The first paragraph of John’s Gospel account (20:1-9) reads a little like a police report about the discovery of a stolen body; it is concise, clear, and dispassionate.
The second paragraph is curious too. It has a distinctly ‘forensic’ tone, almost like a detective entering the undisturbed crime scene and noting down all the little details that might become important later on (linen cloths on the ground – facecloth rolled up in a separate place by itself…).
Apart from the haunting question ‘Where is the body?’, there is also, of course, a deep spiritual, ecclesial dimension to the account centered mainly on the relationship between Peter and John (the other disciple, the one Jesus loved).
Mary of Magdala saw the tomb was open and, presumably, that the body was not there; she said it had been ‘taken’. We are told that she ran to tell ‘Simon Peter and the other disciple…’. Did you notice that Peter is mentioned first, as he commonly is in the Gospels, and, also, that it was Peter who set out ‘with the other disciple’ to go to the tomb. We have to be alive to the text as it occupies itself with this ‘story within a story’.
The relationship between Peter and John is the relationship between ‘authority’ and ‘spirit’, or as some writers say, between ‘office’ and ‘love’.
Peter represents ‘authority’ within the Church; John represents ‘love’, or that lively spontaneity which comes with openness to the Holy Spirit. In any event, authority in the Church, for a whole host of reasons, must come first; the authority given to Peter by Christ himself.
So authority and love set out to the tomb together; they must never be separated. They run together but love runs faster. How true that is!
John reaches the tomb first. He bends down and peers in but he did not go in. Love always defers to authority; love is always obedient to authority.
Now Peter comes up, probably puffing and panting! He goes right into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths on the ground and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself.
We are not told what Peter’s reaction was; he keeps his counsel. John, however, now also goes in, ‘he saw and he believed’.
The four Gospels are written by believers so that others, you and I, might believe. There is always a strict adherence to truth, though not always to the details which vary between accounts. Readers will marvel at the ruthless honesty of the resurrection narratives, which resist any attempt to polish the story, tie up loose ends and reconcile conflicting details.
On its own the empty tomb does not furnish ultimate proof of anything other than that the body was missing. The Magdalene thought it had been taken, the soldiers, in the account of Matthew, claimed it had been stolen while they were asleep. The empty tomb is clearly not sufficient for Easter faith. It is only when taken together with the actual appearances of the risen Lord that we can say we truly believe. It is a bit of a pity that our Gospel reading ends where it does; a few more lines and we would have seen how forensic faith, based on the factual details, gives way to a deep, personal faith as Jesus, mistaken for the gardener, says: Mary.
I feel that a final, if somewhat obvious, point must still be made. What was it exactly that was missing from the tomb? – of course, the body of Jesus. Every now and then some tiresome person, even clergy, will pop their wise head over the horizon and claim that Jesus was not raised and that we will not be raised ‘in the body’. The two thousand year old creed of the Christian faith which states that we believe in ‘the resurrection of the body’ means nothing to them; it’s all a ‘metaphor’.
The glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, witnessed by hundreds in the early days of the Church, is our proof that one day we will all be united as one eternal family. This life is temporary. What awaits us is so much better and greater. Until we reach that day, let us live the joy of Easter. Let us follow our Lord in our lives, listen his words on Sundays and receive his Sacraments. Let us make a special effort to reach out to those who do not share in our joy, who neglect their Catholic style of life and especially those who have been forgotten so they may manifest their joy outwardly as we are doing today.
We know that Christ suffered in his body so that he might save us in the body. We are body and soul and we will one day be in heaven, together with him, and with each other, body and soul. Today we celebrate the risen Christ and we celebrate that in raising his Son from the dead our heavenly Father promises to raise us too. Alleluia!