Seeing the Empty Tomb, Encountering the Resurrected Christ
User’s Guide to Sunday, April 12: Easter
Sunday, April 12, is Easter Sunday/the Resurrection of the Lord. Mass readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Psalm 118:1-2,16-17, 22-23; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9.
In his novel entitled Duma Key, the American author Stephen King wrote: “Remember that the truth is in the details. No matter how you see the world or what style it imposes on your work as an artist, the truth is in the details.” These words certainly apply to the Gospels, and they help us to understand why it is that John spends nine of the 21 chapters of his Gospel describing events that took place over a period of just eight days. On the one hand, the details that the Evangelist includes paint a vivid picture of his actual experience as an eyewitness, and, on the other hand, they impress upon the reader the importance of the events described. Thus, even though it might seem that John has included extraneous details in his account — such as the fact that the beloved disciple was faster than Peter (John 20:4-5), or that the cloth covering Christ’s face was rolled up and placed in a separate place than the other cloths (John 20:6-7) — these are in fact important for communicating divinely inspired truth to us.
As many Fathers from the very earliest days of the Church have pointed out, the second of these details, that of the placement of the burial cloths, is meticulously recounted by John in order to serve as a basis for meditating upon what is perhaps the most central truth of our faith as Christians: Christ is truly risen! After suffering and dying for our iniquities, Christ rose bodily from the dead, thereby completing his victory over sin and death.
Yet John does not communicate this essential truth to us directly in the language of theological principles, but, rather, with simple details from the scene of the empty tomb. Why? In essence, it is because John wanted both to share his experience with believers and to call forward a response of faith from them. As St. John Chrysostom points out, the empty tomb was “a sign of His Resurrection,” meaning that it pointed to the reality of the Resurrection without communicating everything about it at that precise moment. The Risen Christ did not disclose the full truth of his resurrection to Peter and John immediately. Instead, as St. Cyril of Alexandria explains, the apostles had to “infer His Resurrection from the bundle of linen clothes” and only afterward came to “believe that He had burst asunder the bonds of death …” (John 20:8-9). In other words, Christ intended the sign of the empty tomb, with the deliberately placed burial cloths, to elicit a response of faith from the apostles. It was only once this faith began to take hold — even if imperfectly — that Christ appeared to them in his resurrected body.
Herein lies the beauty and depth of the passage of John’s Gospel that we read this Easter Sunday. Presented with this detailed description of the empty tomb, we, like the apostles, are confronted with this sign of Christ’s resurrection. It is for us to contemplate this sign and to respond in faith by “inferring the Resurrection,” much like Peter and John did all those centuries ago. In this way, the Evangelist is able to share with us the experience not only of seeing the empty tomb but also of being disposed by it to encounter the Resurrected Christ.
Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor
in sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Faculty of the
Immaculate Conception at the
Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.