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Archbishop Follo: Easter: A Day When a Tomb Becomes a Cradle

With the wish to understand that Easter is a fact that concerns us and changes our life.

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Roman Rite – Easter Sunday – Year B – April 1st, 2018
Acts 10.34a.37-43; Ps 118; Col 3.1-4; Jn 20: 1-9
Ambrosian Rite
Acts 1: 1-8a; Ps 118; 1Cor 15.3-10a; Jn 20: 11-18
Easter Sunday in the Resurrection of the Lord
1) The Resurrection of Christ is a historical fact and a dogma of faith.
The resurrection is a dogma of the Christian faith, which is grafted into a fact that has historically happened and confirmed. Today, Easter Day, we are called to reflect “with the mind kneeled” on the mystery enunciated by the dogma, enclosed in the historical fact and celebrated in the liturgy.
The truth of the resurrection is documented by the New Testament, believed and lived as central point by the first Christian communities, transmitted as fundamental by Tradition and that continues to be deepened, studied and preached as an essential part of the paschal mystery.
My reflections follow this path that the Church offers us, but I will limit myself to the passage of today’s Gospel in which St John recounts: “On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.“(Jn 20,1-9).
As you can see, the story develops around the “empty tomb”. The tomb without the body of Christ is not enough to “prove” his resurrection. The empty tomb, the removed entrance stone and the sheets that wrapped Jesus arranged in an orderly manner, if not a “proof” of the resurrection, are, however “signs” for those who know how to read them correctly, kneeling with their heart.
In this prayerful “reading” of today’s Gospel, it is useful to examine the reactions of the people who first went to see the empty tomb: Mary Magdalene, Peter and the “other disciple”, John, the “Disciple that Jesus loved “.
When John entered the tomb after Peter, he “saw and believed” that the tomb carved for death had become our cradle for a new life because he who triumphed over death is the firstborn among the dead (Ap 1,5). Today is Easter, passage and liberation for Jesus and for all his brothers. Following the path that He has traced to us, the day will come when, even for us, death, which destroys everything and is our enemy par excellence, will be annihilated by the realm of immortality (see 1Cor 15,26).
2) A tomb that becomes a cradle
It should be noted that Peter enters the tomb and “observes” the linen and the shroud carefully folded. The Greek text of the Gospel uses the verb “theoréin”, which means more than just seeing physical: in fact, it means to “scrutinize” and involves a careful, reflective, questioning look. Actually, from the parallel passage of Luke (24.12), we learn that Peter was “full of amazement” for what happened, and of which he is the most authoritative witness. For his “seeing” John uses the Greek verb “eidein”, the perfect of “horào”, which means to look, to perceive, to get to know; in the biblical language of the New Testament, the verb also indicates spiritual vision.
John says that he “saw and believed”. Why? What did he “see”, and what did he “believe”?
Unlike Peter, John had remained with Jesus until the end and had witnessed his burial. Now, bent over the tomb, he sees that the bandages and the shroud are exactly in the position in which the body had been placed so to exclude any tampering.
Let us remember that for the evangelist John “to see” (“horào”) is also to become aware of an event of revelation. The beloved disciple, therefore “saw” in a deeper way than Peter. In this “seeing” he was helped – as I mentioned above – by his previous experience of having been among those who had brought Christ to the tomb.
But, above all, it was the love for Jesus, of which the “beloved disciple” had been penetrated, that let light pass through him: the bandages, slumped but still wrapped, and the shroud in that strange position, were the sign that Jesus had come out of the tomb alive, escaping in a mysterious way from the clothes that enveloped him. John, therefore, in the arrangement of the bandages and of the shroud, sees a postponement. He did not see the Risen One, but his traces. However, looking with love at these traces was enough for him to believe.
Even Mary Magdalene, thanks to her love, went to the tomb, saw it open and empty and went to tell Peter. Then, she returned there and in the garden met the Risen Lord.
Let’s proceed with the order. Arrived at the tomb to embalm the body of the Master, Mary sees (in Greek “blépei”) the stone removed and turned away. Her vision is expressed with “blépo”, a Greek verb that indicates the physical seeing, the simple sight with the eyes, the material perception. From this perception, the woman arrives at a purely human conclusion: the corpse is gone, so it has been stolen and taken away. Hence her pain, or rather her anguish, because it was taken from her – perhaps forever – the only relic that had remained of her beloved Master.
She informs Peter and John, the two greatest exponents of the early Christian community, and they too go straight to the tomb.
After the return of the two Apostles, Magdalene could not resist the desire to visit the Master’s tomb again. The thought that the vanished body can lie without honor and without burial, torments her ardent and upset soul. Alone, she returns to the tomb. There, in her inconsolable pain, she cries.
Suddenly, she is faced with a man, and this man is Jesus. Magdalene does not recognize him: she is looking for the dead body of his Master and wants to bury him again. Love guides her, but faith does not illuminate that love; she does not notice that the one whose inanimate spoils she is looking for, is there alive and near.
Jesus, in his ineffable condescension, is kind enough to make his voice heard: “Woman – he tells her – why are you crying? What are you looking for?” Magdalene does not even recognize this voice. Her heart is as if entranced by an excessive and blind sensibility. Her spirit does not yet recognize Jesus, who finally calls her by name: “Mary!” “Master” she replies and wants to kiss his feet like when, washing them with precious perfume and tears, she received forgiveness of her sins. But Jesus stops her; the time has not yet come to abandon herself to effusions of joy. First, she must go and announce to the Apostles what she has seen and what she has heard in that garden: Who she has met, the risen Christ. It is she who will be, as the Holy Doctors say, the Apostle of the Apostles. Jesus tells her: “Go to my brothers and tell them that I ascend to my and your Father, my and your God”. Let us do the same.
