by Br Julian McDonald cfc
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So, she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him.” John 20, 1-9
The accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, not surprisingly, differ from one Gospel to the next. After all, all stories depend on the narrator’s perspective to whatever he or she is describing. However, one element that is common to all the Gospel accounts of the resurrection is the inability, or even the reluctance, of the earliest witnesses to accept the reality which confronted them.
Today’s gospel-reading (I suggest you read all the way up to verse 27) gives us an insight into John’s skill as a storyteller at its very best. He tells us that, when Mary Magdalene discovered the tomb empty, she just assumed that someone had taken Jesus’ body away. Perhaps she even thought it was the “gardener” whom she later failed to recognise (John 20, 14-15). After Peter had run to the empty tomb and inspected the cloths that had been neatly folded, we are told that he went back home. – no fuss, no excitement, no hint of expectation!
The clear implication from the way John tells the story is that all the followers of Jesus (except one) viewed their leader’s death from the same perspective as they viewed every other mortal’s death. Jesus the man was executed, and his lifeless body was placed in a tomb. Jesus was dead and gone, and it was now up to them to pick up the pieces and get on with their lives to the best of their ability. Those who were left behind were all practical women and men, firmly grounded in the reality of this world. From that perspective, they were unable to recognise an earth-shattering revelation of God that had taken place in their midst.
Let’s, for a moment, take another look at the succession of events and what those events imply. When Mary Magdalene alerted them to what she had discovered, Peter and John (presumably followed by the other disciples) ran to the empty tomb, saw the situation for themselves, and apparently came to no conclusions – “The disciples then went home again”, concluding, perhaps, that grave-robbers had been at work. Even Mary Magdalene, after lingering at the tomb weeping, and engaging in conversation with two angels, still concluded that some unknown person had carried away Jesus’ corpse. Then Thomas, the ultimate sceptic, insisting on clear, empirical evidence, would accept no rumours until he had touched the wounds left by the nails of crucifixion. Then, when the risen Jesus did appear on the lakeside shore, he looked like any other man who had built a fire on the edge of a lake. In painting these scenes, John attributed to all those first witnesses human expectations that fitted the way in which Jesus was known to them – as a highly admired and dearly loved, yet very mortal, man. And if there was anything to confirm Jesus’ mortality, it was his brutal death by crucifixion. All this, of course, underlined the authenticity of the incarnation – that Jesus was as human as we are, in every way except sin.
Underpinning John’s Gospel are the dual foundational assertions that the God whom Jesus Christ named as Father was both creative and loving, a God who loved us all into life. That is one message that the very first disciples of Jesus absorbed and embraced. Moreover, it is a message from which all four Gospel writers did not deviate.
The interactions between Jesus and those with whom he engaged are described by the Gospel writers in ways that confirm Jesus’ humanity. He encountered the halt, the lame and the sick, believers and sceptics, soldiers and their leaders, tax-collectors and prostitutes, scribes and Pharisees, representatives of all the social ranks of his day. Some of those encounters were fraught with human friction and tension, many were friendly and full of compassion and understanding.
Those closest to Jesus had seen him in all his humanity. They had also seen him as a persuasive teacher and preacher, a faith-healer and a wonder-worker. They had witnessed death during their lives, and they saw him executed on a cross. They saw him buried in the same manner of other dead people. In their grief at the loss of someone dear to them, they were not sitting around eagerly awaiting his resurrection. The news of his missing body brought by Mary Magdalen and their own experience at the empty tomb left them utterly confused. Understandably they were not expecting his resurrection, and it took time and a succession of encounters before the truth dawned on them.
It took thirty years for Jesus himself to discover that God was inviting him to be the Messiah, the Christ of God. He came to realise that his own integrity demanded that he challenge the religious leaders of his day. Moreover, he discovered that such challenge would eventually lead to his death. But Jesus was also a Jew of his day. He worshipped in the temple with everyone around him. He was not conscious of being the “Second Person of the Blessed Trinity”. That was a theological proposition reached centuries after his time by very intelligent theologians. There were times when Peter recognised Jesus as God’s Messiah and was courageous enough to say so. But his subsequent behaviour demonstrated that it took a lifetime for his words to become a conviction he embraced.
While we ponder the confusion, doubt and uncertainty of the earliest women and men disciples as they tried to come to terms with the resurrection of Jesus, let’s not forget that there have been and will continue to be times in our lives when we have questions and doubts about the central tenet of our Christian faith: “God raised Jesus from death”. And that God’s promise is that we too will be raised from our graves. What exactly that might mean calls for another reflection at another time. But not today!
When we work our way through all the events that led up to the death of Jesus and the confusion and doubt in those whose lives were turned upside down when God raised him from the grave, the ultimate message is that the compassion, generosity, selflessness, mercy and justice that Jesus lived and proclaimed are truly vindicated. The resurrection does not deny the reality of suffering, illness, violence, pain, loss and death. It really reminds us that things like bigotry, prejudice, hatred, injustice and death are really prerequisites for resurrection. The resurrection holds out to us, and to those to whom we reach out in times of loss and devastation, a message of hope that goodness will ultimately triumph. The resurrection of Jesus gives us reason to be agents of resurrection for those who are suffering loss, grief and disaster. If resurrection is something to which we give only notional assent, there can be no sense in getting out and fighting for justice, truth and integrity. It calls for action.