In the Philippines where I am from, there is a tradition that takes place just before dawn on Easter Sunday. It is called the “salubong” or roughly translated as welcome encounter. It is a word used, for example, when a loved-ones come from overseas and you eagerly make your way to the airport in anticipation to be with them.
The salubong is a procession with three main characters: Jesus, Mary, and an angel. A statue of the glorious risen Christ is usually carried on a carroza (cart or float) by some people. A statue of Mary is carried the same way but starting from a different place. She is usually dressed in black and her face is covered under a black veil as a symbol of her mourning. The two statues come closer and closer together through winding streets and alleys until they meet, usually under a large arch. Above the arch is an angel that is always portrayed by a child in costume suspended above from a harness. The angel is lowered and removes the veil and black clothing of Mary to reveal her gleaming apparel and gold crown above her head. It is a symbolism that her grief has come to an end when she sees her resurrected son. (YouTube: Salubong) This tradition can be traced to its Mexican influence via the Galleon Trade as we can see the same procession taking place on Easter in many Latin American countries.
In Italy, it is celebrated in an extraordinary way through a race called Madonna che scappa in piazza (the Madonna who rushes in the town square). In this tradition, the statue of Christ is fixed at one end of a piazza, while on the other end of the piazza is a statue of Mary dressed in black and carried on a float on poles by several people. Her black dress is pulled away as the people carrying the float make a mad dash towards the risen Christ. The group with the fastest time wins. (YouTube: Madonna che scappa in piazza ) While it is fun to watch, it has a deeper meaning as it symbolizes how delighted Mary is to see her resurrected son that she runs in exhilaration.
These traditions would have no pious value if were they were not rooted in some belief; and the belief is that Jesus appeared to his mother on Easter Sunday. Although this meeting was not recorded in scripture, there is an old manuscript entitled Meditationes de Vita Christi (supposedly written by St. Bonaventure in 1478) that mentions the appearance of the Resurrected Christ to his mother. Theologians point out that the intention of the Gospels is to prove Jesus was Christ and that he resurrected from the dead. Including a personal appearance to his mother would not have strengthened that case because there were no witnesses, thus, we can imagine it was excluded. In his book The Liturgical Year, Dom Guarenger explains: “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.”
As mentioned by Dom Guarenger, St. Ambrose who lived in between 340 and 397 A.D. already believed Jesus appeared to his mother. Tracing this even backwards, the earliest Church Father to accept this was St. Ignatius of Antioch who lived from 35 to 110 A.D. – just one generation from Christ – who was friends with St. Peter and St. John the apostles. Other writers along the years continued to accept this and we find evidence of this in the naming of chapels, for example. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, there was a chapel dedicated to Jesus’ Apparition to his Mother. These were recorded by Daniel the Traveller (aka Daniel of Kiev), during his pilgrimage from 1106 to 1108. As another example, St. Mary’s Church, an Anglican Church in Fairford, Gloucester, UK, was built starting the 11th century and is known for its stained glass. One of them shows Christ appearing to his mother after the Resurrection.
These have scriptural basis too. Scholars like to point out that Christ was no longer in the tomb when Mary Magdalen went there during the first hours of Sunday. The nagging question is where did he go so early in the morning? Considering the situation, the scholars’ answer is that Christ appeared to his grieving mother to console her as soon as possible – at the break of dawn. “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?” - Dom Gueranger, the Liturgical Year, vol. 7, “Easter Sunday: Morning”
It also answers another nagging question: why didn’t the Blessed Mother go to the tomb that morning? She was with him in the Passion all the way to his death and entombment, but the important anointing for his burial was interrupted because it was Preparation Day for the Sabbath and they had to put him inside the tomb right away. The natural thing to do was to go to the tomb the next possible day – Sunday – to attend to the body. So why didn’t she go and attend to her son’s body? The peculiar thing is Scripture is oddly silent about the Virgin Mary’s whereabouts. She wasn’t with Mary Magdalene or the other women who went to the tomb. When Mary Magdalene told the apostles that she had seen the risen Christ as well as the empty tomb, they ran to the burial site eager to confirm if what she was saying was true. But the Blessed Mother was not with them, and that is particularly odd because it isn't like her to miss that.
The answer to all these questions, if we consider that Jesus had already visited her, is that she already knew he had risen so there was no need to further anoint a body that she already knew wasn’t in the tomb. Saint Pope John Paul tells us: “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?” (21 May 1997)
There is no absolute dogmatic teaching about Christ’s apparition to his mother after the Resurrection. In fact, we don’t need one because whether he did or he did not does not change any doctrine that was handed down to us. Precisely because of that there is no heresy if we believe or not that Christ appeared to his mother; so it is up to us to consider this meeting. I, for one, tend to agree with these theologians because I ask myself: how could Christ not appear to the mother he loves only to leave her grieving?