“Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre. So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in. Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.”
It is a great joy to study different interpretation of Scriptural texts and the accounts of our Lord’s resurrection are especially compelling. And no Gospel outdoes John’s Gospel for literary splendor and visual sumptuousness that leads, indeed lures us, into mystical levels of interpretation of Scripture. Permit me to give you an example. I have pointed out many times that there is a connection of imagery between the Empty Tomb and the Ark of the Covenant. Remember? Atop the Ark of the Covenant were two angels, one on each end directing one’s gaze to the lid of the Ark. That lid was known as the Mercy Seat. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a Jewish Priest would enter into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat, thus atoning for Israel’s sins for one year. In the Empty Tomb, Mary saw two Angels, one seated where Christ’s head had been and the other Angel seated where Christ’s feet had been. Any Jew who had paid attention to his Sunday School teachers grasped the meaning: Mary had come upon another Mercy Seat, but even more than that because the Mercy Seat of the Empty tomb, where the blood of the Jesus had been sprinkled, assumed, subsumed, into its reality the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament. Thus the Mercy Seat of the Empty Tomb bestows final meaning to the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament. But there is more: in front of you there is another Mercy Seat, the Altar of God, that gathers up and subsumes both the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament and the Mercy Seat of the Empty Tomb and it brings both into perfect unity. That perfection is made visible upon the Altar at every mass and the Children of God may participate in that perfection because the cleansing, purifying, blood of the Lamb of God flows there every day. And note that the Bible says that God “maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.” Thus the Candles remind us of the Angels upon the Mercy Seat as well as the Angels at the Tomb of our risen Lord. And now the Icons of Mary, Mother of God — the Rose Tree of Jesse is breaking into blossoms of joy — and John the Baptist, the Terrestrial Angel, together direct our attention to the place where Jesus appears to his Bride at every Mass. How sumptuous is that? That interpretation is really real and such interpretation depend upon grasping the sacred mysteries in Biblical imagery and allegory.
But that meaning, really real as it is, is real because it emerges from what the Church Fathers called the “Letter of Scripture,” or what we would call the literal, historical meaning. The bottom line therefore is that if Jesus was not really and truly, bodily raised from the dead at a specific time (on the third day of his burial) and a specific place (a new tomb close to Calvary) and if he had not then appeared and speak to his disciples — well then all that imagery and allegory means absolutely nothing. The nihilists win and Truth, Goodness, and Beauty looses. So today it is my intention to stick with the Letter and elaborate what happened to Jesus on the third day after he died and how his disciples responded to what happened to him. The point I want to make is that what we call the “Resurrection” is something that happened to Jesus; it is not something that happened to his disciples. It is not the case that shortly after his mangled, dead body was placed in the tomb that his disciples remembered his teaching about God attending to little dying birds and the flowering lilies of the field and suddenly they developed a positive mental attitude and they all became street preachers. That did not happen.
This is what happened: Jesus suffered an excruciating scourging and crucifixion and he died about 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. Joseph of Arimathea with the help of Nicodemus took the body of Jesus, wrapped it in clean linen cloths and they scattered into the cloths about seventy-five pounds of spices and myrrh. They wrapped his face with a sudarium, what our text calls a “napkin.” They put his body in Joseph’s new tomb which was in a garden close to Calvary. The women who loved Jesus watched all this at a short distance so they knew where the tomb was. Shortly after that Pilate, at the Pharisee’s request, dispatched a guard of Roman soldiers, around sixteen men, to take custody of the tomb and the body of Jesus. The word for “guard” is “koustodia” and from it we get our word “custody.” The “koustodia” is a detachment of Roman soldiers whose duty it was to establish and maintain a “chain of custody.” It was the “koustodia,” the Roman Guard, that officially sealed the tomb thus establishing Caesar’s custody over the body of Christ. All that was accomplished most likely before sunset on Friday.
“The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre. Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.”
Early on the third day of his burial probably between 3 A.M and 6 A.M. Mary Magdalene and other women went to the tomb in order to complete a proper Jewish burial. When they arrived the stone was rolled away. The body of Jesus as well as the “koustodia” were gone. Mary ran to Peter and the other disciples who were probably staying in the rented room in which Jesus, on Thursday night, had instituted the Eucharist. Peter and John dashed out of the house and ran to the tomb. John beat Peter to the tomb but he waited for Peter to enter first. Astonishingly the grave cloths were there apparently on the stone slab where Jesus was laid. And the sudarium, the head covering was there as well, but it was rolled up neatly by itself.
“Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.”
