John 20: 1-18 The Empty Tomb: Easter’s Bold Announcement


The Evangelist John has a Christology that makes the resurrection superfluous. The Gospel is singularly concerned with one question: who is Jesus? Every “sign” from the Incarnation to the crucifixion is designed to answer this question.  From begin to end, it is a manifesto of Christology. Christology is Christos and logos, which is teaching about Christ. However, the Evangelist offers little in the way of teaching about Christ. In this Gospel, Christology undergoes a transformation. The Evangelist uses the framework of the Gnostic redeemer myth to present Christ. But since most of that myth would have obscured the message, he rejected most of it and kept one idea: revelation. In this Gospel, Jesus is the one who reveals. Christology is revelation not instruction. Jesus Christ is the revelation of God. The Evangelist is even more specific than this. Jesus Christ is the self-revelation of God. In a very stirring scene, when some were withdrawing from Jesus, he asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter responded for all of them. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” 6:67-69. That phrase is the entire content of this Gospel. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” 20:31.

The disciples can have come to know that only through revelation. From the beginning of this Gospel, Jesus did not come into the world via virgin birth. He arrived already as the transcendent Incarnate One, walked among the people as the Transcendent, and ascended as such. Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” 11:25-26. Mary them confesses that he is the Son of God. In the Gospel, the resurrection is hardly associated with post-crucifixion signs. Long before he goes to the cross, Jesus is present already as “the resurrection and the life.” These two words mean the same thing, and I will return to this theme in my conclusion.

The mission of the Incarnate One is accomplished on the cross. The cross gathers together the life of the Redeemer, his incarnation, ascension, exaltation, parousia and resurrection in the “It is finished” of 19:30. An examination of the narrative of the empty tomb will give us some insight into this, but first, I must consider Mary Magdalene.

Except for a mention in Luke 8:2, Mary Magdalene appears only at the end of the life of Jesus. She is present at the crucifixion and at the empty tomb. It is difficult to estimate her role and its importance from such sparse evidence. Perhaps an examination of the Gospel of John will provide some insight leading to useful conclusions.

The morning after the crucifixion Mary Magdalene arrived very early at the tomb. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, and she ran and got Peter and the beloved disciple. Why did Mary come to the tomb? She did not come to anoint Jesus, this much is clear. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had already taken care of that. 19:38-40. The text gives no indication as to her purpose so no conclusion can be drawn without further analysis.

She said to Peter and the beloved disciple. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” How does she know this? If she looked into the tomb, the text is silent on this. “They have taken the Lord.” At this early stage, how does Mary know that Jesus is “Lord?” This is not possible unless she has been given a special revelation as The Gospel of Mary Magdalene teaches. For the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is both the glorification and exaltation of Jesus. This is where Jesus is revealed as Lord for the entire world to see. But Mary cannot know this beforehand. It has not been revealed to her. Perhaps one hears the voice of the church here.

There are two traditions interwoven in this text. The first is a Magdalene tradition which might have been something like this: Mary arrives at the tomb. The stone is rolled away already. She looks in in and sees two angels who question her. She does not seem surprised by this encounter. She turns and sees someone standing behind her. He asks her the same question the angels did. She thinks he is the gardener. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary” and she recognizes him immediately. According to John Jesus is the shepherd who calls his sheep by name, and they know his voice and come to him, chapter 10. Mary calls him “Rabboni,” which means teacher. Jesus says “do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your father, to my God and your God.” Mary went and said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and told them the story. I will address this matter later.

The other tradition is the Petrine one with the beloved disciple, which emphasizes the role of Peter. He has to be the one who takes precedence. The anonymity of the beloved disciple is a literary technique that preserves the pre-eminence of Peter. Who is the beloved disciple? In 19:26-27, Jesus commends his mother into the care of the beloved disciple, “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.” Is this not literally suggestive? “And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” Mary has other sons besides Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, along with sisters (according to Mt. 14:55-56); James, Joses, Judas and Simon, along with sisters (acc. to Mark 6:3). Since James is mentioned first in both accounts, I assume he is the eldest son after Jesus. In John 7:5, it is stated that even his brothers did not believe in him. Who outside his family would know this? In 20:8, the beloved disciple went into the tomb, “and he saw and believed.” Perhaps it was James who stood with his mother watching his brother being crucified, who came to believe in him. The mother and brothers of Jesus stand with him at the Wedding at Cana, the place of his first sign. Why would they not be here at the cross, the place of his last sign? In both scenes, Jesus addresses his mother in a similar manner. Why would Jesus place his mother under the care of a disciple when he has four brothers and at least two sisters? Is he not bound to honor his mother in this way? I believe that Jesus commends the care of his mother to his younger brother, James. I suggest that the beloved disciple is none other than James, the brother next in line, who then takes his mother to his own home. I should mention that the name James does not appear in any of the Johannine literature.

