“Early on the first day of the week”, writes St. John at the beginning of his Easter narrative (20.1), slightly modifying Mark’s very early on the first day: in either case, it was probably too early for most of us! The first day of the week and hardly light yet; the sound from the bed is something between a groan and a moan as a jolting jingle of electronic musac pierces his ears. “Oh no, not already”; slap the snooze button. But in another ten minutes, reality has to be faced; it’s back to work; it’s get the children up and off, get off to work. The alarm announces that one is back in the same old routine after a brief weekend’s rest.
We all know the scene only too well. But there is something wrong here. Clearly John is not talking about Monday morning coming round once again. Not only is he not talking about Monday, he is absolutely not introducing a story of the on-going grind, one darn thing after another.
What might we suppose someone steeped in the Hebrew scriptures and used to Rabbinic methods of exegesis would think if you asked, what is important about the first day of the week? I suspect there would be a very good chance that he/she would reply, “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth…..God said, ‘Let there be light, and God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness….and there was evening and there was morning, the first day”. (Gen. 1.1-2).
The first day, and, of course, the Genesis narrative of creation ends with the seventh day. The author tells us on that day God ‘rested’; the Hebrew word for rest is shabath, and so what we call Saturday became the day of rest for all of Judaism, as it is to this day. In later Judaism, the Sabbath became a litmus test for strict adherence to the law; it was this inflexibility that Jesus is recorded challenging on several occasions: picking ears of corn, and healing a severely arthritic woman on the Sabbath among several other references.
John's Resurrection Narrative, Chapter 20
So it is early, perhaps very early on Sunday morning, an ordinary work-day for both the Jewish and the Hellenistic population of Jerusalem. Presumably it would have been that also for Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, and the rest of those who had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, that is, if their state of grief and loss they could have faced the world. But it turned out to be anything but the ‘same old thing’. Mary had gone to the grave alone and the way John records the event is rather strange. Mary sees the massive entrance stone rolled back from the hollow in which it would sit to give security to the closed tomb; possibly she jumped to the conclusion that a tomb robbery had taken place. Possibly, this is the author’s familiar elliptical way of writing which takes for granted that the readers know well the older accounts and is asking them to meditate on them anew. Perhaps it points to the special status of Mary Magdalene as spiritually perceptive.
The Fourth Gospel’s dramatic narrative (20.1-18) is fuller than anything in the earlier resurrection stories and, as always in John, is pointing us to theological reflection. Perhaps the most prominent details are in the section where the author describes Peter’s seeing the precise positioning of the grave wrappings.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that John is here making a conscious contrast with the story of the raising of Lazarus: that action of Jesus’ led to a meeting of the Council, of which John says, “From that moment they planned to put him to death”. (Jn. 11.53). Lazarus was raised, but hobbled out of the tomb and had to be released by the command of Jesus, “’Unbind him, and let him go’”. (v. 44). John’s account declares that Mary was wrong to suppose that Jesus had been taken away, but the scene presented to them raised puzzling questions. John indicates this very clearly in the next verse. In spite of the fact that he has just written that Peter “saw and believed”, he goes on, “as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”. (20. 8 & 9).
Shaking the Roman Empire
It is at this point that we come to very center, the very nucleus of all the gospel accounts, disparate, and even contradictory as they may be. Moreover, we come, as it were, to the fuse that ignited the explosion that was to shake the Roman Empire. We come the burning centre not only of the written gospel manuscripts, but of the Apostolic preaching of the Good News, the Gospel, that God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself (II Cor. 5.18). That center is not, as John is determined to make clear, an empty tomb; they had yet to recall Jesus’ words and study the Hebrew scriptures. It is difficult to find a specific verse in the O.T. that is ‘fulfilled’ here. In any case, that is not John’s main method in referring back to the scriptures. What he expects is that we take a broad sweep, and if we do that, we note over and again how the O.T. stories speak of life from death. Sarah’s child, born to “one as good as dead” says the writer; the very survival of the sons of Jacob/Israel as a result of Joseph’s position in Egypt; the almost unbelievable restoration of the remnant of Israel after the captivity in Babylon, so eloquently given us in the poetry of Deutero Isaiah. The list goes on and on.
Centrality of Faith
The center then is not a empty tomb: it is the living faith of the first disciples that God, has overcome death, giving a whole new kind of life to Jesus which he, in turn, will share with those who come to believe. And so we return to “early on the first day of the week”. This sounds so like any time table, but it was not that at all; it was one of the shock waves that spread from the explosion of faith. That we meet for Eucharist each First day of the week, that is on Sunday and not Saturday as many of our roots might decree, is our weekly reminder of God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead. No amount of historical investigation, no philosophical ingenuities about the nature of the natural order and the possibilities of miracle can give us certainty. The only certainty we have is that we are part of the holy body which has staked its life on faith in God: faith that God in Christ acts to save us, faith that death and evil do not have the final word in this universe. And the only certainty we can have is to share this faith.
John, surely, meditating on the Book of Genesis, had in mind that God on the first day of creation created light, and divided light and darkness: he had in mind that early on this first day of the week was the beginning of a New Creation where the light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it”.