One option for Easter Sunday morning’s Mass is from the Gospel of John (20:1-8). (I have written before on the Matthean Gospel option (here)). Like most of the resurrection accounts, John’s version paints a portrait of a journey that some of the early disciples have to make: out of fear and into faith. It shows the need to experience the resurrection and then come to understand it more deeply. While the Gospel account begins with Mary Magdalene, the focus quickly shifts to St. John; let’s study his journey.
I. Reaction Mode – The text begins by describing everyone as being in reaction mode, quite literally running about in a panic! 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 put him.”
The text describes the opening moments as “still dark.” John is likely trying to do more than tell us the time of day. The deeper point is that there is still a darkness that envelops everyone’s mind. The darkness makes it difficult for us to see; our fears and sorrows can blind us.
Mary Magdalene sees direct evidence of the resurrection but presumes the worst: that grave robbers have snatched the Lord’s body! It doesn’t even occur to her to remember that Jesus had said that He would rise on the third day and that this was that very third day. She goes immediately into reaction mode instead of reflection mode. Her mind jumps to the worst conclusion; by reacting and failing to reflect, she looks right at the blessing and sees a curse.
We also tend to do this. We look at our life and see only the burdens instead of the blessings.
- I clutch my blanket and growl when the alarm goes off instead of thinking, “Thank you, Lord, that I can hear; there are many who are deaf. Thank you that I have the strength to rise; there are many who do not.”
- Even though the first hour of the day may be hectic: socks are lost, toast is burned, tempers are short, and the children are loud; we ought to be thinking, “Thank you, Lord, for my family; there are many who are lonely.”
- We can even be thankful for the taxes we pay because it means we’re employed, for the clothes that fit a little too snugly because it means we have enough to eat, for the heating bill because it means we are warm, for the weariness and aching muscles at the end of the day because it means we have been productive.
Every day millions of things go right and only a handful go wrong. What will we focus on? Will we look right at the signs of our blessings and call them burdens or will we thank the Lord? Do we live lives that are reactive and negative or do we live reflectively, remembering that the Lord says that even our burdens are gifts in strange packages? And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Do we know this, or are we like the disciples on that early morning when it was still dark, looking right at the blessings but drawing only negative conclusions, reacting and failing to reflect?
II. Recovery mode – The text goes on to describe a certain subtle move from reaction to reflection. So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
Mary Magdalene’s anxiety is contagious. She comes running to the disciples, all out of breath, and says that “they” (whoever “they” are) have taken the Lord (she speaks of Him as a corpse) and “we” (she and the other women who were with her) don’t know where they put Him (again, she speaks of Him as an inanimate corpse). Mary’s panic triggers that same reaction in the disciples. Now they’re all running! The mad dash to the tomb has begun.
Notice, though, that they are hurrying so that they can verify the grave robbery, not the resurrection. Like Mary, they didn’t take the time to reflect and perhaps remember that the Lord had said He would rise on the third day and that this was the third day. Instead, they also panic, rushing forth to try to confirm their worst fears.
But note a subtlety: John runs faster than Peter. Some scholars say it indicates merely that John was the younger man. I would argue, however, that it signals hope. The Holy Spirit, speaking through John, is not likely interested in passing things like youth. Some of the Fathers of the Church see a greater truth at work in the love and mystical tradition that John symbolizes. He was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the disciple who knew and experienced that love of God. Love often sees what knowledge and authority can only appreciate and later affirm. Love gets there first.
There is a different verse in Scripture that I believe explains John’s strength (manifested in his speed):
But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Is 40:31).
Perhaps John runs faster because he begins to move from reaction to reflection and remembrance. When you run quickly it’s hard to talk, so you tend to recede alone into your thoughts. There is something about love that enlightens, that recalls what the beloved has said. Perhaps John begins to think, to reflect and consider these things:
- Didn’t Jesus say He’d rise three days later and isn’t this that day?
- Didn’t the Lord deliver Daniel?
- Didn’t He deliver Noah from the flood?
- Didn’t He deliver Joseph from the hands of his brothers and from the deep dungeon?
- Didn’t He deliver Moses and the people from Egypt?
- Didn’t He deliver David from Goliath and Saul?
- Didn’t He deliver Jonah from the whale?
- Didn’t He deliver Queen Esther and the people from wicked men?
- Didn’t He deliver Susanna from her false accusers?
