Gospel: John 20:1-9

The Empty Tomb

Have you ever seen something so unusual that the experience gave you pause? Did you jump to a conclusion? What happened?

While I have lived in California for the past 40 years, I was born in Missouri, the "Show Me" state. I tend to have a skeptical streak. If I see something unbelievable, I don't believe it.

Yet, there are events and experiences that have stopped me in my tracks. And have challenged my skepticism. Many times these events and experiences have deepened my faith life. The only explanation I can give them is "God."

One woman had such an experience. She told two others who saw what she saw. Only one of these witnesses saw God's hand in the experience. The empty tomb proved a transcendent event.

Popular Translation

1 Early Sunday morning while it was still dark, Mary Magdelene walked to the tomb. There she saw the stone that covered the tomb was removed. 2 She ran to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved. "They've taken the Lord from the tomb," she exclaimed, "and we don't know where they have put his body!" 3 Peter and the other disciple left and started to go to the tomb. 4 At first, the two ran side by side. But, the other disciple ran ahead of Peter and got to the tomb first. 5 He bent down and saw the linen strips used to tie the body for burial just lying there. But he did not go into the tomb. 6 Peter came behind him and entered the tomb. He saw the linen strips and 7 the piece of cloth used to tie around the head. That cloth was not with the others, but was in another place and had kept its shape. 8 Then, the other disciple entered the tomb and believed what he saw. 9 But they still did not understand that the Bible said, "The Christ needed to rise from the dead."

Literal Translation

1 After the Sabbath, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb in the morning still being dark and she saw the stone having been lifted away from the tomb. 2 She ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved and said to them, "They lifted the Lord away from the tomb and we do not know where they put him!" 3 Peter and the other disciple went out and they came to the tomb. 4 The two ran side by side, and the other disciple ran ahead of (and) faster than Peter and came first to the grave, 5 and, having bent down, he saw the (burial) linen strips lying (there), but he did not enter. 6 Then, Simon Peter also came, following (the other disciple), and he entered the tomb and saw the (burial) linen strips lying (there) 7 and the cloth piece which was on his head, not with the linen strips lying (there), but having been tied up separately in one place. 8 Then the other disciple, the (one) having arrived first to the tomb, also entered and he saw and he believed. 9 For they had not yet seen (with the mind) the Scripture that it was necessary for him to rise from the dead.

20:1 "After the Sabbath" is literally "in one of the Sabbaths." This is a Semitic term. The plural of Sabbath meant "week." So the phrase meant "on the first (day) of the week."

20:7 "cloth piece which was on his head...having been tied up separately in one place" This cloth piece was tied around the head to keep the mouth closed for burial. The verb used in 20:7c, "tied" could also be translated as "rolled" or "folded." Peter saw the cloth had a definitive shape. The shape of the cloth could be easily explained as "tied." The cloth (which was once around the head) kept its oval shape after it was removed.

This resurrection scene from John's gospel emphasized the empty tomb as a cause for faith, not the appearance of Jesus. Later, the vision of the risen Lord would cause others to believe (Mary Magdalene in John 20:14-18 and Thomas 20:26-28).

The time frame and the initial audience for encounter with the tomb was different in John. In the Synoptic gospels, a group of women (including the Magdalene) reached the tomb just at or after sunrise. But, in John, Mary Magdalene arrived alone before dawn. Unlike the other scenes, Mary ran to Peter and the other disciple (18:15) whom Jesus loved (13:23 and 19:26). They returned and inspected the tomb before Mary saw the angels (20:11-13). John placed the arrival of Peter and the other disciple to heighten the importance of the empty tomb. For John, this took precedent over the vision of angelic messengers.

Why was the empty tomb so important? Part of the answer could have been polemical. The audience of John had been ejected from the synagogues throughout the empire and had endured prejudice by the Jewish population. One of the attacks on John's audience could have been a challenge to veracity. "Did your Jesus really rise from the dead?" Jewish critics could have exclaimed. "Prove it!"

Witness to the empty tomb during burial rites would have supported Christian claims for their Lord. Especially within a tradition that prized the service of those who cared for the dead, despite the fact that such care made one "unclean." Preparing the body for burial was a cultural privilege and duty that ranked with care for the widows and orphans. Caring for the dead elevated one's reputation. The discovery of the empty tomb took place in the context of a charitable act. This alone cast the scepter of shame on those who publicly criticized Christians.

But John added another twist. There were two male witnesses to the event (which, in an ancient Jewish court of law, verified the fact of the case). With two male witnesses to the empty tomb, the onus was back upon the critic. The Christian could claim, "We know the body from a sealed tomb was missing." It would have been only a small leap of faith to conclude the Lord had truly risen! The vision of the angels to a woman and the appearance of a dead man to his followers could not be so easily dismissed as the signs of lunacy or a mass hallucination.

Yet, only the disciple whom the Lord loved believed (i.e., made the connection between the empty tomb and the Lord's resurrection). After all, Mary Magdalene saw grave robbers as the most likely suspects for the missing body (yet, why would anyone rob the grave of a poor, traveling preacher?) The key to understanding the other disciple's faith is the phrase "the one Jesus loved." In John's gospel, Jesus revealed himself to those he loved. After the resurrection, the "other disciple" (unwavering in faith at the foot of the cross) was the first to understand, then Mary Magdalene (20:14-17), next the other disciples and Thomas (20:19-29), and finally, Peter by name (21:1-23). Those who fully believed in the time of testing were those who said "yes' to the Lord and who understood the full impact of the empty tomb. Those who abandoned the Lord in his hour were the last to come to faith. The Lord loved all who followed him completely. But who received that love and acted upon it? The one who grasped the import of the tomb without a body.

Have you ever seen God's hand in the unusual? What was it? How did you know God was responsible for the event?

The scene of the empty tomb and two reactions: skepticism (Mary Magdalene) and faith (the beloved disciple). Many experiences in life present us with the same options. Was it the activity of the evil? Or, was it the hand of God? Like St. Paul insisted, these experiences need to be tested. But we should not draw hasty conclusions. Instead, we should look to the source of the experience and its "aftershocks." Does good come from the experience or more evil? And if good does result, was God its ultimate cause?

After all, how did you know that the death of Jesus was the will of God? Look to the empty tomb. You will see the Resurrection!

On this glorious day, look at the experiences and events of the past weeks. Thank God for the good and the bad. Allow that reflection and prayer to lead you to the joy of the Resurrection.