The summit of the liturgical year is now upon us, as we celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Our Lord. This year’s Gospel reading for Easter Sunday is from John, and as is often the case with the fourth gospel, it is full of intriguing details.
Jesus’ tomb is empty, and the disciples are running around (some faster than others) trying to figure out what happened. Mary Magdalene’s initial assumption is that someone has broken into the tomb and taken the body, yet she herself makes no mention of the body; she simply says “they have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” She could have said they took “his body” and she didn’t know where they put “it,” but she did not. Here we sense the persistence of the link between her relationship to him and her relationship to his body, even if that body is now torn and lifeless. In this sense, her personal manner of referring to Jesus’ body is reminiscent of the “myrrh-bearers” of Mark 16, who go to the tomb at first light after the Sabbath in order to anoint Jesus with “sweet spices.” It is difficult to think of an act of lesser utility! I am all too often tempted to respond to this act like Judas, when he watched Mary (Martha’s sister) wiping the nard off Jesus’ feet with her hair: what are you doing? What a waste! Yet it is this this desire to honor and care for Jesus’ body that occasions humanity’s first encounter with the central event of Christian salvation: Mary and the myrrh-bearers’ attachment to Jesus’ body lead them to the site where they discover the good news that death is not able to annihilate the divine life and love that has come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
There is a profound connection, I would submit, between Mary Magdalene’s witness of the empty tomb and the other Mary’s extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet. They both uncover the deepest meaning of the concrete event we celebrate at Pascha, namely that this person is alive. Judas merely saw the “cash value” of the nard which Mary poured over Jesus’ feet, and criticized her lack of concern for the poor, but as the gospel tells us, he responded that way “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” A thief in the ordinary pecuniary sense, yes, but also a thief in his desire to take away from Mary her gift. Judas’ avarice sought to take from her not only her ointment, but the moment in which she would give it to Jesus, and thereby convey the depth of her love for him. (Poor Mary! Hadn’t her sister done the same kind of thing?) Yet ultimately, while the myrrh-bearing women are trudging to the tomb at the break of dawn (Mark 16), Judas is hanging from a tree (Matthew 27), his 30 silver pieces scattered across the courtyards of the Sanhedrin.
Rarely in the Bible is concern for the poor downplayed, and certainly Jesus’ own life is an embodiment of the preferential option for the poor, but in these vivid detail-laden accounts of Jesus’ last days- and particularly in the accounts of his resurrection- what confronts us is not the acclamation of any abstract principle or social agenda, but rather the disappearance and reappearance of a person. For Mary Magdalene and the disciples on Easter morning, the urgent question was not “what sort of anthropology, moral system or social principles does this event imply?” but simply “where is he?” Sometimes, particularly in the rareified atmosphere of academia, we lose sight of the immediacy of that pivotal moment in salvation history. They were not looking for a platform or a philosophy; they were looking for him.
The “good news” of course, is that he was not there. His reappearance is simultaneous with his disappearance. It is worth mentioning that in this Gospel reading of the most important liturgical celebration of the year, Jesus makes no appearance at all. The disciples discover the empty tomb and observe it, but Jesus does not appear. Yet John notices the strange way the burial cloths are arranged, especially the cloth that covered his head. The reading then says “he saw and believed.” John knew that something was up; he was able to apprehend the Lord’s resurrection even inside the empty tomb. The emptiness conveyed the news of the fulfillment of his most audacious hopes.
The image of the empty tomb reminds me of a wonderful meditation by Br. Dominic Mary Verner, which I read the other day at the Dominicana blog. There Br. Dominic reflects on his visit to the September 11th Memorial in New York City, and relates his puzzlement with the bleakness of its design. The water ceaselessly descending into the formless black hole in the ground prompts him to start praying the sorrowful mysteries. “As I prayed,” he said,
I came to realize that, although the new memorial captured with impressive solemnity the sorrow of that infamous September day, nevertheless there was something missing. There was no symbol of hope, no sign of love amid the torment. I could find no symbol of Christ’s victory anywhere at the memorial. This absence is to be expected, I suppose, in our increasingly secular nation, but the question comes to mind: why memorialize tragedy without hope? Why remember suffering without love?
For those first disciples on Easter morning, the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb, like the emptiness of the 9/11 Memorial, is ambiguous. On the surface, it is just absence. One could easily ask, “why bother with the body? Why drag out this debacle? Why not just go home, move on and start to forget the whole thing?” Yet for John, inside that empty grave, as he caught glimpse of that peculiar “something” about the arrangement of the burial cloths, the absence became a sign of endless joy. The absence was a sign that the original absence of the one who loved him was not ultimate. Like the wounds into which Thomas will later place his hand, this absence is a final confirmation of enduring presence: the enduring presence of the person for whom our hearts were made.