Sunday 31st March 2013 – Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday Year C Lectio divina on Jn 20,1-9

The gospel passage relates the story of the beginning of our Christian faith. It describes how some frightened disciples of Jesus became Christian believers on Easter day. John’s version of what happened at dawn on the day of resurrection differs somewhat from the accounts in the synoptics. John’s intentions are different and so are the people he focuses on. He gives more attention to Mary Magdalene and the disciple Jesus loved. Faith in the Risen Lord is not a privilege given to the one who runs faster, but to the one who loves more. The mystery is not known simply through our human faculties, but by being involved in it. It is not the first to see who is first to understand, but the one who is first to believe. And the first to believe is the one who knows he is loved. Love is at the origin of faith, not the love of the believer but that of the Risen Jesus in whom he believes. Belief is difficult only for one who does not feel loved. It is easy to conclude that one who is no longer seen is dead, but it goes contrary to the evidence to believe that the Lover is still alive. Today as in the past, the believer must know that he or she is loved in order to go on believing.

1 On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went towards the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed 9 for as yet they did not know the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

I. READ: understand what the text says, focussing on how it says it

While the synoptics insist on the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus (Mk 16,6; Mt 28,6-7; Lk 24,5-6.34) John prefers to give an account of the personal meetings that took place with the Risen Lord in Jerusalem, on that first day of the week (Jn 20,1.19). Chapter 20 is divided into two scenes: the first at the tomb, at dawn (Jn 20,1-18), when the disappearance of the body is recorded (Jn 20,2.13.15); and the second in the evening in a particular house (Jn 20,19-29), when the Risen Lord appears (Jn 20,18.25.29). The risen Jesus dominates the entire account. He is mentioned no fewer than fourteen times.

Our passage describes the first episode (Jn 20,1-9) of the scene around the empty tomb (20,1-18). It was still dark and Mary and Peter remained in the dark in relation to the discovery of the tomb which was open and empty. The account is factual but, more importantly, it describes a journey of faith. Seeing is a necessary first step to believing (Jn 20,8) but seeing alone does not necessarily lead to faith (Jn 20,1.7). Finding an empty tomb and the discarded shroud is not sufficient to make one believe that the crucified one has risen.

The empty tomb discovered at dawn reflects the darkness in the heart of Mary, one of the women who had been present at the death of Jesus (Jn 21,1; 19,25). Nothing is said about why Mary came to the tomb (cp Mk 16,1; Lk 24,1: the women came with ointment to anoint the body; Mt 28,1: they went to see the tomb). Mary Magdalene (Jn 20,16.18), the first to witness the triumph of Jesus over death, is not yet a believer. She thinks, logically enough, that someone has stolen the body, and she runs, again very logically, to tell Peter and the other disciple. There is a double theological reason for this reaction of Mary. On the one hand, seeing the empty tomb does not in itself lead to faith in the resurrection (Jn 20,10). On the other hand, the fact that the first one to go to the tomb found it open, disproves any deliberate theft of the body, even without saying it (cf. Mt 27,64; 28,11-15).

After this first fruitless visit, the gospel tells of the haste with which the two disciples competed to get to the tomb first (Jn 20,3-4). Peter is mentioned first and is the first to enter the tomb. He sees only the cloths and the napkin (Jn 20,6-7). The unnamed disciple (Jn 19,25-26), who was the first to see the tomb (Jn 20,4), is also the first to see the linen cloths (Jn 20,5; 19,40) and, most importantly, he is the first to believe (Jn 20,8). Those who entered the tomb confirmed the absence of Jesus. Those who had lived with him and been present during his passion (Jn 18,15-16), can confirm only the disappearance of the body. Here it is the disciples and not some women (as in Lk 24,24), who are the witnesses of his death (Jn 20,5-6).

