What is going on in today’s Gospel?
Following the death of Jesus, a wealthy disciple of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for permission to bury the body. According to all four Gospels, Joseph donated the tomb in which Jesus was laid. First century tombs would have been hollowed out of a hillside or dug into stone, and a large, circular rock would be rolled in front of the entrance. We are told that, in the case of Jesus, there were Roman soldiers posted outside the tomb, to ensure that the disciples of Jesus did not come in the middle of the night to steal the body of Jesus and so to claim that he had risen from the dead.
The body had been laid in the tomb on Friday late in the afternoon, and, because Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, no one would have been permitted to go out and anoint the body. Thus, first thing on Sunday morning, the female disciples of Jesus headed out with spices and oils in order to anoint the body. In all four Gospels, Mary Magdelene is the first person to witness the empty tomb. In Matthew, there is an earthquake, accompanied by a blinding light, and the stone is rolled back when she and the fellow disciples arrive, but in Mark, Luke, and John, the stone is already rolled back. Likewise, in all four accounts, angelic messengers communicate the news of what has happened. John’s account, from which today’s passage is taken, has Mary run back to tell Peter, who along with the Beloved Disciple, races to the tomb. Upon seeing the empty tomb, Peter and the Beloved Disciple return to Jerusalem, but Mary remains outside the tomb weeping. It is there that she first encounters the angel who tells her of Jesus’ Resurrection, before ultimately meeting the Risen Jesus, whom she does not recognize and mistakes for the gardener.
What is the significance of this passage?
It has been said of Christians that we are, “an Easter people.” Along with the Incarnation, i.e. God taking on our humanity in the person of Jesus, there is no single event in all of human history that so significantly defines who we are, and the way we are called to live our lives. If the single overarching truth of the Incarnation is that the Transcendental God, who exists outside of Creation and provides the source of all Being, became radically immanent (that is, among us), then the overarching truth of the Resurrection is that this same God has conquered death for once and for all.
But what does it mean to say that Jesus has conquered death, if it very obviously is still the case that humans die on a daily basis?
Because we are finite creatures, each of us will suffer the inevitable cessation of our biological functioning. There is no earthly being that lives forever. We are material creatures, constituted of corruptible cells and impermanent atoms. Our lungs give out, our heart weakens, our joints begin to ache. Whether from childhood leukemia or from natural causes in old age, our earthly bodies will fail, and we will return to the dust from which we came. But, as believers, and specifically as believers in the Resurrected Christ, we do not think that this is the end of our narrative. Instead, we hold out hope that we will pass from this life into the indescribable glory of Eternal Life with our Heavenly Father.
The visual of the empty tomb is the hope of all believers. It portends the promise that no tomb can hold us, but that we will be raised into new life, the way that Jesus was raised that first Easter morning. Throughout the Scriptures, we hear Jesus describing a version of glorified human life that is free from sin and suffering; one in which we are united with the God who made us, the Author of all Creation and Source of Eternal Life. Jesus’ Resurrection prefigures the Resurrection of all believers, for we profess faith that we will be reunited with our bodies, but that our bodies will be in a glorified form. The Resurrection accounts from the Gospels give us some indication of this, as they depict Jesus clearly in bodily form... Thomas famously puts his fingers in Jesus’ hands and side, and Jesus is portrayed as asking for food to eat... but it is a different sort of body than he had prior to his death, for he is able to pass through walls, and the disciples do not recognize him at first.
What might it mean to say that we each will be raised, and that our bodies will have new life in Heaven? It’s not clear. That is one of the great mysteries of our faith. Will we have the body we had when we were 12 or 24 or 85? Will those who suffered disabilities or disease in this life continue to be afflicted by blindness, loss of limb, or other ailment in eternal life? One would certainly hope not. All we know for certain is that we will be raised with Jesus, and that our existence will continue on, even after our mortal lives here on earth have ended. For us, as for Jesus, physical death is not the end, but merely the transition into a new chapter of our existence.
So what does this have to do with us?
Throughout Paul’s letters, we hear him exhorting his followers to live their lives differently because of the truth of the Resurrection. These same exhortations apply to us. We celebrate the sacrifice of the Mass each week not only to commemorate Jesus’ selfless offer of himself on the Cross, but to celebrate the triumph of the Resurrection. Every Sunday is, in some sense, Easter Sunday, and every moment of our week ought to be infused with the knowledge that Eternal Life with God awaits us.
It is a liberating truth. There is perhaps no more acute fear than fear of death. Philosophers and psychologists have reasoned that it is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. And yet, fear of death drives us inside of ourselves--orients us to self-preservation--whereas the victory of Jesus over death allows us to focus on how we will serve others. Jesus tells us that anyone wishing to preserve his own life will lose it, but the ones who offer up their lives for others will gain it. There is no clearer indication of how our lives ought to be transformed by the Resurrection than by how we witness to a life lived for others.
When we think of those who have epitomized what it is to live in the Resurrection, we think of those who did not allow fear of death to drive their behavior. We think of those who were imbued with great hope in the Resurrection, and so have been able to offer themselves as sacrifice to others, be it in a single, heroic action as was the case with 20th century martyrs like Saint Maximilian Kolbe or Archbishop Oscar Romero, or in the daily, mundane self-sacrifice of Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day. We can probably think, too, of individuals from our own lives who witness to this sort of self-sacrificing love, be it the subtle service of a parent or the loyal companionship of a close friend. In our own lives, we are called to be an “Easter people” by how we model this Christ-like sacrifice for others and reject living in the fear of death. In this way, we celebrate the joy of the Resurrection, not as a one-time event on our liturgical calendar, but as a whole-encompassing way of living throughout the year.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever been close to someone who passed on from this life? How did faith play a role in the community of those who were grieving this loss?
2. Each week, during the Creed, we profess belief in, “the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” What does that mean to you?
3. How do you feel called to live your life differently, as “an Easter person,” as a believe in the Christ who not only suffered, died, and was buried for our sins, but who was raised to new life?
4. Can you think of any people you have known who modeled what it looked like to live in the joy of Easter?