To see in the night and believe for love
John 20, 1-9
1. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit
Lord Jesus Christ, today your light shines in us, source of life and joy. Send the Spirit of love and truth, so that, like Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, we too may discover and interpret in the light of the Word, the signs of your divine presence in our world. May we welcome these signs in faith that we may always live in the joy of your presence among us, even when all seems to be shrouded in the darkness of sadness and evil.
2. The Gospel
a) A key to the reading:
For John, the Evangelist, the resurrection of Jesus is the decisive moment in the process of his glorification, indissolubly linked with the first phase of this glorification, namely his passion and death.
The event of the resurrection is not described in the spectacular and apocalyptic details of the synoptic Gospels. For John, the life of the Risen One is a reality that asserts itself silently, in the discreet and irresistible power of the Spirit.
The fact of the faith of the disciples is announced, "While it was still dark" and begins through the vision of the material signs that recall the Word of God. Jesus is the great protagonist of the story, but he does not appear personally.
b) The text:
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away 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 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in.
6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head , not lying with the linen cloths 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 know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
c) A subdivision of the text for a better understanding:
Verse 1: introduction and events prior to the description of the situation;
Verse 2: Mary’s reaction and the first announcement of the newly discovered fact;
Verses 3-5: the immediate reaction of the disciples and the interaction among them.
Verses 6-7: verification of the event announced by Mary;
Verses 8-9: the faith of the other disciple and its relationship with the Sacred Scriptures.
3. A moment of interior and exterior silence
to open our hearts and make room within for the Word of God:
- A slow re-reading the whole passage;
- I too am in the garden: the empty sepulchre is before my eyes;
- I allow Mary Magdalene’s words to echo within me;
- I too run with her, Peter and the other disciple;
- I allow myself to be immersed in the joyful wonder of the faith in Jesus Christ, even though, like them, I do not see him with my bodily eyes.
4. The gift of the Word to us
* Chapter 20 in John: this is quite a fragmented text where it is clear that the editor has intervened several times to put the stress on some themes and to unify the various texts received previously from preceding sources, at least three sources.
* The day after the Sabbath: it is "the first day of the week" and, in Christian circles, inherits the sacredness of the Jewish Sabbath. For Christians it is the first day of the new week, the beginning of the new time, the memorial day of the resurrection called "the day of the Lord" (dies Domini).
Here and in verse 19, the Evangelist adopts an expression that is already traditional for Christians (e.g.: Mk 16: 2 e 9; Acts 20: 7) and is older that the expression that later became characteristic of the first evangelisation: "the third day" (e.g.: Lk 24: 7 e 46; Acts 10: 40; 1Cor 15: 4).
* Mary Magdalene: This is the same woman as the one present at the foot of the cross with other women (19: 25). Here she seems to be alone, but the words in verse 2 ("we do not know") show that the original story, worked on by the Evangelist, told of more women, as is true of the other Gospels (cfr Mk 16: 1-3; Mt 28: 1; Lk 23: 55-24, 1).
However the synoptics (cfr Mk 16: 1; Lk 24: 1), do not specify the reason for her visit to the sepulchre, seeing that it inferred that the rite of burial had already been carried out (19: 40); perhaps, the only thing missing is the funereal lamentation (cfr Mk 5: 38). In any case, the fourth Evangelist reduces to a minimum the story of the discovery of the empty sepulchre so as to focus the attention of the reader on what comes after.
* Early, while it was still dark: Mark (16: 2) says something different, but from both we understand that it was the very early hours of the morning, when the light is very weak and still pale. Perhaps John stresses the lack of light in order to contrast symbolically the darkness-lack of faith and light-welcoming of the Gospel of the resurrection.
* The stone had been taken away from the tomb: the Greek work is generic: the stone had been "taken away" or "removed" (different from: Mk 16: 3-4).
The verb to "take away" recalls Jn 1: 29: the Baptist points Jesus out as " Lamb who takes away the sin of the world". Perhaps the Evangelist wishes to recall the fact that this stone "taken away", flung away from the sepulchre is the material sign that death and sin have been "taken away" by the resurrection of Jesus?
