by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
There are days when I find myself complaining out loud in prayer: “Dear Jesus, could you have made it just a little easier?”
This happens often enough when I find myself poring over the pages of the Scriptures, studying and pondering what I might say from the pulpit about the resurrection. Wouldn’t things have been so much easier, I think to myself, if the Risen Jesus had chosen to show Himself to those who opposed Him, to those who didn’t understand Him or to those who were just plain indifferent to Him during the course of His ministry. Wouldn’t that have been the ultimate in-your-face “Gotcha!” on the part of the glorious Son of God? But no – that wasn’t the plan at all!
Shaken with Fear
Only in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 28: 1-10), proclaimed at the Easter Vigil this year, do we have the single exception (of sorts) that proves the rule. The soldiers that Pontius Pilate sent to guard the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing the body of Jesus see the angel descend from heaven and roll back the stone. The evangelist tells us that “the guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.” If the sight of a mere angel had that effect on men who had likely seen more than their share of frightful sights on the battlefield, how much more would the soldiers have been awe-struck by the sight of the Crucified Jesus Himself raised from the dead!
Yet that wasn’t ever part of the plan. Instead the Risen Jesus reveals Himself only to His friends, only to His own followers. In this Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel, Mary of Magdala makes her way to the tomb. Finding it empty, she hurries back to report: “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” On hearing this unsettling news, Simon Peter and another unnamed disciple quickly make their way to the tomb. Running more quickly than the fisherman from Galilee, the unnamed disciple gets there first; he looks inside and sees the burial cloths. When Simon Peter shows up, he enters the tomb and sees the burial cloths for himself, “and the cloth that had covered [Jesus’] head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.” Only then does the unnamed disciple enter the tomb, and the Gospel tells us that “he saw and believed.” What made it possible for this disciple to put things together while Peter remained clueless? After all, both of them saw the burial cloths.
The key to this comes from the way this follower of Jesus is described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” While some interpreters have suggested that this disciple’s name is John, the Gospel itself actually never tells us his name. At the Last Supper, he is seated in the place of honor at Jesus’ side, and it is this disciple whom Simon Peter urges to ask Jesus to disclose the identity of His betrayer (See John 13:21-29). At the foot of the cross, it is this disciple whom Jesus entrusts to the care of His Mother, who is, in turn, told to receive the disciple as her son (see John 19:26-27). It is on this disciple’s testimony to the events he witnessed – we learn in John 21:24 – that the fourth Gospel is based.
Close Relationship with Jesus
Hardly just a symbolic figure, this disciple who is unnamed throughout the Gospel is identified by a signifier that is even more important than his given name. We may not be sure of his name but because he is identified as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” we know of his close relationship with Jesus. Actually, he is not alone among the characters in this Gospel in that respect. John’s Gospel never refers to Mary by her given name, identifying her instead as “the mother of Jesus” when we meet her at the wedding feast in Cana and again when she appears at the cross of her crucified Son.
It was the beloved disciple’s relationship with Jesus that made all the difference when he arrived at the empty tomb. This disciple had witnessed the emergence of Lazarus from the tomb, bound hand and foot with burial bands and his face wrapped in a cloth (John 11:44). He could testify to the depth of the love that moved Jesus to tears at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, a love so powerful that it summoned the dead man back to life. That very same love made it possible for this disciple to see the burial cloths left behind in the empty tomb and thereby to believe that death had no power over Jesus. The Risen One, unbound, left the tomb and the trappings of death behind.
As for Peter, the Risen Jesus doesn’t leave him out of the picture, even after that apostle’s threefold denial. Not once or even twice, but three times Jesus faces him with the question: “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter’s affirmative answer is met with the invitation for him to walk the talk: “Feed my sheep” and “Follow me” (See John 21:15-19).
In the first reading for Easter Sunday, we hear this fisherman from Galilee, now rehabilitated and reconciled by the love of the Risen Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming of his Master that “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Peter knew full well not by hearsay but by his own experience that “everyone who believes in Him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
If we can say “Christ is risen,” it is now up to us to put this proclamation into practice so that others might become convinced – through the power of Christ’s love at work in us – that this great Good News is true.
All of us, having died to sin in the waters of baptism, are called to give witness with our words and with the example of our lives that Jesus has trampled down the grim powers of sin and death. If Peter could do it, then surely there must be hope for the likes of us!
Readings for the Resurrection of the Lord: The Mass of Easter Sunday
Acts 10: 34a, 37-43
Psalm 118: 1-2, 16-17, 22-23
Colossians 3: 1-4 or
1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8
John 20: 1-9
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.