The sprint to the tomb between Peter and the beloved disciple becomes understandable if the beloved disciple is James, as later tradition shows the competition and conflict of these two men in leadership.  In the present tradition Peter takes precedence. According to cultural norms, Mary could not serve as a witness to the empty tomb. Only men can serve as witnesses, and two men are required for truth. Peter and the beloved disciple serve this purpose: they can testify that the tomb was really empty. After this, Peter and the beloved disciples went back to their homes.

What the empty tomb proclaims is only this: the tomb is empty. The empty tomb is not a proclamation of the resurrection. No one knows what a “resurrection” is. The Evangelist does not speak of Jesus rising from the dead except at 2:22, 20:9 and 21:4, and all of these are later editorial additions. The resurrection has not been revealed to the world. It is not of primary interest to the Evangelist. For him the crucifixion is the point of the life of Christ. This means ultimately that Incarnation and Crucifixion, the Arrival and Departure, are one and the same. As I stated in another context, the Departure can never leave behind the Arrival. The Omega can never leave behind the Alpha. The one who has come from God (1:2) and the Father (1:14) must also return thither. The “”beginning” from which Jesus came is a “source” rather than a point in time. So also must be the parousia. It is not a point in time for the “return” of the Redeemer. The parousia is the gathering place of the one whose abiding presence has transcended his coming and going.

After the disciples returned to their homes, Mary Magdalene is left alone again. Now she looks into the tomb and sees two angels in white. Why did the disciples not see the angels earlier? Perhaps it was given to them only to bear witness to the empty tomb. How does Mary know that the two figures are angels? She seems completely unmoved by this vision. She shows no sign of surprise, fear or awe. She had arrived here already overtaken by her grief. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked her. Well, maybe the angels have never lost a friend, so they don’t know about grief. I want to reader to know that these are not my kind of angels. If I am weeping because of my inconsolable grief I want my angels to sit down and weep with me, not ask really stupid questions. This is very bad pastoral care. But we must forgive them because they are messengers not healers. Mary told them why she was weeping, turned her back on them causing them to disappear from the narrative. She then sees Jesus but does not recognize him. He repeats the question that the angels had asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Instead, she repeats her answer. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary.” She recognizes him and responds, “Rabboni.”

The Teacher is how she knows the Redeemer. The past is the only means that Mary has of understanding Jesus. But the glorified, exalted Jesus is no longer a figure of the past. He and Mary no longer share the same history. This is indicated in the fact that Jesus repeats the question of the angels. The Evangelist aligns Jesus with the angels. They belong to the same transcendent realm. However, this is not a theophany. Mary sees and hears them because she has been called for this purpose. In the Synoptic gospels, Elizabeth and Mary his mother were similarly selected. This explains also why Peter and the beloved disciple did not receive this vision. Their opportunity will come later in the day when Jesus will appear to the gathered disciples.

Jesus says to Mary, “Do not touch me.” The sentence may be translated in a number of ways, and this is as good as any. Would it not have been unseemly for her to touch him just a few days earlier, given that they are not related? Yet, this time it is different. “I have not yet ascended to the Father.” This is the revelation of the Redeemer to Mary. Nothing more is necessary except “go and tell.” In his appearance to Mary Magdalene, the Incarnate appears as the Discarnate. He came to his own as the Incarnate. He departs from his own as the Discarnate. Later in the day he will pass through a closed door, as he will again eight days later. Yet, to whom he wants, he reveals who he is. Mary now knows who he is. Later in the day the disciples in the room will know who he is.

The presence of the two angels now makes sense. They bear testimony to the truth of Mary’s vision of Jesus.  Mary could not relate this on her own because she has no legitimacy to bear witness. The two disciples bear witness to the empty tomb. The two angels bear witness to the appearance of Jesus. Again, this is not about the resurrection. The appearance of Jesus to Mary is exactly that: an appearance. That is why Mary can say later in telling her story, “I have seen the Lord.” Appearance and resurrection have completely different meanings.

