Easter Day: 21 April John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday offers us the choice of running with John or with Luke. Easter is a moment of celebration in which faith bursts the normal bounds of report and memory. It is not difficult to sense the common message in the stories which the gospel writers bring to us. Nor can we oversee the great variety in the way they tell the story. It is so true that reporting will not do. Imagination, story telling, fantasy must all play a role each time the scene is re-run. Hence the extraordinarily rich diversity in the accounts. We can only speculate about the processes which went into celebrating the defeat of Christís defeat. In Johnís terms, the one whom the world lifted to a cross God has lifted to his presence.
Recent proposals to identify a family tomb of Jesus have helped focus on the nature of burial. If not directly buried in a trench, as all but the rich were and as we do, a body would be laid in a niche cut in the side wall of a tomb cavern. After some time it would be removed, and the bones would be collected in an ossuary. All the gospels agree that Joseph of Arimathea solved the problem of dealing with Jesus (digging a trench and burying him) before the sabbath started at sunset by putting him in his family tomb. This already suggests that no family tomb of Jesus existed in Jerusalem. If anywhere it would have been in Galilee, had he come from a rich enough family. The ossuaries of the 1980 find confirm how common such names as Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, found on some of the boxes, were. Few scholars have found the proposals cogent. The gospel accounts, for their part, all assume the body has gone, but none really knows where, except to affirm that soon people will see an appearing and vanishing Jesus, and acclaim him alive. For more detail see the article by leading archaeologist of the period, Jodi Magness, http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=640.
As we feel our way into Johnís narrative we can try to imagine why his story has its particular emphases. Jesus remains central, but apart from that only certain people make an appearance on stage and they do distinctive things. Instead of Ďthe womení who in the other gospels discover the empty tomb and, in Matthew, meet the risen Jesus, we have only Mary Magdalene, - an earlier tradition or a Johannine touch, no one really knows, though people have strong reasons for wanting it to be one way or other. Even if it is Johnís Ďtouchí, it in no way detracts from the insight that faith must abandon the worldís gender prejudice. John certainly does. If it is history, the commitment is the same, unless we must tie arguments to notions that first is best. Equally important in the narrative in this regard is the intimate meeting in the garden. In a single sentence Mary receives the secret Jesus expounded to the others over five chapters in the upper room (John 13-17) and that makes sense of the resurrection event. The Son is returning to the Father.
Mary may have been seen as a symbol of the women then; she is certainly a symbol for us. Other characters also carry symbolic valency. It is hard not to see Peter being portrayed in his widely acknowledged role as leader of the community of disciples. Johnís story may be offering its own version of a tradition which also makes him the first witness, which appears to be known independently to Paul (1 Cor 15:3-5), Mark (14:7) and Luke (24:34). John indicates Peter was first to enter the tomb. John has done his own quaint justice to the tradition, but only after his favourite character, the Ďbeloved discipleí wins the race to get there. It is a fascinating side play in which Peter is respected, but effectively outmanoeuvred by the beloved disciple and by Mary. But even here the focus is less on being first there and more on true faith. The message is clear: in the church in which Peterís leadership is not disputed, true faith and insight comes through the beloved disciple and through Mary. They must be heard. The writer is doubtless affirming the great riches of his own tradition. It is a kind of assertive yet inclusive ecumenism which insists on what matters and speaks to the Church today.
Johnís narrative is full of drama: the race to the tomb and the irony of mistaken identity. They are stories which celebrate the faith and enshrine the emphases of one particular community. They are strongly political but also vibrant and beautiful, particularly the meeting of Mary and Jesus. It is story telling at its best. It becomes true for us and our hearers when we can find ourselves part of the encounter.
John does remarkable things to the traditional stories surrounding Easter. His emphasis certainly falls on the reality of the resurrection as much as it does in Luke, as we shall see next week, but the focus is not a resurrected Jesus who materialises to his disciples. It is the fact that resurrection means God has vindicated Jesus and that as the Son he has returned to the Father, initiating the new stage in Godís history with humanity: the sending of the Spirit which will equip the disciples. John paints a scene in 20:19-22 which combines this into one event. Thus what elsewhere appears as Pentecost and the great commission takes place in John on Easter Day. Likewise in his words to Mary Jesus announces his immediate ascension (20:17); Easter Day is also Ascension Day.
Mary is not to hold onto Jesus, which would amount to an understanding of resurrection which missed its point and place Mary with the fingering Thomas. John no more wants to deny actual resurrection than he wants to deny miracles of the ministry, but he appears to pursue his concern of directing peopleís attention to something much more significant. Ultimately what matters is believing that in Jesus we see the Son who has come from the Father and has returned to the Father. In him we meet God and Godís gifts of light and life and truth. That love people spurned, but God exalted as his own. The Spirit now brings the gift of light and life and truth through the community of faith. To share that life is to participate in the relationship of love which the Son and Father share. That is Jesusí prayer for his own according to John 17. For hearers of the gospel read at a single setting, Jesusí words to Mary would have recalled the themes of the last discourses and the writer doubtless intended so. Without this insight our Easter celebrations can flounder about clutching onto the body of Jesus and getting bogged down into proving materiality.
First Reading: Easter Day: 21 April Acts 10:34-43
Epistle: Easter Day: 21 April 1 Corinthians 15:19-26
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