“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.”
No Gospel outdoes John’s Gospel for literary splendor and visual sumptuousness that leads, indeed lures us, into mystical levels of interpretation. I have pointed out many times that there is a connection of imagery between the Ark of the Covenant, the Empty Tomb, and the Altar. 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. 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. Jews would understand the image: 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: The Bible says that God “maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.” Thus the candles upon the altar remind us of the angels upon the Mercy Seat as well as the angels at the Tomb of our risen Lord. In front of you there is another Mercy Seat, the Altar of God, that gathers up and subsumes, sublates both the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament and the Mercy Seat of the Empty Tomb — bring them into perfect unity. That perfection is made visible upon the altar at every mass that the Children of God may participate in that Perfection, which Perfection is the Incarnate Word. And now the Icons of Mary, Mother of God — the Rose Tree of Israel breaks into blossom — and John the Baptist, the Terrestrial Angel, together direct our attention to the place where Bridegroom appears to his Bride at every Mass. How splendid is that? That interpretation is really true and such interpretation depend upon grasping the sacred mysteries in Biblical imagery and allegory.
But that meaning, truthful as it is, is true because it emerges from what the Church Fathers called the “Letter,” or what we would call the literal, historical meaning. 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 did not then appeared and speak to his disciples — well then all the imagery and allegory in the world is worthless. So today it is my intention to open up the Letter and elaborate what happened to Jesus on the third day after he died. The point is that what we call the “Resurrection” is something that happened to Jesus. I run the risk of sounding like I am stating the obvious — but not really. The resurrection of Christ is not a poetic way of saying that his disciples were not defeated by his death. 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 dying birds and flowering lilies and suddenly they developed a positive mental attitude. That did not happen. They were transformed — yes. But their transformation was a response to the very real resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Before we look at what happened that day permit me to tell you about something I experienced this week. I visited with Fr. Dan to see a painting he has been working on. I know something of the subject and of symbolism art and literature to have a grasp of the narrative that is unfolding on his canvas. There is a man with a red bowtie standing on the driver’s side of a yellow cadillac holding a martini. A Gatsby figure. That is what I thought I saw. But then Fr. Dan said something about the door of the caddy and how happy he was with the door. (You know how artist are. And it is a great door!) But when I turned back to the man there was no martini in his hand. In fact he was holding a black Polaroid camera. What I thought was so vivid was not in the painting at all. My own private illusion had quickly flashed upon the canvas completing a narrative I brought to the painting. What is my point? Skeptics have frequently explained Mary Magdalene’s experience of the risen Christ as her private illusion and they have frequently asserted the same for the other disciples. Their so-called experience of a risen Christ was nothing more than a private illusions completing a narrative they brought with them to the event of his death and their bereavement. But lets look at the texts. Jesus suffered a savage scourging and crucifixion and he died about 3:00 p.m. on a Friday. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped his body in clean linen cloths and 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. While that was happening, Pilate, at the Pharisee’s request, dispatched a guard of Roman soldiers, around 16 men, to establish a chain of custody for the body of Jesus. It was the “koustodia,” the Roman Guard, that officially sealed the tomb thus establishing Caesar’s custody over the lifeless body of Christ. All that was accomplished 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 before sunrise, 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 Romans were gone. Mary, probably assuming that the Romans had taken the body, ran to Peter and the other disciples who were likely staying in the rented room in which Jesus, on Thursday night, had instituted the Eucharist. Peter and John ran to the tomb. John beat Peter to the tomb but he waited for Peter to enter first. Astonishingly the grave cloths were there 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? Not that Jesus had been resurrected, but rather he believed Mary’s report that someone had taken the body of Jesus. At this point the Apostles have no narrative of the resurrection. Their narrative is that Jesus is dead and someone has moved his body, just like Mary said. Peter and John 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. 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 is traumatizing. In the Book of Revelation John sees an angel and he passes right 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. Be attentive to the text. 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 a single question: “Where is 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. The narrative that Mary is bringing to this event is not a resurrection narrative. Her’s is a narrative of death and loss that she is unable to let go of until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary.” Maybe it took a few seconds 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 resurrection narrative available to her, she simply gave herself to this even and 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 probably thought it was like Lazarus coming forth. It was her experience of the resurrected Lord that provided her with a emerging resurrection narrative. Secondly, she knew one thing — unbelievable as it may be, the robust man standing in front of her, full of life was Jesus her Lord. He sent her to Peter 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. These men have a narrative and if we listen to them we will easily learn it: “We had hoped that Jesus would restore the nation of Israel.” The resurrection has nothing to do with their story. But at the end of journey as the resurrected Lord broke bread their eyes were opened and they knew their companion to be the resurrected Christ. They turned around and as fast as they could 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 indeed!” 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 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 thus all the allegory and symbolism is true 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 but wishful thinking. Everything I have laid out here really happened and I have only skimmed the surface. The meaning for us and all creation will take all eternity to unfold. One last point: Caesar never stops trying to take custody of the Body of Christ one way or the other. 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 your body and that is for good. Christ is risen from the dead. And so are you!