JOHN 20:1-18

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. 2 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.” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

We should find it a bit peculiar how an empty tomb and folded grave clothes might validate a belief that Jesus was alive. Strictly speaking, the absence of a dead body doesn’t logically imply a resurrected one. The story tells us that Peter and “the beloved disciple” (a self reference to the author of the Fourth Gospel, traditionally identified with John) went home not quite understanding what had happened.

Interestingly, the Gospel according to Mark, which was written perhaps thirty years before this account, has everyone confused and afraid, once the disciples discover the empty tomb. There is no encounter with the risen Jesus and no resurrection appearances to confirm the miracle. The reader is left wondering what’s going on.

With the intervening narratives of Matthew and Luke, more confirmation details are added to the story: visitations of angels, an earthquake at the very moment of Jesus’ resurrection, his appearance to a couple of downcast disciples on their way to Emmaus, and his reunion with the whole group on a mountain.

It seems that early Christians were working hard to rebut the skeptics who may have been calling into question the whole platform of their movement. Jesus is alive? Prove it. 


At first, the best the Christians could do was get the reader closer and closer to the resurrection event – visitors in white, quaking ground, and the real-time descent of an angel who rolls aside the stone (Matthew). But then again, the empty cave is really nothing more than a statement that “he is not here.” Then where is he?

Scholars conjecture that this is when the appearance narratives became necessary. Here he is! He appeared to this one, these two, a few women early in the morning, and to those eleven on the mountain. John will add his own appearance episodes: on Easter evening to most of the disciples, and again a week later when Thomas is there.

As John tells the story, the first witness of the risen Jesus was not one from the inner group of male disciples, but Mary of Magdala. The earlier Gospels of Mark (longer ending) and Luke introduce us to Mary as one out of whom Jesus had cast no fewer than seven demons. As the details around the resurrection are changing across the four canonical Gospels, the presence of Mary Magdalene is a noteworthy constant.

This narrative figure – devoted follower of Jesus and walking personification of New Life – had become the very embodiment of what the resurrection is all about. Not a vacant tomb, folded grave clothes, angelic visitors, nor even the reported appearances of Jesus himself could match the convincing testimony of one whose life had been transformed by him.

Still today, there is no more solid evidence that Jesus lives than the courageous freedom and joyful presence of those who carry his spirit within them. The resurrection cannot be proved or disproved as an historical event.

It either happens now, or it doesn’t really matter.

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