But one of them, the one who reached the tomb first but did not enter (Jn 20,8), the one who was distinguished by the love Jesus had for him, (Jn 20,2), saw and believed. He saw what Peter had seen, an empty tomb and some cloths neatly arranged, but he believed that the Absent One had conquered death. Contrary to the synoptic tradition, in the fourth gospel the disciple who first believed is the one who felt himself most loved. Love contains a peculiar and profound form of recognition. Only the disciple who knows he is loved is capable of seeing without proof, or better, capable of believing that his beloved Saviour is alive, simply from contemplating his shroud. The beatitude that concludes the fourth gospel can be applied to the beloved disciple, since he began to believe without having to see first (Jn 20,8.29).

An editorial note directed to the readers concludes the account. It expresses an ancient Christian conviction. Scripture alone did not lead them to faith in the resurrection, even though it had been foretold. The understanding of Scripture does not precede but follows the paschal experience (Jn 20,9. Cf. Lk 24,25-27.44-45). Peter and Mary went home knowing that Jesus was not in the tomb (Jn 20,10) and not knowing where the body was. They still did not know that he was alive. They were witnesses only of his disappearance. To believe that he is alive, one must know that one is loved by him.

II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life

There is something in this account that describes the situation in which we, the Christians of today, are living. Like the disciples on that first day, we continue to think of Jesus as being dead, and fail to understand why we cannot find the body. We have become so accustomed to the absence of God in our lives, that we can think only of open tombs with nobody to tell us where the body is. We are so convinced of the absence of God in the world that instead of witnessing to the fact that he is alive, we are like gravediggers, or guards keeping custody of corpses we cannot see. Like those first three disciples, we keep on searching for the Lord among the dead, when in fact he is risen and will live forever. The gospel is not just a factual account of what happened. It reports the state of uncertainty and confusion that the disciples experienced that first day of the week. Seeing the empty tomb and the discarded cloths does not lead to faith. In the space of three days, they had lost Jesus. They had seen him die on the cross. And now they have lost his body, raised to life by God. Mary and Peter discovered that he was not there where they expected to find his dead body. They did not even suspect divine intervention. The testimony of Scripture was insufficient on its own to make them realize the significance of what had happened. However, the disciple who felt loved was able to believe just by seeing. In this subtle manner, the evangelist suggests love as the condition for belief in the resurrection of Jesus. It is interesting to note the different experiences that brought the three disciples to the same faith. At the empty tomb no two of them had the same reaction. Each of them reacted in his or her own way and began his or her unique journey of faith – a journey they had to make on their own, although they did have the support of the other two. It is clear however that the evangelist gives preference to the way of love, as the quicker and surer way. While the others see only traces of death, the one who is loved is able to recognise that the one he loves is alive, and can sense his presence, even in an empty tomb where only the folded cloths remain. Even if we are as mystified as those first disciples, all is not lost. We too, like them, can search among the open tombs for traces of the God of life. We should have the courage to proclaim the presence of God, even if all we can see is his absence. The first disciples to believe that Jesus was alive did not fully realize what had happened. They believed, but they were not very convinced. It is easier for us. We can reflect on how they came to believe, and this should help us on the journey to our meeting with the Risen Christ. One more celebration of the resurrection of Jesus will make little difference if he remains absent from our lives or, worse still, if we do not believe that he is alive in our midst!

When Mary went to the tomb, it was still night. The little she was able to see served only to bring further darkness into her life. Mary Magdalene was the first to discover that the stone which closed the tomb had been moved, and she ran to tell the disciples. It was a spontaneous reaction. She did not stop to ask herself what it could mean. Neither did she enter the tomb. She reached an immediate conclusion – they have taken away the body. Even though she was the first witness of the triumph of Jesus over death, she still did not believe in the resurrection. It was still dark around her, and there was darkness also in her heart. Mary thought the body had been stolen and she ran to tell Peter and the beloved disciple. Mary was not the only one taken by surprise. No one had any idea where the body might be.

