Worshippers around the Catholic world will be greeted by rows of tulips, banks of daffodils, clusters of hydrangeas and a garden of lilies as they gather for Mass this Easter holy day.
Altars will be draped with golden frontals, covered with crisp, white linens and adorned with brilliant candles. Ministers will celebrate in fine vestments and the choir will be in full voice. Both sight and sound will reassure the believer that, truly, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and reigns now gloriously in heaven.
The splendor of Christianity’s Easter sanctuaries is in great contrast to the bleak account of that first Easter morning recorded by St. John and read at Easter Mass. Sight and sound might reaffirm the faith of the modern believer, but it was an absence of sight and sound that Peter, John and Mary Magdalene encountered on that grim Sunday morning. St. John goes out of his way to create a melancholy scene when he writes of the first Easter. The reader is told that a forlorn Mary Magdalene approaches, not a beautified sanctuary, but a lonely tomb. Her approach is early in the morning while it is still dark. No sunlight guides her way or soothes her pain. The stone ajar adds to her distress. She runs to Peter and John with a message that is not hopeful. “They have taken the Lord. …” are her alarming words. So far the first Easter’s sights are disturbing and its sounds are disquieting.
Peter and John rush to the unhappy site and the Magdalene’s sad report is confirmed. The two disciples examine the empty tomb and find only discarded linens and folded cloths. Jesus is nowhere to be found. Neither sight nor sound offers any indication of the whereabouts of Jesus. Mary’s sad tale is confirmed. The disturbed stone and the scattered articles offer no clue. The trio might have returned to their colleagues crestfallen and defeated, and the story might have come to an end.
But defeat is not what occurred. The Gospel account relates, “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.” St. John believed in spite of the absence of evidence.
The stone rolled back and the cloths lying about certainly did not prove that Jesus had risen from the dead. Stories circulate to this day that followers or Jews or soldiers had whisked away the body of Jesus. Some venture that an earthquake swallowed up his remains. Others argued that Jesus was not dead but drugged, and on awakening crept quietly away from the tomb. Still others claim that the body of Jesus was pitched into a common grave and his corpse could not be distinguished from the other cadavers. Explanations for an empty tomb abound. So the lack of a body would not have been sufficient to lead St. John to make his act of Easter faith: “… he saw and believed.”
Peter, John, Mary Magdalene and the first Christians believed in the resurrection of Jesus because Christ had prepared them to believe. The first Christians believed, not because of the empty tomb, but because Jesus had predicted his death and resurrection in various ways and at various times during his public ministry. Recall that the Nicene Creed professes that Christ rose again “in accordance with the Scriptures.” The seed of Easter faith had been planted long before that early Sunday morning experience. The empty tomb allowed the first disciples to conclude not that Christ was stolen or had absconded or was misplaced but that he had risen “as he said.” Belief in the resurrection was belief in the prior words of Christ. Belief in the resurrection was the fruit of a catechesis that Jesus had been preaching for three years. “Faith comes through hearing,” St. Paul would later write. It was because the disciples heard and heeded the prior message of Jesus that his resurrection became meaningful to them. The resurrection of Jesus was not a bolt from the blue. The resurrection of Jesus was the fulfillment of a promise that Christ had made many times in words that finally made sense.
Believers today accept the resurrection of Christ not because of artistic Easter sanctuaries or beautifully sung Paschal hymns. Believers today accept the resurrection just as the first disciples did by heeding the word of Christ made available to them through the preaching, teaching and Scriptures of the church.