For freedom, Christ has set us free

Easter 1C19
Gospel Commentary
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21 April 2019


Gospel
John 20:1   Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

John 20:11   But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Initial observations
The Easter appearance narratives vary greatly and are richly theological, usually dealing with issues current at the time of writing. There is a common core, but the writers dispense with “historical” accuracy to privilege theological truth.

Today’s excerpt stops at v. 9. It is virtually impossible to understand the passage without reading on until v. 18 (included here). I recommend reading the full text, not otherwise heard this year.


Kind of writing
Technically, this is a theophany, more precisely a “Christophany” with the usual features of question, encounter, fear and relief.

Old Testament background

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-4)

New Testament foreground

It is odd that Mary seems to be absent during vv. 3-10 and that the disciples, whom she alerted, ignore her apparently. It is odd that we are not told she came back with them although we discover she did. It is odd that the beloved disciple and Peter simply “went back to their homes”—to do what exactly? These unusual features become tolerable once we realise we are dealing a core tradition symbolically expanded, by the genius who wrote the Fourth Gospel, for didactic and theological purposes.

The Mary Magdalene story would be perfectly coherent on its own, taking vv. 1, 11-18. It would then resemble the Synoptic stories, with a Johannine flavour. So, why has this writer inserted a narrative of Peter’s journey to the tomb, with the addition of the Beloved Disciple? In part, I think to contrast the limits of the institutional (Petrine; see Luke 24:12, 34,) with the dynamism of the charismatic (Johannine). In part, to place at the centre of this Easter proclamation an important recollection of the Lazarus story – (a) to contrast the outcomes and (b) to affirm love as the key to God’s gift. “Bending down” and the head cloth link the scenes.

A component of the Gospel writer’s objective here is to recount how we come to resurrection faith. This Gospel brings something very special for our consideration. Earlier, in Jn 11, we read that the gift of resurrected life flows from the love of God or the Son of God’s distress at the human condition (“Jesus wept”). Correspondingly, the double story here tells us that the move to Easter faith is also a movement of love. The eyes of faith are opened by the heart. Such an analysis explains both the structure of the passage and the oddity of it.

A vv. 1-3: Mary on a quest like the early stories in this Gospel
B vv. 4-10: Partial resurrection faith: love + scripture
A1 vv.11-18: One-to-one encounter completes the quest.

St Paul
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Brief commentary

Verse 1 First day (cf. 2 Cor 5:17) echoing creation. Darkness is symbolic. Notice the lack of motive and that Mary alone (but “we” later) because this Gospel prefers one-to-one encounters; stone.
Verse 2 Contrary to Mark’s account of the silence of the women. The Beloved Disciples only in this Gospel. It may be the original inspiration of the tradition; in the text Beloved Disciple is a model disciple. Notice the logical hypothesis: tombs can be empty for different reasons.
Verses 3-4 First – to suggest eagerness and also to make plain the deference the Peter.
Verse 5 Initial description of details to be taken up later.
Verses 6-7 The details are highly significant; thus the outcome from this burial is contrasted with that of Lazarus (11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”).
Verse 8 NB the choreography, giving priority to Peter. Both saw the same “empirical residue”, yet only the one who loved made the leap of faith. “Seeing” is a verb for faith in this Gospel.
Verse 9 The gloss may seem strange; but full resurrection faith comes by means of an encounter with the risen Jesus (cf. next scene) and by confirmation in Scripture; “not yet understanding” is a theme right from the start of the Fourth Gospel.
Verse 10 To do what? The writer brusquely clears the “stage” for the one-to-one encounter to come.
Verse 11 Seemingly no contact with Beloved Disciple and Peter. Significantly, Mary replicates their actions.
Verse 12 Angels indicate transcendence. White is the colour of the resurrection. Head recalls the veil in John 11; feet recall anointing in John 12.
Verse 13 “Woman” is found in Cana (mother), Jacob’s well (journey of faith); Cross (mother), Resurrection (journey of faith). Mary repeats her “earthly” grasp.
Verse 14 Standard technique for an epiphany. It is also usual in resurrection appearance stories that Jesus is not immediately recognised.
Verse 15 Jesus repeats the words of the angels. There is intense irony (gardener; sir, if, take him away); Mary is still “outside” the mystery. There is no reason to weep. Jesus’ second question takes us back to the first words he speaks in this Gospel: “What are you looking for” (1:38), except “what” has become “whom.” A highly important evolution.
Verse 16 Note the interpersonal address (cf. Jn 11-12) because the good shepherd knows his sheep by name (10:3). Mary turns again – physically or interiorly?
Verse 17 Lit. do not keep touching to me (implied: as you knew me). It is peculiar that the resurrection is somehow incomplete because of the “lifting up” theme in this Gospel. Cf. “I go to prepare a place”. The distinctions are only apparent – it is the one God, the gift is through Jesus going to “his” God; lit. “gone up” – cf. 1:51 (with angels); 3:13; 6:62 (NB).
Verse 18 She is still the first to proclaim; cf. 20:25 (>< 1 Cor 9:1). Mary bears witness unlike Peter (“ask those who heard me; they know what I said”).

Pointers for prayer

1. The disciples are in a state of shock after their traumatic loss. Jesus, the one in whom they had placed so much hope, has been murdered and buried. Then, before they have time to recover they get another shock. The body of Jesus is missing. Have you had experiences in which one tragedy or crisis follows quickly after another? What was that like for you? How did you cope? Who, or what, sustained you?
2. Mary and Peter, and the other disciple, came and discovered that the tomb was empty. In this text no explanation is given. They are left in a state of bewilderment ‘for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead’. Have you been in situations, faced with events you cannot explain, possibly events that have dashed your hopes in another person, or in God? What has that been like for you?
3. Yet in spite of the lack of explanation, the beloved disciple ‘saw and believed’. Have there been times when others have done something that you could not understand, and which they could not explain at the time, and yet you believed that all was not as it seemed; times when you decided to trust in spite of the evidence? Have there been times when others have shown this kind of faith in you, when you were not able to offer satisfactory explanations, and all you could say was ‘trust me’?
4. Have there been times in your relationship with God when you have felt that you were faced with an empty tomb, and still you believed? What have you learned about life, about love, from such experiences?

Prayer

God of undying life, by your mighty hand you raised up Jesus from the grave and appointed him judge of the living and the dead. Bestow upon those baptised into his death the power flowing from his resurrection, that we may proclaim near and far the pardon and peace you give us. Amen.

Thought for the day

Traditionally, we have found it easy to think of the cross as the measure of God’s love for us. Because of the focus on the cross, we find it more difficult to think of the resurrection as also the love of God, perhaps “all the more so”! The originality of the Fourth Gospel says it all: the disciple Jesus loved, the head cloth recalling Lazarus (see how much he loved him) and, not least, the great figure of Mary Magdalene (Mary!). In summary, Jesus died and rose again for love of us.

Prayer

Loving God, you love us more than we can imagine or take in. Help us to allow ourselves to be so loved by you, that your love may penetrate our hearts, our lives and our loves. We ask this through Jesus, who died and rose for love of us and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.