After this first visit, the gospel tells of the race between the two disciples to be the first to reach the tomb. When they arrived, they went in and saw that the body of Jesus had indeed disappeared, but they had no idea what had happened. It is interesting how they came to believe in Jesus. One of them, the unnamed disciple, is presented in a better light than Peter. He is the first to arrive at the tomb, first to see the cloths and first to believe. Neither he nor Peter could possibly have expected what they were to find, yet only one of them came away from the tomb believing in what he had not seen. Of the three who went to the tomb that morning, only one became a believer.

Mary went back to the community to tell the apostles. If it had not been for her, Peter would not have run to the tomb, and the other disciple would not have believed on seeing it empty. Even though she had not believed herself, she helped the others to believe, and that was no bad service! It is consoling for those of us who find it hard to believe that Jesus is really alive. We need believers like Mary, who do not leave the community just because they do not believe everything all at once. We need people who will stay with us and speak to us about the absence of God in our lives. Not being able to believe that Jesus is alive, is not a good enough reason to leave the community. Mary did not know what was happening, but she confided her fears to the disciples, and in doing so prepared the way for them to believe. It is revealing that God made use of a frightened, disbelieving woman to lead the beloved disciple to faith.

Of the three of them, Peter was the one who came out worst. He was neither the first to reach the tomb, nor the first to believe. The other disciple was always the winner! But Peter ran nonetheless with the other disciple, and went into the tomb to look for Jesus. He did not just sit at home. He was concerned at what might have happened to his Lord. Without knowing exactly how, the disciple Jesus loved was the first to come to believe that he was alive, even though he had seen only the signs of his death. Three went to the tomb. Only one believed. Three went in search of a dead man. Only one of them came to believe that he was alive. What is the secret of faith?

The first to believe was the one who knew he was loved. Christian faith is not an effort to see what nobody else can see, or to proclaim what nobody else can understand. Faith in Christ is born out of the gratitude of one who knows he is loved by Christ. The disciple who believes best is always the one who feels most loved. The first to believe in the Risen Christ was the one who loved most. Love implies a particular, profound form of gratitude. Only the one who loves is capable of seeing without proof, or better, of believing that his beloved Saviour is alive, when all he sees is the discarded burial cloths. In order to believe, today as then, it is not necessary to see. It is enough to know that we are loved. Love is the faith that sees where others perceive only emptiness. Love is the faith that proclaims the existence of the beloved, even if we cannot see or touch him, but simply because we are grateful to him. Anyone who knows he is loved, feels the presence of the one who loves. He recognises that presence because, even if he cannot see, he cannot deny his feelings.

There is a way of believing, then, the surest and most praiseworthy, based not on what can be seen, but on what one experiences. It is not born out of what one expects, but out of what one has. It does not need to touch in order to believe, because the believer knows he has been touched. This is the faith of one who is certain that Christ is alive because he cannot doubt, and does not want to doubt, the love that he has for Christ. It is faith that needs no proof of the existence of the One who loves, because he experiences that love in his own life. Such was the faith of the first believer who, when he saw the empty tomb, believed, not in the disappearance of dead bodies, but in the new life of the One he loved.

We need this faith that comes from knowing that we are loved, to convince the world that we are not just talking about the empty tomb of God. We need believers who know they are loved by one they can no longer see, but whom they still feel. The evangelist notes that, at that moment, Scripture did not help them to believe in the resurrection, even though it had been foretold in Scripture. It is not with the eyes of the mind that we know we are loved, but with the eyes of the heart. When we know we are loved, we know that the one who loves us is alive. Everything else, the tomb and the cloths, the scriptures and the testimony of the apostles, makes sense in the light of the experience of being loved. The eyes and the mind can say what they like, and so can the world and our own experience, but if in our hearts we know we are loved, we will not be able to deny that the one who loves us is alive.

If, indeed, faith consists in knowing that we are loved, why is it so hard for us to believe in a God who loves us infinitely, and in Christ who loved us even unto death? And if faith in God means feeling that we are loved by him, why do we continue to be people of so little faith?