The Easter story tells of Jesus’ followers going to his tomb after his crucifixion, only to find it empty. This event is central to the Christian faith, pointing to Jesus’ resurrection. But one key figure is conspicuously absent from the accounts – Jesus’ own mother, Mary.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: According to both biblical and extra-biblical sources, there is no record of Mary going to the tomb. Possible reasons include wanting to spare herself further grief, being too old and weak for the journey, or that the male disciples wished to spare her pain by not informing her right away.
In this comprehensive article, we will analyze all the evidence in depth to try and solve the mystery of why Mary did not go to her son’s tomb.
The Biblical Accounts of Jesus’ Burial and Resurrection
Jesus’ Death and Burial
According to the Gospel accounts, after Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, Joseph of Arimathea received permission from Pontius Pilate to bury his body. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin but had not consented to the council’s actions against Jesus.
He and Nicodemus hastily prepared Jesus’ body and laid it in Joseph’s own unused tomb that evening, with the intention of properly preparing the body after the Sabbath. The women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons, carefully observed where he was buried.
After his death, Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen cloths with spices, which was the Jewish burial custom at the time. His tomb was sealed with a large stone, and Roman guards were posted to ensure no one disturbed the body, as the chief priests and Pharisees remembered Jesus’ prediction that he would rise again after three days.
The Women Go to the Tomb
According to Mark 16:1-8, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices early Sunday morning to further anoint Jesus’ body after the Sabbath had ended. On the way, they wondered who would roll away the large sealed stone for them.
But when they arrived, they found the stone already rolled away and the tomb empty except for a young man dressed in white who told them not to be alarmed because Jesus had risen from the dead. He instructed them to tell the disciples that Jesus would meet them in Galilee.
The other Gospel accounts provide additional but differing details. Matthew 28:1 states only Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb. Luke 24:10 says the group included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and there were two men in dazzling clothes who appeared to them.
According to John 20:1, Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb initially. When she saw the stone removed, she ran to tell Peter and “the other disciple, the one Jesus loved” about it.
Mary Magdalene Encounters the Risen Jesus
In both John 20:11-18 and Mark 16:9-11, after Peter and John had investigated the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene had lingered behind weeping. Then as she looked into the tomb, she astonishingly saw two angels who asked her why she was crying.
When she turned around, she encountered Jesus himself, though she initially thought he was the gardener. At first she did not recognize him, but when he spoke her name, she realized it was Jesus. He instructed her not to cling to him because he had not yet ascended.
Then he told her to go tell the disciples that he was alive and would be ascending to the Father.
Mary Magdalene was the first to witness Jesus alive after his resurrection and went to tell the disciples the amazing news. John’s account specifically notes that the risen Jesus did not appear to his mother Mary.
This may indicate that, despite Jesus ensuring John would take care of her (John 19:25-27), she was not included among those who followed him during his ministry nor immediately informed of his resurrection.
The Absence of Any Mention of Mary the Mother of Jesus
In the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, his mother Mary is notably absent from the scenes at his tomb. She is not mentioned as being present when his body is placed in the tomb on Friday afternoon after his crucifixion.
Nor is she stated to have gone to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning when it was discovered empty. Her absence raises some interesting questions.
Mary’s Devotion to Her Son
As the mother of Jesus, Mary had demonstrated strong devotion to him throughout his life. She had great faith in the special role he would play, as foretold to her by angels before his birth (Luke 1:26-38).
She loyally supported him despite not always understanding his actions or mission (John 2:1-12). Even as he was dying on the cross, she remained close, agonizing at the foot of the instrument of his suffering (John 19:25-27).
This background makes her absence from his burial and resurrection morning quite puzzling.
Possible Explanations for Her Absence
Why didn’t this grieving and believing mother go to her son’s tomb as soon as permitted? Several possibilities may account for it:
- She was utterly devastated by Jesus’ horrible death and needed time to process her grief. The grief may have been so intense she lacked any strength to go to the tomb itself.
- Being part of a traditional Jewish family, she may have adhered to cultural mourning customs forbidding a mother from tending to her son’s dead body.
- Threats of violence from Jesus’ enemies may have kept her away for safety reasons. She would have felt vulnerable without her son to protect her.
- She respected the work already underway to bury Jesus, such as Joseph of Arimathea tending to Jesus’ body (Mark 15:43-46) and did not wish to interfere or intrude.
Any one or a combination of these factors could feasibly explain why Mary refrained from going to her son’s tomb, both for his burial and afterwards.
Her Interactions After the Resurrection
While absent from the empty tomb, Mary the mother of Jesus is reported to have had profound interactions with her risen son afterward:
- Mary was among the women who saw the resurrected Jesus on the morning he rose and worshipped him (Matthew 28:9).
- She was present with the disciples in the upper room when the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
- The risen Jesus most likely appeared to her sometime during the 40 days between his resurrection and ascension, though not specifically documented.
