WHILE LABORING through graduate studies, I lived at an extraordinary parish in Chicago, St. Thomas the Apostle, whose self-designation was "God's People in Wonderful Variety." The parish had exuberant and prayerful liturgies, especially during Holy Week and Easter. One Easter the children's liturgy featured different classes presenting their gifts to the risen Jesus. A class of fourth graders lumbered up the aisle with a stuffed teddy bear twice the size of the gift-bearers. The bear then reclined serenely against the altar, facing the congregation. After the liturgy an irate parishioner phoned, appalled at the liturgy and especially the smiling teddy bear, and kept repeating, "It was a total surprise" that "simply did not fit in." After a few forays on my part into the themes of God's love for all creation and gratitude over the enthusiasm of children, the teddy bear remained insurmountable. Finally, with some resignation, I said, "You are absolutely right, it was a total surprise and simply did not fit in; but neither does resurrection from the dead."
The selections from Acts and Paul proclaim the profound meanings of the resurrection: Cod has raised up Jesus; we have been raised up "in company with Christ." The ancient horror of death has been overcome; God's gift of life can never be snatched away. The Gospels (from John and Mark) proclaim the same message as narrative theology.
Mark proclaims this most simply with the paschal proclamation: "You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here." The place of death cannot contain Jesus. In ancient thought a tomb is not simply a place where a body is put; it is the entrance to the realm of the dead. The empty tomb is a vivid symbol that this realm has been emptied of its power.
John's Gospel greets us in the waning darkness of the night as morning approaches. Mary Magdalene, who is the first to the tomb in every Gospel account, notices that the tomb is empty and announces to Peter and the beloved disciple that "the Lord has been taken from the tomb." Peter and this disciple race to the tomb. When the beloved disciple arrives first, he steps aside and allows Peter to enter, and they see the burial wrappings. They see and believe. Then comes the somewhat strange statement that "they did not understand the Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead." On first glance this seems almost like an anti-resurrection story: Mary thinks the body has been stolen; Peter and the beloved disciple do not really grasp the resurrection.
The lectionary truncates John's resurrection account. In the rest of the story (Jn. 20:11-18), Jesus first appears to the weeping Mary, who, like the woman of Cant. 2:9, is searching for her beloved. Jesus interrupts her search and asks the question he posed to his first disciples (Jn. 1:38) and that challenges us today: "For whom are you looking?" Only when Jesus calls her by name (cf. Jn. 10:3-5), "Mary," does she recognize him and call out with affection, "My teacher!" In an enigmatic sentence Jesus says, "Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." Jesus then commissions her to proclaim this message "to my brothers," and, in the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, she becomes the apostola apostolorum, the "apostle to the apostles."
Clues to John's profound theology of the resurrection are scattered throughout. Mary and the beloved disciple arrive first at the tomb. In John love is the prime Christian virtue and the key to ultimate recognition of Jesus. Unlike Lazarus, who comes forth from the tomb clad in the burial cloths, Jesus' burial cloths are left behind. Christian faith is not belief in the resuscitation of the corpse but hope in a totally new kind of life. True resurrection faith does not arise from seeing and believing in an empty tomb, but from meeting God in the Scriptures. When Jesus tells Mary, "Stop holding on," he says that though the earthly relationship is over, he will be with his loved ones in a totally new way.
Easter really is a total surprise; it does not fit in. Those who love Jesus are drawn to mourn his death only to learn that he lives with them in a way that transcends their hopes. The death chamber becomes the door to life.