* So she ran and went to Peter and the other disciple: Mary Magdalene runs to those who share her love for Jesus and her suffering for his atrocious death, now made worse by this new discovery. She turns to them, perhaps because they were the only ones who had not run away with the others and remained in contact with each other ( cfr 19: 15 e 26 - 27 ). She wants to share at least with them this final pain of the outrage committed against the body.
We see how Peter and the "beloved disciple" and Magdalene are characterised by a special love that unites them with Jesus: it is indeed reciprocal love that makes them capable of sensing the presence of the loved person.
* The other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved: is someone who appears only in this Gospel and only beginning with chapter 13, when he exhibits great intimacy with Jesus and deep understanding with Peter (13: 23-25). He appears at every decisive moment of the passion and of the resurrection of Jesus, but remains anonymous and many theories have been advanced on his identity. He is probably the anonymous disciple of the Baptist who follows Jesus together with Andrew (1: 35.40). Since the fourth Gospel never speaks of John the apostle and keeping in mind that this Gospel of recounts details clearly known to an eyewitness, the "disciple" has been identified with John the apostle. The fourth Gospel has always been attributed to him even though he may not have materially written it, yet the origin of this particular tradition is that this Gospel and other writings are attributed to John. This also explains why he is someone who is somewhat idealised.
"The one whom Jesus loved": It is clear that this is an addition not from the apostle, who would not have dared boast of having such a close relationship with the Lord, but from his disciples who wrote most of the Gospel and who coined this expression after reflection on the clearly privileged love between Jesus and this (cfr 13: 25; 21: 4. 7). Where we read the simpler expression "the other disciple" or "the disciple", obviously the editors did not make the addition.
* They have taken the Lord out of the tomb: these words, which recur in verses 13 e 15, show that Mary was afraid that body-snatchers had taken the body, a thing common then, so much so that the Roman Emperor had to promulgate severe decrees to check this phenomenon. In Matthew (28:11—15), the chief priests use this possibility to discredit the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and, eventually, to justify the lack of intervention on the part of the soldiers who guarded the tomb.
* The Lord: the title "Lord" implies an acknowledgement of divinity and evokes divine omnipotence. That is why this term was used by Christians for the risen Jesus. Indeed, the fourth Evangelist uses this term only in Paschal stories (see also 20: 13).
* We do not know where they have laid him: these words recall what happened to Moses, whose place of burial was unknown (Dt 34: 10). Another implicit reference is to the words of Jesus himself when he says that it is impossible to know where he was going (7: 11. 22; 8: 14. 28. 42; 13: 33; 14: 1-5; 16: 5).
* They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter…but he did not go in: This passage shows the anxiety that these disciples were living through.
The fact that the "other disciple" stopped, is more than just a gesture of politeness or respect towards someone older, it is the tacit acknowledgement that Peter, within the apostolic group, held a place of pre-eminence, even though this is not stressed. It is, therefore, a sign of communion. This gesture could also be a literary device to move from the event in terms of faith in the resurrection to the following and peak moment in the story.
* The linen cloths lying and the napkin…rolled up in a place by itself: although the other disciple did not go in, he had already seen something. Peter, crossing the entrance of the sepulchre, discovers the proof that no theft of the body took place: no thief would have wasted time to unfold the body, spread the cloths in an orderly fashion (on the ground would be translated better by "spread out" or "laid carefully on the floor") and then to roll up the napkin in a place by itself. Such an operation would have been complicated also because the oils with which the body had been anointed (especially myrrh) acted like glue, causing the cloths to stick perfectly and solidly to the body, almost as what happened to mummies. Besides, the napkin is folded; the Greek verb can also mean "rolled", or it could indicate that that piece of light cloth had, in large part, preserved the form of the face over which it had been placed, almost like a mortuary mask. The cloths are the same as those cited in Jn 19:40.