John followed and he saw what Peter saw, namely the grave cloths just lying there and the neatly rolled up head covering and the text says, “he saw and he believed.” What did he believe? He believed Mary’s report that someone had taken the body of Jesus, but at that point he did not even know what a resurrection was much less believe in it. He and Peter returned to the other disciples leaving Mary at the tomb.
Mary had not slept much if at all and her last real meal was probably with Jesus – four days ago. She had seen terrible things, things you and I can hardly imagine, fall upon the man she loved. Her grief was agonizing. Her affect is flat. She was drained, exhausted, very nearly used up. Mary mustered up the courage to look into the tomb herself and she saw two Angles sitting there.
Now under normal circumstance if anyone really sees an angel it takes their breath away, in itself it would be traumatizing. In the Revelation John sees and angel and he passes out. Had Mary not been worn out from grief and fatigue she would have frozen in fear and trembling at the sight of these heavenly creatures. But very little of her experience was registering with her in a normal way, if at all. This is the very picture of what we call today clinical grief. Even when the angels speak to her she answers flatly. What keeps her going, what literally enables her to put one foot in front of the other, is that she is driven by a single question: “What have they done with Jesus’ body?” Mary turned around as to walk away from the Angles and Jesus was standing right there. She mistook him for the gardener and again begged for his dead body. And then he spoke her own name, Mary. It took maybe a few seconds or so to sink in but when it did she fell at his feet crying out “Master!” Without any categories to understand what was happening, without any prepackaged interpretation and meaning available to her, she simply gave herself to his love. No one in the world could say Mary’s name like Jesus. There are two things I want you to understand: Though Jesus was standing right in front her, at that point she did not understand, she did not have our understanding of what a resurrection is and she no doubt thought this was like Lazarus coming forth. She had the experience of the resurrected Christ, but she did not understand it. Secondly, she knew one thing — as odd, as strange, as unbelievable as it may be, the robust man standing in front of her, full of life and power and love was Jesus her Lord. Jesus then sent her to Peter and the disciples with the message that he is risen from the dead. According to Luke some of the disciples went back to the tomb after this but they did not see Jesus and they fell deeper into despair.
It was hardly Noon and the disciples were breaking up and leaving Jerusalem because it had become a dangerous place for them. Among those getting out of Jerusalem were two of Jesus’ disciple returning to their home in Emmaus. You know the story. They were utterly crushed by what had befallen Jesus. And as they walked on toward the village, Jesus began walking with them but they did not recognize him. They took him for a stranger and told him of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Today we would say that they were “processing” a terrible experience and loss. They told him that some of the women who went to the tomb that morning said he had been raised from the dead, but the disciples who went back to the tomb did not see him. By now evening was closing in when they arrived in Emmaus and they begged the stranger to stay and eat, though acted as if he would not. But he gave in and once the table was set Jesus took bread, blessed it, break it, and gave it to them and instantly they saw that the stranger was in fact the resurrected Christ. And just like that, he vanished. Even though it was dark by that time they walked back to Jerusalem to the place where they knew they would find the other disciples. And when they arrived at the upper room they cried out “The Lord is risen!” And by this time other disciples were returning to the upper room because Jesus had appeared to some of them just as he had appeared to the women. And then suddenly Jesus came and stood in the midst of them and cried out, “Peace be unto you!” And they were filled with wonderment, fear, and with great joy.
Day One began with Jesus’ morning appearance to Mary and it ended with the Church in Jerusalem and outlying areas gathering around Peter and the other Apostles. But as you know Thomas was inexplicably absence. The next Sunday Thomas was in Church when Jesus appeared at the celebration of the Eucharist. Next we have his appearance by the Sea of Tiberias. A few years later St. Paul wrote the Church in Corinth that the resurrected Christ appeared to over 500 disciples at one time and most of whom were alive at the time of his writing that letter.
This is the reality of what actually happened to Jesus and his disciples and because of that I absolutely believe in all of the mystical and allegorical realities as well. But without the “Letter,” without the literal, historical reality of our Lord’s resurrection then all the so-called spiritual, mystical and allegorical meaning in the world is built upon nothing other than wishful thinking. But everything I have laid out here really happened and I have only skimmed the surface. The details, the mystical meaning will take years to get to. One last point: Caesar never stops trying to take custody of the Body of Christ one way or the other and he will claim custody. But regardless of how high and mighty, how menacing, how ominous they are, Caesars, including those who name themselves “We the People,” are puny and they always die. You belong to Jesus and he is the only one who has custody of you and that is for good. Christ is risen from the dead. And that makes all the difference!