Last year, Egypt uncovered 2,500-year-old wooden coffins and bronze statues in the ancient necropolis of Saqqara in south of Cairo. Archeologists dig historic sites for studies, and sometimes these discoveries attract tourists and help the economy.
“Archaeology is the search for facts . . . not truth,” quoting Dr. Henry Jones, the father of Indiana Jones in the movie The Last Crusade. He continues to say, “If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall . . . So forget any ideas you’ve got about lost cities, exotic travel, and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure, and “X” never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library, research, reading.”
This remark touches on reality about academia. Meanings and truths behind findings are much more important. Today we look into an ancient scene with a strong sense of suspension around it – the empty tomb of Jesus, a paschal mystery.
Who opened the heavy stone door of this tomb? We are not archaeologists who excavate sites, but we are invited to understand this through the lens of the Gospeler. What we are looking for in the empty tomb narrative is just the opposite of what the archaeologists are looking for, not just facts but truth. This is not an Indi’s research nor a fantasy but the truth told by God-sent prophets and witnessed by the disciples of Jesus.
Think of yourself as one of those who witnessed the empty tomb in the first century. You could be Mary, Peter, or the other disciple that John mentions in his gospel.
It was the first day of the week while it was still dark.
Mary Magdalene went to the tomb where Jesus was buried. In the rabbinic rationale, women were not considered able to appreciate religious doctrine, so the appearance of Mary Magdalen in the gospel narrative has a significant meaning.
This Mary is the one whom Jesus cleansed of seven demons. Her troubled past didn’t disqualify her from being the first witness of the resurrected Jesus and His first commissioned messenger of His resurrection.
When she saw the empty tomb, Mary’s first reaction was to think the body of Jesus was stolen. She wasn’t wishing for or anticipating the resurrection of Jesus, and she certainly did not imagine it out of hope. After seeing that the stone had been moved away from the tomb, Mary runs to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple.
An interesting thing here in John’s narrative is that there is no name mentioned about the other disciple, other than saying that Jesus loved him. Traditionally, this beloved disciple is considered to be the author of this gospel, but John did not refer to himself in keeping with his humility.
What would you do if you hear such news about the graveyard where you buried your beloved? Surprised, concerned, in disbelief and panic . . .
What? The stone at the entrance of the tomb was removed? How? Why? Did the soldiers leave the body of the Lord in disgrace? I need to see . . . Oh, Lord, where are you?
On hearing the news, unbelievable yet life-changing, the both disciples ran together. They had to see for themselves, and “the other disciple” outran Peter and came to the tomb first: competitive enough.
A Swiss artist, famous in Switzerland and France but little known outside, named Eugene Burnand (1850-1921) painted the picture above, which is titled as The Disciples Peter and John running to the sepulchre on the morning of the Resurrection.
By tradition Peter was older than John. We might picture a man in his late forties or early fifties like Peter running to the tomb with great labour, and a man of his mid-twenties easily outrunning the older man.
In this painting, John’s two hands are tightly clasped together. Peter’s heart feels burst out, with his index finger pointing towards the direction for the tomb. Their human emotions are well depicted in this painting. I’d rather think of this running scene as a real sense of comradery than a competition between the two.
We need buddies in life, especially when in crisis, don’t we? “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s sibling” (Prov 18:24).
A typical rich man’s tomb of that time would be large enough to walk into, with a place to lay out the body on one side and a bench for mourners on the other side. However, something kept the one who arrived first from actually going into the tomb. The Gospeler doesn’t offer any account for that.
Peter, however, known to be action-oriented, went right in, whereas the other disciple paused to think. It’s a partial view to define Peter as an impulsive character. He is courageous and committed: I’ll do it if you can’t do it. Let me do it. There was some commitment needed to go inside the tomb.
Being in a relationship requires commitments. Knowing Jesus and serving His Church require our commitments. Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes, but no plans. We have commitments as baptized believers.
Peter saw the empty tomb. So did the other disciple. The English translation uses the same verb in verses 6 and 8 – to see. But they are different verbs in the original Greek. These verbs mean more than just to see.
Parsing the Greek language, the original text means that Peter views attentively, surveys, and discern. The other disciple also turns the eyes, the mind, and the attention to the things seen in front of him to understand and ascertains what must be done about it.
