mentions that Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Lord at the tomb that morning, with the statement in Mk 16:9 that Jesus “first appeared to Mary Magdalene.” However, this “first” does not have to be absolute. The context would suggest that Mark was setting up a contrast. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first, before he appeared the apostles. And he had her share the news with them as a test of faith before he authenticated her testimony with his presence.

It also begs the question, Where was the blessed Mother that Easter morn? She is among the women hastily preparing Jesus for burial that Friday, but not among them when they go to the tomb early that Sunday morning to finish the task. Why?

Pious Christians answered, because she knew she would not find him there. In fact, most artistic depictions of this encounter make it a kind of parallel to the Annunciation scene. Christ comes to visit and embrace Mary in her home. When the Angel Gabriel had visited her, he said, “Hail, full of grace.” The mediaeval window at Fairford depicting our scene has a scroll recording Christ’s words, “Salve, Sancta parens” – “Hail, holy mother” 

In his master work The Liturgical Year, Dom Gueranger wrote: 

“The Gospel does not relate the apparition thus made by Jesus to his Mother, whereas all the others are fully described. It is not difficult to assign the reason. The other apparitions were intended as proofs of the Resurrection; this to Mary was dictated by the tender love borne to her by her Son. Both nature and grace required that His first visit should be to such a Mother, and Christian hearts dwell with delight on the meditation of the mystery. There was no need of its being mentioned in the Gospel; the Tradition of the Holy Fathers, beginning with St. Ambrose, bears sufficient testimony to it; and even had they been silent, our hearts would have told it us.”

It is a reminder that the risen Lord visits his family—to comfort, to sustain, to strengthen, and simply to abide in communion. That’s why he visited his Mother; that’s why he visited James; that’s why he visited his adopted brother John in exile on Patmos. That’s why he welcomed a new member into the family named Saul. In a sense, the risen Lord visits all those whom he welcomes into his family.

Fr. Timothy Matkin is Rector of St. Francis, Dallas, in the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas.

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