I can now answer why Mary came to the tomb that day. It has been given to her to bear testimony to the appearance of the Lord. When Mary arrived at the tomb she believed in Jesus, but she could not have had faith in Christ. She cannot know the Lord until he has revealed himself to her. Only now can she say, “I have seen the Lord.”

Jesus tells Mary “go and tell my brothers”(adelphoi, 20:7). She is entrusted with this message to his family because on the day, before from his cross, Jesus had seen Mary with many others, among them his mother, his aunt and the beloved disciple, whom I have identified as his brother, James. She has some kind of relationship with his family and they would receive her as his messenger. Mary instead tells the story to the disciples (mathetai, 20:8). I think this difference is important for John. His custom is to say “brothers and disciples” when speaking of a group. This is evident in 2:12, and in 7:3, 5, and 10. I believe that Mary misunderstood the concern that Jesus was expressing for his siblings and took his words to mean his disciples. I believe Jesus would have wanted his grieving siblings to know that they will see him again, and to let them know where he was going. “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” His siblings, with the exception perhaps of James, did not believe in him. He sends Mary to assure them that his Father is their Father and his God is their God. The fact that 20:19 – 21:25 deals with his disciples and not with his family speaks in favor of two distinct audiences: his family and his disciples. I appreciate the difficulties that chapter 21 presents and I will have an opportunity to explore those at another time.

Since this reading has been selected for Easter, what is the Easter message that it presents?

He who appears from the tomb as Lord is the message for Easter. Jesus has already revealed this to his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Earlier he had said, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” 5:24. The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live. “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice, and will come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” 5:25-29. The Easter message has been from the moment of his Incarnation: the Redeemer is eternal life. The focus is not on sin and atonement, sacrifice and forgiveness. These have little meaning for this Evangelist.

In 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” In 3:36, whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. In 8:51, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word shall never see death.”  The Easter message is that the one who appears from the tomb is life. “I am the bread of life. 6:35. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. 6:54. “I am the light of the world,” whoever walks with me shall have the light of life. 8:12. “I am the door…I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” 10:9. “I am the good shepherd.” 10:11. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. “I am the resurrection and the life.” 11:25. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” 14:6. “I am the true vine.” 15:1. Those who belong to the vine will bear much more and their joy will be complete.

As long as women and men come seeking the empty tomb they will come to their own emptiness. In that emptiness hope begins. When they have arrived at the empty tomb the silence will touch them. In that silence faith awakens. As they look into the empty tomb they will see angels and know that this is a new time. Now they will know that only when the Word becomes flesh is the primordial silence shattered; and only when the flesh surrenders up the Word is the silence silenced forever. They will hear a new sound upon the earth, the voices of angels blended with the voice of the transcendent one, saying “I am the resurrection and the life.”

What is this thing called life? No one knows what life is until it is not, and when it is not it is death. Perhaps only the dead can tell us what life is and that is why Jesus is the resurrection even before he dies.

(On my own death: The Lord God created me from a clump of clay and breathed into my nostrils the breath of life. But I am not merely oxygenated clay. Somewhere on this earth, where the Lord removed my clay, a hole awaits, a wound upon the earth. It is my empty tomb. It awaits me. I know what I call life is not something I possess like a pencil or a garment. I live between my birth and my death. I am temporary. I am time’s guest upon the earth. I know life preceded my birth and it will outlive my death. It is eternal. This is what Jesus offers me. The dead will hear his voice and live. Those who believe will have eternal life).

The self-revelation of Christ is resurrection and life. “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” 20:31.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That must mean on this Easter day:

In the empty tomb death surrenders its mortality and life awakens.

The grave is silent only when we no longer speak the words of our beloved that shaped our life. Easter’s bold announcement is: Shout!

The grave is deaf only when we no longer hear the lullaby of love with which our beloved launched us from cradle to life. Easter’s bold announcement is: Listen!

The grave is blind only when we no longer see the hope for a redeeming future our beloved left us. Easter’s bold announcement is: Behold!

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That must mean on this Easter day:

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not empty. The grace of Christ is equally full in life as in death. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not fearful. The perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

As long as there are angels in the tomb it is not hopeless. Christ who is lifted up will draw us all to himself. This is Easter’s bold announcement.

The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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