We all want to come and see, but it is so important to make commitments and pay attention to what we see in order to understand and perceive its significance and impact. Otherwise, we will be no better than spectators who come and go and follow the crowd.
We are to be committed and to wrestle with the things we experience.
Peter and John examined the evidence of the empty tomb, and perhaps they were reminded of what Jesus had told them while they were spending time together. John was persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead, though he did not yet understand the meaning of it all clearly.
Mary did not yet have the confidence that Jesus was resurrected, so she wept. Mary wanted to see what Peter and John saw, so she made her own examination, too. Yet in the moment between their examination and Mary’s, something was different in the tomb. Mary didn’t notice the burial wrappings and their curious arrangement; now there were two angels in the tomb. Mary didn’t seem to react with shock or fear. Probably Mary didn’t notice the presence of angels at first because she had only one thought – the absence of her Lord.
The angels were sent to certify her of the resurrection. It is their office to comfort and counsel the saints as the two cherubim were placed at the ark of the covenant, one at each end of the mercy-seat.
Mary certainly knew who Jesus was, and it was strange that she did not immediately recognize Him when she turned around and saw Him. Some think it was because she was emotionally distressed and had tears in her eyes and because Jesus was altered in appearance.
Like Mary, many of us do not recognize the Lord’s presence even when He is present with us. Jesus waits for us to recognize Him. He didn’t immediately reveal Himself to Mary, but He came to break through her unbelief and forgetfulness of Jesus’ promise of resurrection.
We must remember this: In the moment of deep sorrow and agony, our Lord is there, and we need to continue devoting our life to Him.
Look at what Mary did. She wasn’t scared by the stranger but demonstrated her devotion to Jesus by saying: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She never paused to consider how she would carry the corpse of a full-grown man or how she would explain her possession of it. She thinks of nothing less than carrying him away with her, if she can but find where he is laid!
“Love feels no burden, thinks nothing of trouble, attempts what is above its strength, pleads no excuse of impossibility; for it thinks all things lawful for itself, and all things possible" (Thomas a Kempis).
Jesus says to Mary: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (Jn 20:17). There are a couple of important things to notice here!
First, Jesus calls His disciples brothers! He travelled with them, had meals with them, even washed their feet. The Master calls them brothers. How touching it is!
Second, Jesus points out a difference between His relationship with God and the disciples’ relationship with God by saying “My Father and your Father” and “My God and your God.” The One enthroned in the heavens is certainly their Father and God, but not in the identical way that He is Father and God to Jesus.
St. Augustine made a comment on this: “[Jesus] says not ‘Our Father’: in one sense therefore, He is mine, in another sense He is yours; by nature mine, by grace yours… my God, under whom I also am as a man; your God, between whom and you I am a mediator.”
And, Jesus was clear about His coming ascension to let them know that He was raised never to die again. And, the disciples are to meet the risen Jesus in the Upper Room.
Brothers and sisters;
Knowing the fact of the resurrection is an important start, but not enough. Celebration of Easter Sunday is important, but not enough. We need to let the Bible tell us the meaning and the importance of Jesus’ resurrection in our everyday life.
In the letter to Romans, St. Paul wrote: “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:5-6).
We are among the Gentiles who didn’t know Him before but are called now to belong to Him and to spread the Good News to those who don’t know Him, just as Mary ran to the disciples, and as just the disciples marched on with the Good News till they died.
What does the empty tomb mean to you?
It means the assurance of our own resurrection. It means that God has an eternal plan for those who follow Him. The risen Christ guides the body, the mind, and the soul. And, it means that Christ has a continuing ministry because He always lives to intercede for those who come to God through Him.
We ought not to be confused between the promise of resurrection and the so-called prosperity gospel that is based on the belief that God wants to reward believers with health and wealth. Jesus was born poor, suffered on the cross as a common criminal, and he died poor. During His earthly tenure, Jesus spoke time and again about the importance of spiritual health and spiritual wealth.
The death of Jesus on the cross was the payment as the resurrection was the receipt, showing that the payment was perfect in the sight of God. Would you not keep the receipt?
God bless you!
Photo credit: Pisit Heng / Unsplash