“Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises! A Lamb the sheep redeems; Christ, who only is sinless, reconciles sinners to the Father. Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous: the Prince of life, who died, reigns immortal. Speak, Mary, declaring what you saw, wayfaring. ‘The tomb of Christ, who is living, the glory of Jesus’ resurrection; bright angels attesting, the shroud and napkin resting. Yes, Christ my hope is arisen; to Galilee he goes before you.’ Christ indeed from death is risen, our new life obtaining. Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning! Amen. Alleluia” (Easter sequence).
“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14,17, 19).
“Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia! For he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia! Has risen as he said, alleluia! Pray for us to God, alleluia! Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia! For the Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!” (The Regina Caeli).
The readings during Easter
We now enter into the glorious season of Easter, celebrating the resurrection of Christ from the dead. With this I must say a word about the structure of the readings during this season. The first thing that will be most obvious is that there is no reading from the Old Testament, other than the use of the Responsorial Psalm.
The “Introduction” to the Lectionary informs us, “The first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, which throughout the Easter season replaces the Old Testament reading. The reading from the Apostle Paul concerns the living out of the paschal mystery in the Church” (99). Then of course there is the Gospel reading which will focus on the resurrected Lord during the forty days leading up to his glorious Ascension.
The empty tomb
In the reading from John’s Gospel for this Easter Sunday we are told that Mary Magdalene “came to the tomb early, while it was still dark…” (Jn. 20:1). We know from Luke’s Gospel that other women were with her: “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women…” (24:10).
They love the Lord so much that they come to the tomb while it was still dark, probably in what the Romans considered the fourth watch of the night, which was anywhere between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. When they arrive Jesus is already risen, the tomb is empty. We almost get the impression that Jesus could not wait even for sunrise to come forth from the tomb. One can imagine Mary Magdalene recalling Jesus’ words, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (Jn. 8:12). The sun didn’t rise, but the Son did rise as he said he would.
The enormous stone was rolled away. So, Mary goes to Peter and the beloved disciple, John, and out of concern that someone has in fact stolen the body of Jesus, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (Jn. 20:2).
Peter and John run to the tomb, but the younger John arrives first, but does not go in. This is more than a courteous action on John’s part. He in fact knows that Jesus himself gave Peter a special authority and place in the Kingdom of God (cf. Mt. 16:16-19).
“Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:6-7)
As the Navarre Bible notes, “Some of the words contained in the account need further explanation, so terse is the translation…‘lying there’ seems to indicate that the clothes were flattened, deflated, as if they were emptied when the body of Jesus rose and disappeared – as if it had come out of the clothes and bandages without their being unrolled, passing right through them (just as later he entered the Cenacle [upper room] when the doors were shut)” (240). One might make the analogy that it was something like light passing through glass.
The Navarre Bible continues, “From these details concerning the empty tomb one deduces that Jesus’ body must have risen in a heavenly manner, that is, in a way which transcended the laws of nature. It was not only a matter of the body being reanimated as happened, for example, in the case of Lazarus, who had to be unbound before he could walk (cf. Jn. 11:44)” (240).
Also, by the details given in the narrative, the notion that Jesus’ body was stolen simply cannot be true. Why? Grave robbers did not steal bodies; they stole things in the tomb that were worth money, like the usually costly linen cloths. We know that Jesus’ linen cloths were expensive because he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, who was a rich man (cf. Mt. 27:57a). Also, even if someone were to steal a body they surely would not have left the cloths behind. It is surely much easier to carry a dead body with cloths on than without. We also have the fact noted in Matthew’s Gospel that guards were posted at the tomb, and we know that they did not fall asleep on the job (cf. 27:62-67; 28:11-15).
Of course proof of the resurrection cannot be exclusively shown through the fact that there was an empty tomb. However, we must note that the empty tomb and the garments did suffice for the beloved disciple who “saw and believed” (Jn. 20:8).
But the various resurrection narratives will not leave it there. They will go on to recount Jesus’ different appearances. In the reading from Acts for this Sunday Peter says, “God raised him on the third day and made him manifest; not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…” (10:40-41).
We will encounter some of these during the next six Sundays of the Easter season.
However, in the meantime, for those of us who have been baptized, let us remember the words of St. Paul in the second reading for this Sunday: “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).