“A virgin breasts found full and a full tomb found empty constitute the same sign” (K. Barth). The entrance, like the exit of the Son of God from life and from the world, remain shrouded in mystery. But it is a mystery of love. If we, with Easter, convert to this love, our daily life will be a reflection that will give light and warmth to everyone.
May the joy of Easter inspire us to bring to everyone the message that Christ has risen for the salvation of the whole world. In His name let’s bring to everyone the proclamation of conversion and forgiveness of sins, above all through the witness of a converted and forgiven life.
We must be witnesses of God’s mercy. There is no Easter in our hearts and lives if we are not at peace with God, with ourselves, with others, and with the whole world.
Easter begins with this conversion of the heart to mercy. In the Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis invited us to strive to live concretely this dimension of the resurrection of Christ which is mercy and to have a heart open to forgiveness.
We can give this testimony of the risen and merciful Christ if we are “clothed with the power of the above” (Lk 24: 49), that is, with the inner strength of the Spirit of the Risen Lord. “To receive it, it is necessary, as Jesus told the disciples, not to leave Jerusalem and to remain in the ‘city’ where the mystery of salvation, the supreme God’s act of love for humanity, was consumed. For the Christians, citizens of the world, staying in Jerusalem can mean remaining in the Church, the ‘city of God for men”(Benedict XVI).
Patristic reading
Saint John Chrysostom (344/354 – 407)
Homily 86
on John 20: 10 – 21
“Then the disciples went away again unto their own home. But Mary stood without at the sepulcher, weeping.”
[ 1.] Full of feeling somehow is the female sex, and more1 inclined to pity. I say this, lest thou shouldest wonder how it could be that Mary wept bitterly at the tomb, while Peter was in no way so affected. For, “The disciples,” it saith, “went away unto their own home”; but she stood shedding tears. Because hers was a feeble nature, and she as yet knew not accurately the account of the Resurrection; whereas they having seen the linen clothes and believed, departed to their own homes in astonishment. And wherefore went they not straightway to Galilee, as had been commanded them before the Passion? They waited for the others, perhaps, and besides, they were yet at the height of their amazement. These then went their way: but she stood at the place, for, as I have said, even the sight of the tomb tended greatly to comfort her. At any rate, thou seest her, the more to ease her grief, stooping down,2 and desiring to behold the place where the body lay. Therefore she received no small reward for this her great zeal. For what the disciples saw not, this saw the woman first, Angels3 sitting, the one at the feet, the other at the head, in white; even the dress4 was full of much radiance5 and joy. Since the mind of the woman was not sufficiently elevated to accept the Resurrection from the proof of the napkins, something more takes place, she beholdeth something more; Angels sitting in shining garments, so as to raise her thus awhile from her passionate sorrow, and to comfort her. But they said nothing to her concerning the Resurrection, yet is she gently led forward in this doctrine. She saw countenances bright and unusual; she saw shining garments, she heard a sympathizing voice. For what saith (the Angel)?
Jn 20,13. “Woman, why weepest thou?”By all these circumstances, as though a door was being opened for her, she was led by little and little to the knowledge of the Resurrection. And the manner of their sitting invited her to question them, for they showed that they knew what had taken place; on which account they did not sit together either, but apart from one another. For because it was not likely that she would dare at once to question them, both by questioning her and by the manner of their sitting, they bring her to converse. What then saith she?She speaks very warmly and affectionately; “They 6 have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him.” “What sayest thou? Knowest thou not yet anything concerning the Resurrection, but dost thou still form fancies about His being laid 7 ?” Seest thou how she had not yet received the sublime doctrine? Jn 20,14. “And when she had thus said, she turned herself back.”
And by what kind of consequence is it, that she having spoken to them, and not having yet heard anything from them, turned back? Me-thinks that while she was speaking, Christ suddenly appearing behind her, struck the Angels with awe; and that they having beheld their Ruler, 9 showed immediately by their bearing, their look, their movements, that they saw the Lord; 10 and this drew the woman’s attention and caused her to turn herself backwards. To them then He appeared on this wise, but not so to the woman, in order not at the first sight to terrify her, but in a meaner and ordinary form, as is clear from her supposing that He was the gardener. It was meet to lead one of so lowly a mind to high matters, not all at once, but gently. He therefore in turn asketh her,
Jn 20,15. “Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou?”
This showed that He knew what she wished to ask, and led her to make answer. And the woman, understanding this, doth not again mention the name of Jesus, but as though her questioner knew the subject of her inquiry replies,
“Sir, 11 if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.”
Again she speaks of laying down, and taking away, and carrying, as though speaking of a corpse. But her meaning is this; “If ye have borne him hence for fear of the Jews, tell me, and I will take him.” Great is the kindness and loving affection of the woman, but as yet there is nothing lofty with her. 12 Wherefore He now setteth the matter before her, not by appearance, but by Voice. For as He was at one time known to the Jews, and at another time unperceived 13 though present; so too in speaking, He, when He chose, then made Himself known; as also when He said to the Jews, “Whom seek ye?” they knew neither the Countenance nor the Voice until He chose. And this was the case here. And He named her name only, 14 reproaching and blaming her that she entertained such fancies concerning One who lived.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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