|Fra Angelico, Noli me tangere, 1440-1442|
The Church’s faith in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead hinges upon two items of evidence attested in the New Testament (and a third, about which I will say more presently). The first bit of evidence is the empty tomb. The second is the series of the appearances of the risen Christ to the disciples beginning on the first Easter Sunday.
These New Testament accounts are remarkably spare and restrained. Nowhere do they attempt to describe what happened inside the tomb when Jesus came back to life. They confine themselves simply to the eyewitness testimony of the women and disciples who were there that morning on the first day of the week, and in the days and weeks following: the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen One.
Neither bit of evidence signifies that much on its own. An empty tomb by itself could result from the body being stolen or hidden, as Mary Magdalene supposes in the Gospel we’ve just heard. And appearances of a dead person to the living were not all that uncommon in the ancient world – just as some would argue that they’re not that uncommon today either. Over the years, a number of people, both parishioners and friends, have told me about departed loved ones appearing and speaking with them in the days following death and burial. Ghosts, spirits, hallucinations, or over-active imaginations? You decide.
No, it’s the combination of the two, the empty tomb and the bodily resurrection appearances, that amounts to the strongest evidence that something utterly unique and unprecedented happened that first Easter Sunday morning. And the Gospel reading from John, traditionally appointed for the principal Mass of Easter Day, explicitly brings out both these elements in wonderful detail: the tomb is found empty; the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene.
Part of the beauty of John’s account is the way he describes the respective responses of three principal characters at the tomb: Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene. Before dawn, while it’s still dark, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb, finds the stone rolled away, and the interior empty. She runs to tell Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved. This other disciple, by the way, is generally believed to be John, the author of this Gospel, so this really does purport to be an eyewitness account.
Peter and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. John is probably younger and in better physical shape than Peter, so he gets there first, but he doesn’t go in – perhaps out of deference to Peter’s position of leadership among the disciples. When Peter arrives, they both go in. At this point, John’s description really does suggest eyewitness testimony: the linen cloths are lying there, and the linen napkin which had covered the Lord’s head is rolled up separately in a place by itself: not the sorts of details that are likely to be made up.
John does not explicitly tell us Peter’s reaction. But Peter seems to take it all in, not knowing what to think for the time being. By contrast, the Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Neither of them yet know the scriptural prophecies foretelling that the Son of God must die and rise again. But the Beloved Disciple—that is, John himself—has an almost mystical intuition that if Jesus isn’t here, he must be alive. Then, having seen all that there is to see, the two disciples return to their homes.
I’ll wager that some of us here today are more like Peter, while others are more like John. Some come to church, listen to the biblical stories, take them all in, and don’t know what to think. The jury is still out. Others have no difficulty hearing and believing. Notice that John doesn’t say that either response is better than the other. He simply notes them both and moves on with the story.
Mary Magdalene doesn’t return home, but remains outside the tomb, weeping. Unlike Peter and the Beloved Disciple, she thinks she knows exactly what’s happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And even when she encounters two angels inside the tomb who ask her why she’s weeping, she persists in this belief: “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When Jesus appears and asks why she’s weeping and whom she seeks, she doesn’t recognize him. Supposing that he’s the gardener, she pleads, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
It’s only when he addresses her by name, Mary, that the realization dawns on her. The penny drops. We can only imagine her joy as she exclaims, “Rabboni! Teacher!” Down through the centuries, commentators have spilled much ink on the meaning of the Lord’s mysterious words, “Do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father …” But at least part of their meaning is that the Jesus Mary Magdalene has been seeking is Jesus as he was, the Jesus who died, the corpse for whom she wanted to complete the rites of burial. He calls her to let go of all that. Instead of trying to hold on to the past, her mission now is to look to the future: to go and tell the disciples what she has seen and heard, and so bear witness to the Lord’s Resurrection.
And again, I’ll wager that Mary’s experience exemplifies the pattern for many of us. C. S. Lewis writes somewhere that “humanity’s search for God” – the topic of innumerable lectures, articles, and books – is a bit like the mouse’s search for the cat. That is, it gets things completely the wrong way round. We may search for God and God’s truth all we want, but ultimately the end of our quest comes not when we find God but when God finds us, calls us by name, and gives us some task or mission to fulfill during our earthly life. This was certainly my experience when I came to faith in Christ: not one of finding God, but of being found by him. It’s not a little unnerving, because one realizes that one isn’t nearly as much in control of one’s life as one thought.
And so the third bit of evidence upon which hinges the Church’s faith in the Resurrection – after the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen One – is the difference it makes in our own lives here and now. I believe in the Resurrection of Christ because I encounter the Risen Jesus here, in the life of his Church, in his Word and Sacraments, and not least, in the faces of his faithful people. The Church’s Easter proclamation is that Christ is alive. And if we seek him, he will find us.