First reading: Acts 10:34, 37-43.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 117(118):1-2, 16-17, 22-23.
Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-4 / 1 Corinthians 5:6-8.
Gospel: John 20:1-9.
Link to readings.
The scripture readings set out for the Easter Sunday Mass remain unvaried across the three-year cycle—though an alternative, 1 Cor 5:6-8, is given for the second reading. It is somewhat odd that, unless one takes the option of reading at Evening Mass the appearance of the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), neither the Easter Vigil Gospel nor that of Easter Sunday describes an appearance of the risen Lord. We simply hear about the disciples’ discovery that the tomb of Jesus was empty.
The scene from the Fourth Gospel, John 20:1-9, set out for the Gospel, joins the Synoptic tradition in associating Mary Magdalene with this at first very dismaying fact. Later, of course, she will meet the risen Lord. Now, following her discovery that the tomb is empty, she comes running to Simon Peter and ‘the other disciple’ (the significant figure the Fourth Gospel calls ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’, identified in later Christian tradition with John, the son of Zebedee). Mary’s running and her plaintive cry, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him’, attest the anguish of continuing love and loss. The inference—Johannine irony at its best—is that some human agency (the gardener, the authorities, grave-robbers) have worked this final indignity on the Lord; even in death his body is to have no peace. So we are left with this tremendous sense of emptiness and loss.
At Mary’s report, Peter and the other disciple likewise set out on a ‘race’ of anxious love. By having the other disciple beat Peter in the race and arrive first, the evangelist sets the scene for a very significant distinction concerning what is to be seen in the tomb. Though he arrives first, the disciple does not enter the tomb immediately. Instead he bends down and sees the linen cloths in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped lying on the ground. Peter goes in and, once inside, sees something else as well: not only the linen cloths but also the cloth (corresponding to what we would call a ‘handkerchief’) that covered his face, rolled up neatly in a place by itself. What, if anything, Peter deduces from this arrangments of the grave cloths we do not know. But when the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ eventually enters the tomb and sees the complete scene, the neatly rolled-up face cloth functions for him as a sign. It realises that the absence of Jesus’ body was not due to human agency—robbers do not fold up neatly what they leave behind—but to a majestic, divine resumption of life. The One who had called himself ‘the Resurrection and the Life’ (11:25) has fulfilled his claim to have the power to lay down his life and likewise to take it up again (10:18).
As the evangelist comments, the beloved disciple ‘saw and believed’. He did not see the risen Jesus—as later Mary Magdalene, Peter, the other apostles and eventually Thomas, would see him—but he saw enough to make him recall the scriptural prophecy that the Messiah would rise from the dead. In this way, before all the others, he came to faith in the resurrection.
The unnamed ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ stands in there for all of us—believers of subsequent generations. Unlike Mary Magdalene, Peter and the insistent Thomas, we do not actually see (or feel or touch) the risen Lord. And yet, like that beloved disciple, we believe. We can see emptiness and absence not as failure and loss but as mysterious evidence of the divine power to bring life out of death, to call back into being ‘things that are not’ (Rom 4:17 [faith of Abraham]).
In this respect, perhaps, there is something appropriate in the Gospel readings for the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday not recording an appearance of the risen Lord. They draw from us a faith that in the Gospel for next Sunday Jesus will pronounce more ‘blessed’ in his words to Thomas: ‘You (Thomas) believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe’ (John 20:29).
The First Reading (Acts 10:34, 37-43) gives an account of the sermon Peter preached in the house of the pious Roman centurion Cornelius. It provides a neat summary of the essential gospel, which the four canonical gospels expand. The gospel reaches out to embrace the Gentile world, previously considered ‘unclean’; its inherent power to reconcile overcomes the alienation of that world from God.
In the Second Reading (Col 3:1-4) Paul reminds his audience that even now they share, in a hidden way, in the risen life of their Lord. Keeping constantly in mind the thought of his triumph over sin and death should light their present path with hope and joy.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media