So even if Mary did not actually visit the vacant tomb itself, she still recognized and encountered the resurrected Lord in a personal way. This no doubt brought her comfort and joy as she realized death could not conquer her son.
|At the Cross
|At the Tomb
|After the Resurrection
|Present the whole time (John 19:25-27)
|No recorded visits
|Present with disciples (Acts 1:14); worshipped Jesus when he appeared (Matthew 28:9)
Theories on Why Mary Did Not Go to the Tomb
Wanting to Avoid Further Grief
After witnessing the crucifixion of her son Jesus, Mary was likely overwhelmed with grief. According to the gospel accounts, she stood near the cross as Jesus suffered (John 19:25-27). This traumatic event may have been too much for Mary to bear.
Going to the tomb could have triggered more anguish, so Mary could have chosen to avoid further pain by not going there herself.
Seeing the empty tomb could also have created more confusion and distress for Mary. At that time, she would not have known that Jesus would resurrect. Thinking her son’s body had been taken would have added further insult to injury. Not visiting the site spared her additional misery.
Advanced Age and Infirmity
Some scholars estimate that Mary was around 50 years old at the time of the crucifixion. The average life expectancy for women then was likely 30-40 years old (source). So at her age, Mary could have been frail and unable to make the journey to the tomb.
The crucifixion happened just outside the city walls. But depending on where Mary stayed afterwards, getting to the burial site could still have required an arduous trek potentially beyond her physical ability at that time.
The Disciples Wished to Spare Her Extra Pain
Since Mary had already experienced intense trauma and grief, the disciples and followers of Christ who visited the empty tomb could have decided not to tell her right away. Not wanting to cause her more distress, they might have kept the news from her initially.
John’s gospel specifically recounts Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, seeing it empty, and running to tell Peter and another disciple (John 20:1-2). But there is no mention of anyone immediately informing Mary the mother of Jesus.
Presumably, Mary found out later along with other followers after Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the disciples traveling to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).
The Special Connection Between Mary Magdalene and Jesus
Mary Magdalene had a unique and close relationship with Jesus Christ that set her apart from his other followers. Though not mentioned prominently in all four gospels, several key details indicate that she occupied a special place among Jesus’ inner circle.
Mary Magdalene Provided for Jesus’ Ministry
In Luke 8:1-3, Mary Magdalene is listed first among several women who provided for Jesus and his disciples “out of their resources.” This suggests that Mary was likely a woman of means who generously supported Jesus’ ministry, perhaps more than any other follower.
Her prominence in this list indicates her vital role in facilitating his work.
Mary Witnessed Key Events in Jesus’ Ministry
All four gospels record that Mary Magdalene was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). This shows she likely followed him closely throughout his ministry. She also witnessed his burial (Matt 27:61, Mark 15:47) and resurrection, being one of the first to discover his empty tomb (John 20:1).
Her consistent presence shows her unwavering devotion.
Mary was Healed by Jesus
Luke 8:2 notes that Jesus had cast seven demons out of Mary Magdalene, freeing her from spiritual bondage. This life-changing deliverance understandably would have sparked profound gratitude and loyalty towards Jesus. Her healing drew her into his inner circle.
Jesus Appeared to Mary after His Resurrection
John 20:11-18 records that Jesus purposefully revealed himself to Mary Magdalene first after rising from the dead, even before appearing to his male disciples. She was then commissioned to announce his resurrection. This shows the deep trust and love Jesus had for her.
While Mary Magdalene’s exact relationship to Jesus is not fully defined, these glimpses strongly suggest she had a closer bond to him than nearly any other follower, likely seeing and knowing him in ways no else did.
Her faithfulness was clearly rewarded by Christ’s affection, trust and desire to reveal himself to her intimately.
Lessons We Can Learn from Mary’s Absence
Sometimes Avoiding More Pain is Understandable
According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene and other women went to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning expecting to anoint his body (Mark 16:1). Finding the tomb empty must have come as another shock for Mary, who had already endured severe trauma witnessing Jesus’ death by crucifixion.
In the intensity of her shock and grief, it is understandable that she did not initially go into the tomb to investigate further. Psychologists note that avoidance behaviors are common responses for those faced with traumatic circumstances, as a self-protective mechanism against more pain.
The Resurrection Still Brings Hope Despite Our Grief
Though Mary did not go into the tomb herself, the other women saw evidence that Jesus had risen (Mark 16:4-5). Despite her deep pain, the story had an ultimately hopeful outcome. This offers comfort for us too – no matter how devastated we may feel at times in grief, the promise of resurrection reminds us that hope lies ahead.
As one pastor noted regarding the war in Ukraine, “The empty tomb declares that our grief will not have the final word. God’s healing love will.”
The Easter Story Continues Beyond the Empty Tomb
Seeing the empty tomb was not the end of the story for Mary. When she eventually encountered the risen Christ himself in the garden outside the tomb (John 20:14-17), her sadness turned to joy. The resurrection was made real for her through a personal connection.
Likewise, the Easter story extends beyond historical events to offer us each hope of renewed relationship with God. As expressed by the 19th century hymn “I Serve a Risen Savior”: “You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart. “
The biblical accounts of Easter morning focus on the male disciples and women like Mary Magdalene rather than Mary the mother of Jesus. We don’t know for certain why she did not go to the tomb, but several reasonable explanations present themselves.
While her absence is puzzling, the broader Easter message remains one of hope and redemption for all Jesus’ followers, including his grieving mother. Just as Jesus’ story continued beyond the empty tomb to meet Mary Magdalene in the garden, so too does it continue for all those who put their faith in Him.