Everything is in order in the sepulchre, even though the body of Jesus is not there, and Peter was well able to see inside the sepulchre because the day was breaking. Different from Lazarus (11: 44), then, Christ rises abandoning completely his funerary trappings. Ancient commentators note that, in fact, Lazarus had to use the cloths again for his definitive burial, while Christ had no further use of them because he was not to die again (cfr Rm 6, 9).
* Peter…saw…the other disciple…saw and believed: at the beginning of the story, Mary also "saw". Although some translations use the same verb, the original text uses three different verbs (theorein for Peter; blepein for the other disciple and Mary Magdalene; idein, here, for the other disciple), allowing us to understand that there is a growth in the spiritual depth of this "seeing" that, in fact, culminates in the faith of the other disciple.
The anonymous disciple had certainly not seen anything other than that which Peter had observed. Perhaps he interprets what he sees differently from others because of the special relationship of love he had with Jesus (Thomas’ experience is emblematic, 29: 24-29). In any case, as indicated by the tense of the Greek verb, his is still an initial faith, so much so that he cannot find ways of sharing this experience with Mary or Peter or any of the other disciples (there is no further reference to this).
However, for the fourth Evangelist the double "see and believe" is quite meaningful and refers exclusively to faith in the resurrection of the (cfr 20: 29), Because it was impossible to believe truly before the Lord had died and rose (cfr 14: 25-26; 16: 12-15). The double vision-faith, then, characterises the whole of this chapter and "the beloved disciple" is presented as a model of faith who succeeds in understanding the truth about God through material (cfr also 21: 7).
* As yet they did not know the Scripture: this obviously refers to all the other disciples. Even for those who had lived close to Jesus, then, it was difficult to believe in Him, and for them, as for us also, the only gateway that allows us to cross the threshold of authentic faith is knowledge of the Scriptures (cfr Lk 24: 26-27; 1Cor 15: 34; Acts 2: 27-31) in the light of the events of the resurrection.
5. A few questions to direct our reflection and its practice
a) What, in the concrete, does it mean for us "to believe in Jesus the Risen One"? What difficulties do we encounter? Does the resurrection solely concern Jesus or is it really the foundation of our faith?
b) The relationship that we see between Peter, the other disciple and Mary Magdalene is clearly one of great communion in Jesus. In what persons, realities, institutions do we today find this same understanding of love and the same "common union" founded on Jesus? Where can we read the concrete signs of the great love for the Lord and "his own" that inspired all the disciples?
c) When we look at our lives and the reality that surrounds them, both near and far, do we see as Peter saw (he saw reality, but holds on to them, that is, to the death and burial of Jesus) or do we see as the other disciple saw (he sees facts and discovers in them signs of new life)?
6. Let us pray asking for grace and praising God
with a hymn taken from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians (paraphrase of 1: 17-23).
The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation
in the knowledge of him,
having the eyes of your hearts enlightened,
that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you,
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power
in us who believe, according to the working of his great might
which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead
and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places,
far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,
and above every name that is named,
not only in this age but also in that which is to come;
and he has put all things under his feet
and has made him the head over all things for the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of him who fills all in all.
7. Closing prayer
The liturgical context is of great importance in praying this Gospel and the event of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the hub of our faith and of our Christian life. The sequence that characterises the Eucharistic liturgy of today and of the whole week leads us to praise the Father and the Lord Jesus.
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer sacrifice and praise.
The sheep are ransomed by the Lamb;
and Christ, the undefiled
has sinners to his Father reconciled.
Death with life contended:
Combat strangely ended!
Life’s own Champion, slain,
Yet lives to reign.
Tell us Mary:
say what you see upon the way.
The tomb the living did enclose;
I saw Christ’s glory as he rose!
The angels there attesting;
Shroud with grave-clothes resting.
Christ, my hope, has risen:
He goes before you into Galilee.
That Christ is truly risen from the dead
your mercy show.
We may conclude our prayer also with this lively invocation by a contemporary poet, Marco Guzzi:
Love, Love, Love!
I wish to feel, live and express all this Love,
Which is a joyful commitment in the world
and a happy contact with the others.
Only you free me, only you release me.
And the snows fall to water
the greenest of valleys in creation.