The Gospel St. John 20.1
At that time; On the first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulcher, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulcher. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him. Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulcher. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulcher. And stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulcher, and he saw and believed. For as yet he knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.
The Gospel accounts of Our Lords Resurrection are similar in many ways. But St. John’s description of that fateful morning also differs in some respects. As with all things concerning Holy Scripture, I do not think that this is an accident; for if we examine the actions of the three people who are specifically mentioned here, we can see that we have been presented with a picture of how mankind would react to the Resurrection for the rest of history. And we are also reminded that these human reactions are opportunities for us to witness to the joy of Easter Day.
The first reaction we are presented with belongs, of course, to St. Mary Magdalene. Now St. John’s account differs here from the Synoptic Gospels in that the Magdalene is depicted as coming alone to the tomb; whereas the Synoptics describe her as being accompanied by at least one other woman (“In the end of the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the Sepulcher”) [Matthew 28:1]. It is also curious that John does not mention that Mary went into the Sepulcher, but rather that she simply saw the stone rolled away and proceeded to run straight back to St. Peter and the other disciples (“Then she runneth and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved”) [John 20:2].
Why the difference? Well, it would appear that St. John preferred to focus on a more important role for Mary Magdalene; which would be shown in the sequence immediately following today’s passage, where she would become the first person to whom the Risen Christ would appear.
But we can also safely assume that upon her arrival, Mary Magdalene must have at least peered into the tomb. After all, how could she have told Peter that the Lord’s body had gone missing, if she hadn’t at least taken a peek inside?
So Mary Magdalene looks, but does not go in. And rather than coming to the conclusion that Jesus has Risen from the Dead, she instead determines that someone must have stolen his body and taken it somewhere else.
Now this might seem remarkable, given what we know today. But it is also a very understandable human reaction in the wake of the traumatic events Mary Magdalene had witnessed during the prior three days. She had gotten so caught up in the catastrophic death of her Lord that she failed to remember His promise; that he would rise again. And so she came to the only, earthly, human conclusion; someone must have taken him.
How many of us, I wonder, do the same sort of thing? How often do we allow ourselves to be so caught up in our daily trials and tribulations that we forget about that which is truly important, truly remarkable, truly miraculous? How many of us, in the face of our troubles, fail to recall and reflect on the Glory of the Resurrection?
Next, we have the reaction of the Beloved Disciple, whom by tradition we have come to know as being St. John himself. Upon hearing from Mary Magdalene that the Lord’s body had gone missing, John jumps up and runs to the Sepulcher; outpacing Peter by some length. But upon reaching the entrance to the Tomb, he stops in his tracks. He hesitates, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of doubt. Peering in, he sees the linen wrappings lying there; but still he ventures no further. “And stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in“.
This too is a very human reaction; one that often reflects our attitude toward Church. We sometimes get excited about Church, but it is an excitement tinged with trepidation. And we are occasionally even willing to go inside the Church, to worship in the Church, perhaps even to briefly join our brothers and sisters in fellowship after leaving the Church.
But are we really willing to fully commit to the Church? Do we readily volunteer to provide our support for the Church; not just financially, but with our time and talents as well? When we are presented with an opportunity to take those steps necessary to grow the Church, do we hesitate, because we are afraid or in doubt? Are we like that Beloved Disciple, stopping and peering in, and waiting for someone else to venture ahead of us; thereby denying ourselves the opportunity to truly experience the full Glory of the Resurrection?
Finally we have St. Peter himself. Poor, simple, flawed St. Peter. We can always count on Peter to react in a very human way to most everything. It was Peter who seemed to ask most of the “dumb” questions about Our Lord’s teachings. It was Peter who denied Jesus three times. But it was also Peter who seemed to show the greatest Faith; “thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Perhaps because of this, Our Lord had a soft spot for Peter.
And so it was that when Mary Magdalene came first to Peter with the news of the Empty Tomb, he too jumps up and runs as fast as he can to the Sepulcher. But he is not as fast as that young whipper-snapper, so Peter comes to the place of burial only to find John standing outside, looking in. Undeterred, Peter rushes in, and sees for himself that the tomb is empty; “Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulcher, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself“. Only then does the Beloved Disciple dare enter himself. And, we are told, he saw and believed.
How many of us can say that we are like St. Peter? Sure, we can admit that we too are flawed. We might even admit to asking the occasional “dumb” question. And if pressed, we might even realize that we have been less than assertive in witnessing our Faith; perhaps even denying it on occasion, for fear of being made to feel uncomfortable.
But then, how often do we remember that soft spot Our Lord had for Peter? And when we do, do we remember why? Do we remember that great Faith of St. Peter (“thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God”) and do we share it? And perhaps more importantly, how many of us follow the example of St. Peter, to lead others into the Empty Tomb, so that they too may see and believe and experience the Glory of the Resurrection?
These then are the natural human reactions to the Resurrection of Our Lord; we may fail to daily remember and reflect upon it; we may become doubtful or even hesitant to truly believe in it; or we may go forward, boldly leading others to realize the Glory of this singular Miracle.
But it is worth remembering that each of the examples presented to us today were given by three very human people who ultimately became great in the eyes of the Church and of all mankind. St. Mary Magdalene, who brought the news of the Empty Tomb, and would be the first to witness the Risen Christ; St. John, the Beloved Disciple, to whom would be credited not only this Gospel, but also three Epistles in the New Testament, as well as the Book of Revelation; and St. Peter, whose life and leadership would gain him a special place among the Apostles as he worked for the spread of the Gospel until the time of his martyrdom.
They were all very human; all very flawed; all very much like us; and at the same time, they were all very much as we should aspire to be. And so, as we contemplate our own reaction to the Resurrection of Our Lord, let us undertake to emulate these three Saints.
Let us witness to the world that the stone has been rolled away from the Tomb. Let us approach the Empty Tomb with wonder and awe in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. Let us enter in without fear or trepidation, bringing others along with us so that they too may see and believe. Let us raise up our voices in joy and praise because even though we are a flawed and sinful people we know that all has been forgiven, death has been defeated, and our human condition has been overcome. Let us rejoice; and bask together in the Glory of the Resurrection of Christ!