But he rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalen. (Mark 9:16)
As we begin the month of our Lady, still early in the Easter season, it will be most profitable to consider whether the Blessed Virgin Mary was the first to be visited by the risen Lord. While it has never been a teaching of the Church that Jesus appeared first of all to his Mother – this fact has not been handed down to us either by Scripture or by Tradition, and hence is not an article of the faith – it has been held by a long-standing and well honored tradition, one which has been confirmed also by many private revelations.
We ask: Did Jesus appear first to his Mother after the Resurrection? And we presume that the answer to this question contains also the answer to another: Did Jesus ever appear to his Mother after the Resurrection? Indeed, if Christ did appear first of all to Mary, then the answer to our second question is in the affirmative. However, if the Lord did not appear to the Virgin Mary first of all, we might suppose that he never appeared to her – since, it would seem unfitting that she would receive her Son only after others. Certainly, a negative answer to the first question does not necessitate a negative answer to the second – it is possible that our Lord would have appeared to his Mother later. Still, if Jesus did not appear to his Mother first, then we might well question whether we should suppose that he appeared to her at all.
We enter now into a highly theoretical and speculative question. We do so with great humility and reverence for the mysteries we contemplate. The relationship between a mother and son is always a matter which an outsider must hand with extreme delicacy, and how much more is this the case when considering the Virgin Mother and her divine Son!
Authority in favor of a prior apparition to our Lady
The Gospels relate that our Lord appeared first of all to St. Mary Magdalene (cf. Mark 16:9), but there is a tradition among many saints and theologians that prior to this apparition, the good Jesus had appeared to his Mother Mary.
Many Catholic writers will point to St. Ambrose (d. 397) as the first authority who affirms this prior apparition to our Lady – indeed, it seems that none before the Bishop of Milan had explicitly affirmed this belief. However, in fact, it is not likely that St. Ambrose truly affirmed it either. The passage most often cited in favor of a prior apparition to our Lady (taken from De virginitate, 3) is not speaking of Mary the Mother of God, but of Mary Magdalene. This can be made clear by another passage from St. Ambrose in which he claims the Magdalene to be the first witness of the Resurrection: “The woman was the first to taste the food of death; she is destined to be the first witness to the Resurrection. By proclaiming this mystery, she will atone for her fault; therefore is it that she, who heretofore had announced sin to man, was sent by the Lord to announce the tidings of salvation to men, and to make known to them his grace” (De Spiritu Sancto, 12; found in Dom Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year on “Thursday in Easter Week: Mass,” pg 247 of volume 7). The woman who is “the first witness to the Resurrection” is she who “was sent by the Lord to announce the tidings of salvation to men,” i.e. St. Mary Magdalene whom the Lord sent to speak to his apostles (cf. Luke 26). Thus, it is not at all clear that St. Ambrose may be invoked as an authority in favor of the tradition of a prior apparition to our Lady. [we do not claim that the holy Bishop explicitly rejected the tradition, but only that it is not clear that he was even aware of any such tradition – and it is worth noting that, in his own defense of the tradition, Blessed John Paul II does not invoke St. Ambrose as a witness]
Thus, the first clear witness to the tradition of a prior apparition comes from the 5th century poet Sedulius, about whom very little is known. The tradition is hardly apostolic, and does not seem to have been held with any great clarity or zeal until the early medieval period. However, from the medieval period forward, the saints and theologians are nearly unanimous in affirming a prior apparition to our Lady. Dom Prosper Gueranger cites numerous liturgical prayers and hymns (especially of the East) which affirm the tradition. An impressive number of saints hold the tradition: Including Sts. Anselm, Albert the Great, Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and Blessed John Paul II. There is a nearly unanimous consensus among that faithful that Christ our Lord appeared first of all to his Mother and then to Mary Magdalene. But this wide acceptance does not seem to be much more ancient than St. Anselm (d. 1109).
It seems that, once the tradition of a prior apparition to the Mother of God was proposed to the faithful, it was completely and universally accepted (or nearly so). While it is true that the tradition was not widely known or held in the early Church (or, at least, it does not seem that it was widely held); once the question was considered, nearly every member of the Church (from the popes to the lay faithful) thought it to be obvious that our Lord would have appeared first of all to Mary his Mother.
We may conclude with the words of Blessed John Paul II, delivered on 21 May 1997: “From this silence [i.e. from the fact that the Gospels do not relate an apparition to the Blessed Virgin], one must not deduce that Christ, after his Resurrection, did not appear to Mary. […] On the contrary, it is legitimate to think that the Mother may really have been the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared.” Still, the venerable pontiff has only stated that the tradition of an earlier apparition is possible, not that it must be believed by the faithful.
