Sunday, April 12, 2020 • Easter Sunday
Liturgical Color: White
First reading: Acts 10:34a, 37–43
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 118:1–2, 16–17, 22–23
Second reading: Colossians 3:1–4
Gospel: John 20:1–9
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of Christian faith. John 20 depicts the movement of different individuals toward faith in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection in four carefully constructed scenes [the women’s discovery that Jesus is not in the tomb, and the subsequent arrival of Peter to confirm it; the resurrected Jesus encounters Mary Magdalene in the cemetery garden after Peter and the others leave; the gathering of the Apostles back at their home, when Jesus appears to them and imparts to them the power to forgive sins on his behalf; Jesus’ second appearance to the Apostles at home a week later]. John uses different verbs of seeing to describe peoples’ movement to faith in the risen Jesus. Various individuals may see the empty tomb, the graveclothes, and even the angels in the tomb, and yet not fully believe in his resurrection. Only a personal encounter with the risen Jesus can bring about Easter faith. When people arrive at this belief, they declare, “I have seen the Lord” (see John 20:18, 25, 29), and this statement, understood most of the time as an experience born of faith, is still [today] the foundation of Christian witness. The personal encounter with the risen Lord that leads to faith can come through a [direct] resurrection appearance (as it did for Mary Magdalene and the first disciples) or through the testimony of those disciples, handed on in the Gospel and through the Church (20:29–31). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
The Apostle/Evangelist John is extremely selective and exacting when speaking of who was at the tomb first, what they saw and what they thought. From the other Gospels, we know that there were several women who went together to the tomb in the morning twilight. John speaks only of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, “while it was still dark,” after Peter and John have gone. This is how he focuses us on what is important: not on the multitudes who followed Jesus, not on the miracles, but on a certain individual who was profoundly affected by her love for God, and through Him, for Jesus, His divine Son. Again, not on the various happenings in the cemetery, the comings and goings of people, the political scenario, but on particular post-interment details of a particular tomb, which he personally inspected as an eyewitness. Clearly, Mary does not yet know the real story.
It is my observation that John uses this same focused approach everywhere: a concentration on what is essential, through the faith and love of particular individuals and particular facts and details, never speaking in generalities. He is “zoomed in” on the truth in order to convey it unimpeded. Not every commentator is able to reproduce John’s insight. For instance:
Mary Magdalene was one of the women who provided for our Lord during his journeys (Luke 8:1–3); along with the Virgin Mary she bravely stayed with him right up to his final moments (John 19:25), and she saw where his body was laid (Luke 23:55). Now, after the obligatory sabbath rest, she goes to visit the tomb. The Gospel points out that she went “early, when it was still dark”: her love and veneration led her to go without delay, to be with our Lord’s body. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
This is a devout summary, and a good one, but it does not have the impact of the Gospel text itself, because the author is a scholar, not a mystic like John. Nevertheless, we do not say that the scholar’s viewpoint is worthless. It is different, derived, whereas John’s viewpoint is immediate, burning into the scene like a laser. But both have something of value to say.
John, who reached the tomb first (perhaps because he was the younger), did not go in, out of deference to Peter. This is an indication that Peter was already regarded as leader of the Apostles. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
I don’t know why so many people miss this clear indication that John is deferring to Peter for a reason. It is not because he is the younger of the two, or that Peter is the teacher and he the disciple. No, it is because Jesus chose Peter to be the leader of the Twelve, and thus of the Church. It is a detail of the faith that the true Master, Jesus, gave to the entire company of Apostles.
Having first seen the graveclothes from the tomb’s entrance, the Beloved Disciple went in after Peter, and he saw and believed. The nature of the Beloved Disciple’s faith is open to different interpretations. Some scholars think that his is a full-fledged faith in the resurrection, which he arrives at without seeing the risen Jesus. However, there are good reasons to think that the Beloved Disciple has only an initial faith at this point, perhaps simply believing that God has in some way acted here. The form of the Greek verb “believed” can mean “began to believe.” Moreover, as we shall see, John seems to articulate the disciples’ full Easter faith with verbs in the perfect tense (John 20:18, 25, 29). Finally, John follows up this description of the Beloved Disciple’s faith with a statement about the disciples’ ignorance regarding the resurrection (20:9). (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
Now let us enter the tomb with John and look around.
John’s description of the graveclothes suggests several important things about what happened to Jesus. The first, the presence of the burial cloths in the tomb refutes the speculation that Jesus’ body had been stolen, because grave robbers would not have unwrapped the corpse before stealing it. Second, the graveclothes point toward something unprecedented happening to Jesus through a contrast with the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus “came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth” (John 11:44), and Jesus then gave the order to unwrap him. But Jesus, who is not in the tomb, is not bound by the graveclothes or face cloth nor in need of anyone to untie him. Something radically different has happened to Jesus. Whereas Lazarus was resuscitated to mortal life and would die again, Jesus’ resurrection is not resuscitation but God’s raising and transforming him to an immortal, glorified mode of existence. As St. Paul writes, “Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him” (Romans 6:9). Third, the fact that the head covering was rolled up in a separate place suggests conscious, deliberate action. As Moloney points out, many verbs pertaining to what happened in the tomb, such as the stone being “removed” (John 20:1) and the face cloth being “rolled up” (20:7), are in the passive voice, which points to God as the agent. Jesus’ tomb is empty because God has directly acted here. (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture)
The author of the Navarre Bible Commentary of this passage goes considerably farther, affirming that John’s description presents the reader with the impression that, at the moment of resurrection, Jesus’ body simply abandoned the cloths and bandages, which then deflated in place. They were not loose, as if somebody had unwound the cloths. And the headcovering remained intact and was placed to one side, apparently with care.
Like Mary Magdalene, the Apostles were left scratching their heads over this inexplicable occurrence. They accepted the evidence, but even after Jesus had told them on numerous occasions during his lifetime that he would “rise again,” they couldn’t quite put two and two together. The truth was still mind-boggling, and Jesus would have to continue his instruction for another forty days and send the Holy Spirit upon them before they begin to comprehend what the Resurrection is really about.
O Christ, risen on high, we must rise with you. You have gone away out of sight, and we must follow you. You are gone to the Father; we, too, must take care that our new life “is hid with you in God”.… It is then the duty and the privilege of all your disciples, O Lord, to be exalted and transfigured with you; to live in heaven in our thoughts, motives, aims, desires, likings, prayers, praises, intercessions, even while we are in the flesh.… Teach us to “set our affection on things above”; and to prove that we are yours, in that our heart is risen with you, and our life hid in yours. (Divine Intimacy, Rev. Ed., vol. 2, Easter Sunday; cf. J.H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 6, Sermon 19)