- Didn’t He deliver Judith from Holofernes?
- Didn’t Jesus raise the dead?
- Didn’t God promise to deliver the just from all their trials?
- As for me, I know that my redeemer liveth!
Something started to happen inside John. I have it on the best of authority that he began to sing this song in his heart as he ran:
“I don’t feel no ways tired. Come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy but I don’t believe he brought me this far to leave me.”
Yes, John is in recovery now. He has moved from reaction to reflection. He is starting to regain his faith.
The text says that John looked in and saw the burial cloths, but waited for Peter. Mystics and lovers may get there first, but the Church has a Magisterium that must be respected, too.
III. Reassessment mode – In life we must often reassess our initial reactions as further evidence comes in. Peter and John must take a fresh look at the evidence from their own perspective. The text says, When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths [lying] there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Mary Magdalene’s assessment was that grave robbers must have struck, but the evidence for that seems weak. Grave robbers typically sought the fine linens in which the dead were buried. Yet here are the linens while the body is gone. If they were going to take the body, why not also take the valuable grave linens? The Greek text describes the clothes as κείμενα (keimena)—lying stretched out in place, in order. It is almost as if the clothes simply “deflated” in place when the body they covered disappeared. Finally, the most expensive cloth of all, the σουδάριον (soudarion), lies folded (rolled up, in some translations) in a separate place. Grave robbers would not leave the most valuable things behind. And surely, even if for some strange reason they wanted the body rather than the linens, they would not have bothered to carefully unwrap and fold things, leaving them all stretched out in an orderly way. Robbers work quickly; they snatch things and leave disarray in their wake.
Life is like this: you can’t simply accept the first interpretation of things. Every reporter knows that “in the fog of war” the first reports are often wrong. We have to be careful not to jump to conclusions just because someone else is worried about something. Sometimes we need to take a fresh look at the evidence and interpret it as people of faith and hope, as men and women who know that although God may test us He will not forsake us.
John is now looking at the same evidence that Mary Magdalene did, but his faith and hope give him a different vision. His capacity to move beyond fearful reaction to faithful reflection is changing the picture.
We know little of the reaction of Peter or Mary Magdalene at this point; the focus is on John. And the focus is on you. What do you see in life? Do you see grave robbers, or are you willing to reconsider and move from knee-jerk fear to reflective faith?
Does your resurrection faith make you ready to reassess the bad news you receive and look for blessings, even in crosses?
IV. Resurrection Mode – Somewhat cryptically, the text now focuses on the reaction and mindset of St. John. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
On one level the text says that St. John saw and believed. Does this mean merely that he now believed Mary Magdalene’s story that the body was gone? As is almost always the case with John’s Gospel, there is both a plain meaning and a deeper one. The text says that he ἐπίστευσεν (episteusen); he “believed.” The verb here is in the aorist tense, a tense that generally portrays a situation as simple or undivided, that is, as having a perfective (completed) aspect. In other words, something has come to fruition in him.
Yet the text also seems to qualify, saying, they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead. It is as if to say that John came to believe that Jesus had risen but had not yet come to fully understand all the scriptural connections and how this had to be. He only knew in his heart by love and through this evidence that Jesus was risen. Deeper understanding would have to come later.
For our purposes, let us observe that St. John has gone from fear to faith. He has not yet seen Jesus alive, but he believes based on the evidence and on what his own heart and mind tell him.
At this moment John is like us. He has not seen but he believes. Neither have we seen, but we believe. John would see him alive soon enough and so will we!
We may not have an advanced degree in Scripture, but through love we too can know that He lives. Why and how? Because of the same evidence:
- The grave clothes of my old life are strewn before me.
- I am rising to new life.
- I am experiencing greater victory over sin.
- Old sins and my old Adam are being put to death.
- The life of the new Adam, Christ, is coming alive.
- I am being set free and have hope and confidence, new life and new gifts.
- I have increasing gratitude, courage, and a deep peace that tells me that everything is all right.
- The grave clothes of my old way of life lie stretched out before me and I now wear a new robe of righteousness.
- I am not what I want to be but I am not what I used to be.
So we, like John, see. We do not see the risen Lord—not yet anyway, but we see the evidence and we believe.
St. John leaves this scene as a believer. His faith may not be the fully perfected faith that it will become, but he does believe. John has gone from fear to faith, from reaction to reflection, from panic to peace.