Authority against a prior apparition to our Lady
The strongest authority against an apparition to the Mother of God prior to that given St. Mary Magdalene is drawn from Scripture, He appeared first to Mary Magdelen (Mark 16:9). The most obvious reading of this passage would be that the Magdalene was the first person to see the risen Lord – which would mean that there was no prior apparition given to the Mother of God. However, some scholars (including the great Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide) assert that the word first indicates not an absolute priority, but only a relative priority. The context of the passage is: But he rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalen, out of whom he had cast seven devils. She went and told them that had been with him, who were mourning and weeping (Mark 16:9-10). It is possible that the sense of the Greek is that first Jesus appeared to the Magdalene, then she went and told the apostles; or that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene first, i.e. before appearing to the apostles, but not before visiting his Mother. [this is, however, certainly not the most obvious reading of the text]
St. Thomas Aquinas (who writes not merely with his own authority but also as a witness to the entire preceding tradition) very clearly does not think that there was any prior apparition to the Mother of God. Citing Mark 16:9, the Angelic Doctor claims that the first to see the risen Jesus was St. Mary Magdalene (cf. ST III, q.55, a.2, sed contra). Moreover, the earliest tradition of the Church presumes that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Christ after his Resurrection: “A woman was the beginner of transgression. A woman first tasted death, but in Magdalene woman first saw the resurrection” (Venerable Bede, d. 375; cited by Cornelius a’ Lapide on Mark 16:9). Likewise, the Easter sequence Victimae paschale laudes speaks not to the Mother, but to the Magdalene.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also seems to indicate that St. Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Christ: “Mary Magdalene and the holy women […] were the first to encounter the Risen One” (CCC 641).
Theological arguments in favor of a prior apparition to our Lady
Here we present the compelling argument of Dom Gueranger (which is similar or identical with that of nearly all the saints and theologians, including Blessed John Paul II):
“Meanwhile, our Risen Jesus has been seen by no mortal eye; He has sped to His most Holy Mother. He is the Son of God; He is the vanquisher of Death; but He is, likewise, the Son of Mary. She stood near him to the last, uniting the sacrifice of her mother's heart with that He made upon the Cross: it is just, therefore, that she should be the first to partake of the joy of His Resurrection.
“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.
“And why was it that our Saviour rose from the Tomb so early on the Day He had fixed for His Resurrection? It was, because His filial love was impatient to satisfy the vehement longings of his dearest and most afflicted Mother. Such is the teaching of many pious and learned Writers; and who that knows aught of Jesus and Mary could refuse to accept it?” (from The Liturgical Year, vol. 7, “Easter Sunday: Morning”)
Blessed John Paul II adds, “The unique and special nature of the presence of the Virgin at Calvary and her perfect union with the Son in his suffering on the Cross, seem to postulate a very particular participation on her part in the mystery of the Resurrection. [The Mother of God] was probably also a privileged witness to the Resurrection of Christ, in this way completing her participation in all the essential moments of the paschal mystery. Embracing the risen Jesus, Mary is, in addition, a sign and anticipation of humanity, which hopes to reach its fulfillment in the resurrection of the dead.” (audience 21 May 1997)
Indeed, when we consider that Christ did not immediately appear to the Magdalene, but that he left her to weep for some time outside the tomb, one might reasonably ask: Where was the Lord during this time? The answer could well be, He was with his Mother.
Likewise, it seems difficult to account for the fact that the Virgin Mary was not with the other women when they came to the tomb that Easter morning. Perhaps she did not join them because there had already been a prior apparition. “Could not the absence of Mary from the group of women who approached the tomb at dawn constitute an indication that she had already met Jesus?” (John Paul II, 21 May 1997)
Ultimately, the intimate union between Mother and Son would incline us to think that our Lord would appear first of all to the Blessed Virgin. What else would a good son do, except visit and console his mother?
Theological arguments against a prior apparition to our Lady
The principle theological argument against a prior apparition to the Blessed Virgin is that Mary had no need of such a visit. The Mother of God had a firm and unshakable faith in the Resurrection, and this faith did not waver on that first Holy Saturday. Mary already knew and believed that her Son would rise, she had no need to see – Blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed (John 20:29).
This would explain why the Mother was not present at the tomb: She already knew that he had risen. She did not know by sight, but by her unshakable faith. Of course Mary would not accompany the other women, she knew already that the body would no longer be there!
Finally, considering whether it would be unfitting for Jesus to neglect to visit his Mother, we must answer that Mary did not have any need of such consolation. Although she was truly filled with grief, this sorrow need not indicate that she lacked faith in Christ’s Resurrection – indeed, the Lord himself was filled with sorrow, though he knew he would rise. Even if Christ did not visit Mary, we must admit that the two were most intimately united by grace – just as the Ascension of our Lord into heaven does not imply a separation, neither would Jesus’ physical separation from his Mother imply any neglect or division. The love which binds these two Hearts constitutes a far greater union than that which is produced by mere physical sight.
A sensitive matter
What, then, is our conclusion? First, we must assert that either opinion is possible: A Catholic is free to hold either that Jesus did appear to his Mother first after the Resurrection or that he did not do so. Second, it would be extremely rash for any to claim (as many Protestants do) that the general tradition of the saints and theologians in favor of a prior apparition to the Mother of God is contrary to the Scriptures or that it is a mere product of human fancy. The near unanimity with which the tradition was accepted (once proposed) lends extremely strong support to the claim. Indeed, spiritual people have generally accepted the tradition – this has to count for as much as any theological argument.
For my part – though, theologically and scripturally, I am inclined to think that Jesus did not appear first to his Mother – the overwhelming belief of the saints from at least the time of St. Anselm forward is enough to at least give me great pause. One thing is certain: The Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed a most particular and exalted participation in the Resurrection of her divine Son.
A few resources in favor of a prior apparition to the Mother of God
The audience address of Bl. John Paul II.
An article discussing the tradition, with many helpful links.
An article from Lay Witness Magazine.
[many thanks to “I am not Sparticus” for both beginning this discussion and providing links to the various resources]