An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Easter Sunday of the Lord's Resurrection, Year B, John 20:1-9, April 8, 2012
CONTRARY TO WHAT many people assume, statements of faith are not, in Christianity, of the same weight. The belief that Mary appeared in Fatima is not of the same value as the belief in her Immaculate Conception. In Roman Catholic theology, there is what theologians call hierarchy of truths. Some truths belong to the core of Christianity, some are more important than others. One would not be excommunicated if he denied that St Anthony of Padua preached to the fish, but this cannot be said of a Catholic who refuses to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. For the belief in the resurrection is central to Christian faith. The core of the earliest kerygma contains this belief: “we believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, the Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins, and raised up for our justification” (Rom 4:24b-25). This is the Christ event that we celebrate today. It is so central that Paul can assert: “if Christ was not raised, our preaching is void of content and your faith is empty, too…. if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Cor 15: 14-17).
But how do we come to believe that Jesus rose from death? If we look for evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, people might be inclined to point to the empty tomb. Of course, in today’s Gospel (John 20:1-9), it is assumed that Jesus rose from the dead because, when Peter entered the tomb, all he saw was the piece of cloth. The Beloved Disciple also saw the burial clothes and believed that Jesus rose (John 20:7-8). John Chrysostom puts the argument thus: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the soudarion [the piece of cloth that covers the head] and put it in a place by itself.” That he left the burial clothes indicates that Jesus did not intend to use them again.
But the empty tomb is not an indisputable evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. John himself allows for a different interpretation in the case of Mary Magdalene who thought that some people could have taken away the lifeless body of Jesus: “Sir, if you are the one who carried him off, tell me where you have laid him” (John 20:13). The argument that the disciples themselves stole the body occurs in Matthew 28:13-15. Some rationalists have explained that Jesus merely swooned on the cross and subsequently extricated himself from the burial clothes. Strictly speaking, what the empty tomb proves is simply that Jesus was not there.
For the early Christians, what was decisive for the faith was not the empty tomb; rather, it was the appearances of the risen Lord. In the New Testament, the risen Lord appeared many times: to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31), to Peter (1 Cor 15:5), to Paul (1 Cor 15:5-7), to the women (Matthew 28:9-10), to seven disciples (John 21:1-14), to more than 500 (1 Cor 15:6), among others. Of course, the appearances cannot be proven; but they were a reality for those who were previously prepared to believe. Nonetheless, the skeptic may be at a loss to account for the radical transformation of the disciples without the reality of the appearances. That Paul transformed from a Number One persecutor of the Church to an apostle to the Gentiles cannot be explained unless one is prepared to believe that Jesus truly appeared to him. Of course, there are skeptics and skeptics, and they will always try to explain the appearances in various ways other than what is said in the New Testament. In times past, it was argued that they were merely projections of the disciples who were convinced that he was alive
Of course, one will easily believe if, in the same manner as of old, Jesus continues to appear to the believers of today. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. Hence, the question: since Jesus no longer appears to us as he did in the early Church, how then are we to believe that he rose from the dead? Whence comes the faith in the resurrection? If we are to provide the answer from the readings today, the Easter faith comes from the testimony of the first witnesses: “We are witnesses to all that [Jesus] did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him, finally hanging him on a tree, only to have God raise him up on the third day and grant that he be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). All this, of course, is a matter of faith. The appearances were not proofs to compel faith or to dispel doubt, but were more of assurances to those who believe in him that he was alive.*