The Empty Tomb
1On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.”3 So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.4They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first;5he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.6 When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,7and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.8Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.9 For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
Acts 10:34a, 37-43, Colossians 3:1-4
Mary of Magdala comes to the tomb early on Sunday, the first day of the week for the Jewish people, as soon as morning light allows for safe travel. Why so early? She has waited for the end of the Sabbath and the travel restrictions imposed in Jewish law. The Sabbath officially ended the night before when the first three stars appeared in the night sky. With the Sabbath complete, Mary had gone to the market and purchased the supplies she needed to prepare Jesus’s body for transport and eventual burial in Nazareth. Perhaps in Nazareth, she hoped, Jesus would be honored with a proper burial—perhaps near the grave of his adoptive father Joseph. The spices she has purchased will be used to wrap the body of her Rabbi in anticipation of the ninety-mile journey to his final resting place.
Mary arrives at the tomb and sees that the stone has already been rolled away. The burial chamber is empty. The body of Jesus has been moved. In a panic she runs to Peter, who with another disciple—usually identified as the apostle John—returns to the tomb to examine the evidence of her jarring discovery. Younger and faster than Peter, John arrives first and peers from the entrance into the tomb. In the Greek of the New Testament period he blepo, or “looked,” at the evidence that was inside the tomb. Peter arrives next on the scene and he enters the tomb. Our Gospel author uses a different Greek word to describe Peter’s experience. The Greek word thereo is used to describe how Peter saw the evidence in the empty tomb. Thereo is the Greek root of our English word “theory.” Peter critically examines the evidence in the empty tomb. Finally, John too enters and “he saw and believed.” The Greek word under “saw” in this case is ido, and it means “to gain intelligent comprehension.” John puts all the pieces of the puzzle together and believes.
We come to faith in stages. Like Mary of Magdala and the apostles Peter and John on the day of the Resurrection we have to work through stages of critical thinking as we consider the meaning and implications of Gospel events. They have walked with Jesus through his passion and to the cross and now they stand together at the empty tomb. Where are the guards? Why are the burial clothes lying in separate places? Where is the body of Jesus? So many questions are not answered, but they know that the body of Jesus is gone.
We honor Mary and these apostles for their critical thinking skills. John reminds us in a parenthetical phrase (see verse 9) that he and Peter did not understand from Scripture, even at that moment in the tomb, that Jesus had to rise from the dead. His crucifixion and death had shocked them to their core. Perhaps they reasoned that they would only need his memory to live on after his passing. We just don’t know. They were shocked by the reality of the empty tomb, a reality that remains equally shocking today. Our meditation on this resurrection account helps us focus on our own doubt and our need to believe in the resurrection each new day of our lives. He lives!
At Easter we can pray with St. Paul the prayer that he shared with the church he founded among the Philippians. This prayer can be found in Philippians 3:10-11 (NRSV): “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Biblical faith is the culmination of three separate but equally important parts. First there is knowledge. Then there is belief. Finally, there is trust. Mary, Peter, and John progressed through these three stages in this account of the resurrection. We have to pass through the same three stages ourselves.
Dr. Billy Graham summed up this truth with a story about a man who could ride a bicycle on a tight rope across Niagara Falls. You see the advertisement, so you know about the event. You know about the events, so you attend and watch in amazement as the feat is accomplished. Now you believe, but do you trust? No, insisted Dr. Graham, not until you are invited to get on the handlebar and ride across the falls with the performer himself. If you accept the invitation you begin to understand the concept of biblical faith. That is the trust element that brings us to true belief. Peter and John saw and believed and their message changed the course of history.