I have always enjoyed the sensate elements of the Easter season — a brightly lit church, Easter lilies, incense, a blaring church organ and a joyful choir singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” These elements of Easter are all very pleasing and help to lift up our hearts, and, if we let them, they can serve to remind us that Easter is a time to celebrate our faith in the risen Lord, a time to renew our baptismal commitment, a time to commit ourselves to spreading the Good News.
Faith in Jesus, crucified and resurrected, is at the center of our lives as Christians. Our faith has been handed down to us from the Apostles, who followed Jesus, listened to his teaching, beheld his healing works, witnessed his death, resurrection and ascension, and received the gift of his Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Easter season is all about faith in the resurrected Lord, who moved from darkness to light, death to life and struggle to glory. He teaches us to bear our crosses in life with our minds and hearts fixed on the resurrection and eternal life.
In the Gospel of John, there are four scenes related to faith in the resurrected Lord that take place in Jerusalem — two at the empty tomb and two in the locked room where the disciples are gathered. These scenes depict how the followers of Jesus came to believe in his resurrection.
The first scene (John 20:1-10) is that of Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb and finding it empty. Thinking that someone must have moved Jesus’ body, she immediately goes to relate this to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, John.
John arrives at the tomb first, but allows Peter to enter first and follows him, and there they discover the tomb empty except for the burial cloths. Finding the burial cloths is significant. Had someone moved the body, the burial cloths would have stayed with the body, but that is not the case here. The narrative relates that the beloved disciple “saw and believed.” (John 20:8) It is astonishing that anyone would come to resurrection faith from seeing the empty tomb and the burial cloths even before seeing the resurrected Lord, yet that is what the Gospel of John says about the beloved disciple.
In the second scene (John 20:11-18) Mary Magdalene returns to the tomb, where she encounters two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Suddenly Jesus appears, and Mary mistakes him for the gardener. She does not recognize him until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary.” (John 20:16) This hearkens back to the passage in John’s Gospel of Jesus the Good Shepherd, whose “sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.” (John 10:4) At this moment, she comes to faith in the resurrected Lord.
Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” She, likely, had fallen down to worship Jesus, embracing his feet, as Matthew’s Gospel describes the women doing when they encounter the risen Lord. (Matthew 28:9) To hold on to Jesus at this point would be to deny the significance of his return to the Father in glory. Mary’s role is not to cling to Jesus, but to announce his return to the Father.
Jesus, then, instructs Mary to proclaim the good news to the “brothers.” (John 20:17) He no longer calls them “disciples” but “brothers,” because now, through his resurrection, they share the same Father with Jesus. Mary, who announces the Good News to the brothers, becomes the “Apostle to the Apostles.”
The third scene (John 20:19-25) takes place in the evening of the day of the resurrection. Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room, and at this moment, they come to faith in the resurrection. Jesus extends his peace to his disciples, and sends them on a mission, just as the Father had sent him.
Jesus breathes his Spirit upon the disciples, giving them power over sin. The giving of his Spirit signifies that he has completed his mission in this world, and that the Apostles are beginning their mission.
The fourth scene (John 20:19-25) addresses Thomas’ unbelief. Thomas was not present when Jesus appeared to the other disciples, and now confronted with the news that they had seen the resurrected Lord, Thomas demands proof. He wants to examine the wounds on the hands and side of Jesus before he will believe.
When Jesus appears to his disciples a week later, he offers him his hands and side. The wounds reveal that the Risen Lord is Jesus, who had been crucified. There is no indication that Thomas actually probed the marks on the hands and side of Jesus. To do so would have been a sign of persisting unbelief. Instead, upon encountering Jesus, he comes to faith, and utters, “My Lord and my God,” the most profound confession of faith in Jesus found in the Gospels. (John 20:28)
Jesus then says, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (John 20:29) In this way, Jesus blesses all future generations, who come to believe because they accept the faith witness of the Apostles.
We believe and profess that Christ is alive and in our midst. He is present in the Word of God proclaimed. He is present in the Eucharist that we share. He is present in his Holy Spirit, who leads and guides us as we make our way through life.
Christ is alive, and we are called to proclaim his resurrection not only by our words, but also by our attitudes and actions. By our acts of generosity toward those in need, by the hospitality we show the stranger, by our kindness toward those who are hurting, by the love we show to the marginalized — by all these ways we proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected. Christ is alive, and our faith in him motivates us to be instruments of his love and mercy in this world.
(For further reflection, see Raymond Brown, “An Introduction to the New Testament;” Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel According to John;” and the “Reading Guide” on John in “The Catholic Study Bible, New American Bible.”)