Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 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.”
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:1-9 – NRSV)
1. Mary Magdalene went to the tomb “while it was still dark”. John makes repeated use of “the dark” and “the night” as metaphors for lack of faith and unbelief. For example:
a. 1:5 – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
b. 3:2 – “(Nicodemus) came to Jesus by night.” (See also 19:39)
c. 6:16-17 – “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”
d. 8:12 – “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
e. 9:4 – “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.”
f. 11:10 – “But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”
g. 12:35 – “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.”
h. 12:46 – “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”
i. 13:30 – “So, after receiving the piece of bread, (Judas) immediately went out. And it was night.”
2. Is there a confusion in the text? Mary goes to the tomb and sees that “the stone has been rolled away” – the text seems to imply she is on her own and there is no suggestion that she actually checks inside the tomb. Yet, when she gets back to Peter and “the other disciple” she tells them that, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”.
a. Perhaps it is actually a literary device which incorporates Peter and “the other disciple” in “the dark” – in not believing – with Mary Magdalene. Their non-believing assumption is that the body has been removed, not that the resurrection has taken place.
3. From their place of unbelief, Peter and “the other disciple” move towards the tomb. In fact the text says “they both ran”. Perhaps Mary Magdalene’s report had touched some depths in them where belief was beginning to take hold? Had they, after hearing Jesus’ teaching so often, half-guessed – but did not dare believe – the victory of God being played out in Jesus’ presence among them? Did they have some hidden hope, a suppressed suspicion that things might just turn out well?
a. Whatever is the truth, the story tells us the two moved towards “the place of the action of God: an empty tomb” (Francis Moloney). The real journey of faith has begun, especially for “the other disciple”: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”.
b. The two see, not only that the tomb is empty, but the garments of death – the shroud and the head cloth – have been rendered redundant. Those two disciples – and all disciples of Jesus – must now think of death in a new way.
c. But the “as yet they did not understand the scripture” statement suggests they still have some learning to do. The physical sight of the empty tomb and the discarded trappings of death are not enough to beget a mature faith. That must come through the Word in the community. A few verses on in this same final chapter, almost as parting or concluding words to the Gospel, John’s narrator tells us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”(John 20:29).
d. Unfortunately the last sentence is omitted from the Gospel text for today: “Then the disciples returned to their homes”. This brief sentence suggests the beginnings of a whole new life – a life of listening and pondering as a community that continues to this day and will go on in each and every community of disciples until the end of time.
Then Peter and the other disciple set out …..
If the truth be told, we are always “setting out”. It is a mistake to think that we “have arrived”. The “arrival” will be when we “pass over” as Jesus has “passed over”.
But we do not like this situation. We do not like to be always “setting out”, always “on the way”. We get tired of being pilgrims and look for a place to call home. What is actually happening here? Perhaps we are shielding ourselves against anxiety? Is there something in being a pilgrim that reminds us we are not in control and we do so want to be in control?
The journey we must make is not geographical. It is a journey of the heart, a journey that can be made while remaining in the same place. A story from the Desert Fathers is illustrative: “One of the best known of the Desert Fathers of fourth-century Egypt, Saint Serapion the Sidonite, traveled once on pilgrimage to Rome. Here he was told of a celebrated recluse, a woman who lived always in one small room, never going out. Sceptical about her way of life – for he was himself a great wanderer – Serapion called on her and asked: ‘Why are you sitting here?’ To this she replied: ‘I am not sitting, I am on a journey.’” [Jean-Marie Howe OCSO, Secret of the Heart: Spiritual Being, Cistercian Publications, 1999/2005, xiii.]
The “setting out” is always intentional, purposeful. It is a surrendering, a letting go and moving on. For the disciples of Jesus, it is a journey stimulated by the possibility of the “empty tomb”. The “what if the tomb is empty” is a far more evocative possibility than “what if the tomb is not empty”. For people who are in the dark, which possibility is likely to move you?