John 20:1-9. The Empty Tomb

The short reading for Easter in the Catholic lectionary this year is John 20:1-9. This Easter reading is an account of the Sunday morning discovery of an Empty Tomb. All four Gospels tell us of the Empty Tomb: John 20:1-9; Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10. In this passage, Mary Magdalene finds the stone to the tomb of Jesus removed. In the Synoptics, she is accompanied by Salome and another companion. But if the stone has been removed, what does that suggest?

"John and Peter Run to the Empty Tomb." Eugene Bernand, 1898. Paris

The First Day of the Week

In the Genesis account, the world is created in six days, while “God rested on the seventh day” (Genesis 2:2). For the Jews, shabbot – Saturday, is the Sabbath.  Shabbot celebrates several things. In biblical tradition, shabbot celebrates the work of God in creation, and it also commemorates the Exodus event. In later Jewish tradition, the shabbot also came to anticipate the Olam Haba – the world to come. The celebration of the sabbath in the Jewish faith tradition has a dimension that looks backward and forward.

All four Gospel accounts tell us that the tomb was found empty on the “first” day of the week. That the Easter event should come on the first day of the week should be no surprise, since Jesus is the “new creation.” Consider 2 Corinthians 5:14-17,

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.  And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

In addition, the Lord tells us in Revelation 21:5, behold, I make all things new. For this reason, the Christian sabbath is the first day of the week, Sunday. However, the Christian sabbath also has a backwards and a forward-looking dimension. The Christian sabbath remembers the Resurrection – the discovery of the Empty Tomb, and the reality that Jesus is literally risen from the dead. But the Sabbath also looks forward to the day when the Christian faithful will permanently be united with Christ in heaven.

The Men in White – The Angels that John Forgets

According to John’s Gospel, Mary of Magdala discovers on  a Sunday morning -the first day of the week – that the tomb is empty. Then she goes to find the twelve. Yet John’s Gospel overlooks a tradition recounted by the other three Gospel writers – that Mary (and her companions) were greeted by an angel. In Luke’s Gospel, the women encounter “two men in dazzling apparel.” Mark and Matthew tell us that the women meet one man in white.

Why did John omit this detail?  Keep in mind that John’s account is partially autobiographic. He refers to himself as the “beloved” or the “other” disciple (see commentary). In this passage, John tells us, with some conceit, that  the other disciple (John) ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first. John is speaking of himself, and he remembers well that he reached the tomb before the spokesman of the Apostles. John was likely fifteen at the time, and Peter in later twenties. John’s enthusiasm got the better of him, and he did not wait for Peter.

John’s Faith is Confirmed. Seeing is Believing.

Perhaps there is a more important thesis in John’s Gospel than the detail that Mary of Magdala saw an angel. For John, the important story angle is the role that John plays, himself, in this unfolding drama. But before I explain why, let’s return to the story of the healing of the blind man, in John chapter 9, verses 36-41:

The blind man answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.

Jesus heals the blind man, and the blind man has the vision or faith to know who Jesus is. The Pharisees are, according to Jesus, blind because they lack faith. Returning to our Easter morning passage, the personal eyewitness of “the other disciple” (John) is more important than the third party testimony of Mary and her companions. Here is John’s own testimony about the Empty Tomb, recorded for posterity:

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.

For John, “seeing is believing” (John 1:29, John 2:23, John 6:14 and John 7:31). John does not want the account of the Resurrection to rest merely on the testimony of a third party.  He wants to testify himself to the fact that the tomb was empty, and that when he saw the empty tomb, he believed.  This theology of “seeing and believing” is central to John’s Gospel.

The seven miracles in John’s Gospel are eyewitness accounts of the mighty works of God, wrought by Jesus. They convince some that Jesus is the Christ, and challenge others. For John, people of faith see the works of the Lord, and if they have faith, they believe. Some scholars have suggested that John refers to himself as “the other disciple” or “the beloved disciple” because he wants us to place ourselves in his shoes. If John can believe Jesus is the Messiah, then so should we. Then we too can become beloved disciples of Christ.

Empty Tomb = Risen Christ

In this Easter account, John the Evangelist emphasizes that the Apostle Peter witnesses the Empty Tomb, with the burial cloths left behind, as if to suggest that Jesus had emerged from the tomb, alive.  John also emphasizes his own personal witness to the reality of the Empty Tomb. For John, his own witness and testimony to the Empty Tomb and the implication that Christ is risen is central to the argument that “seeing is believing.”

Some scholars question the story of the Empty Tomb. Does this prove that Jesus rose from the dead? Well, the disciples will have to meet Jesus before the two separate pieces of evidence (the Empty Tomb and a personal encounter with the risen Christ) can be connected. Imagine the opposite, though. Imagine that the disciples had encountered Jesus after the crucifixion, but had not seen the Empty Tomb. The Easter account of the Empty Tomb is crucial to establishing the argument that not only did Jesus return after his death, but that he was not a phantasm or ghost, but rather a person who had survived “death.”  But we will have to wait until the disciples see Jesus before they fully come to understand that the Resurrection is the ultimate proof that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

John 20:1-9

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.”
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.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
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.

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