Today we celebrate the most important of all the Christian Feasts, the Resurrection. But this cannot be isolated from what has gone before. Actually the three great feasts of Holy Week are all of a piece: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday and they should not really be seen in isolation from each other.
Put together we call them the Pascal Mystery; and so, to be more correct, it is this that is the most important event in the Christian year.
In the liturgy during these last few days we have run the whole gamut of emotions. The mixed feelings of wonder and apprehension at the Last Supper, the dreadful sadness of Good Friday, the complete emptiness of Holy Saturday and the unalloyed joy of Easter Sunday morning.
It is good to be reminded of the feelings that the disciples experienced as they followed Christ in those terrible days. They were totally confused and hardly any of them lasted the course, least of all St Peter. It took till Pentecost before they could, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, find the courage to testify to what had happened.
However, we do know however that among those who remained faithful to the end and stood at the foot of the Cross were Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and St John. Two of these are mentioned in the Gospel for this morning: Mary Magdalene and St John.
Something authenticated by all four Gospels is that Mary Magdalene was there when the tomb was discovered to be empty. The other Gospel writers mention that she was in the company of other women but in John’s Gospel we observe that these other women are not mentioned.
This passage presented to us today is very carefully constructed and is worth close examination. The traditional understanding is that it was written by the Apostle John who throughout the Gospel calls himself the Beloved Disciple.
The sequence, which involves a lot of running, is that Mary Magdalene arrives and discovers that the stone is rolled away but doesn’t go into the tomb. Instead she runs to get Peter and John. They, in turn, run to the tomb and John wins the race but holds back to let Peter in first. Then John goes in and, as it says, ‘he saw and he believed.’
There is a lot in this about deference and respect. Mary Magdalene defers to the Apostles and gives them precedence in getting them to check the tomb out. John holds back and lets Peter in first, presumably also out of respect. But then he pulls the trump card because, according to him, he is the first to believe.
John may not be number one among the Apostles, he is not the rock on which Christ will build his Church, but he has two claims to fame which Peter cannot match. The first is that he stayed by the Cross and is therefore not tainted by any denial of Jesus, and the other is that at the empty tomb he was the first to believe.
You might think that writing your own Gospel and making extravagant claims for yourself is not very seemly for an Apostle and you’d probably be right.
But maybe there is something else going on here. What I believe this to be is that John is trying to convince his readers. He is stating that he was actually present, he saw the empty tomb and, more than this, when he saw it he immediately believed; indeed he was the very first person to believe in the reality of the resurrection. He presents himself to his readers as an utterly credible witness, someone who is completely believable.
The Apostle John is telling us that at the moment when he was faced with the empty tomb he immediately drew the conclusion that Jesus had risen from the dead and that he believed this instantly and absolutely.
And he is implying that Peter, for all his authority, is not actually as reliable a witness for, after all, he denied Christ three times. John on the other hand was there at the foot of the Cross and into his hands at the very last moment it was to him that Jesus entrusted the care of his mother.
What more honest, believable and trustworthy kind of a chap could you have than this? For all his youth at the time, there he was in the right place doing the right things, remaining faithful and steady and believing.
Here we therefore conclude that we have a witness that we can have faith in. Here is a Gospel that is true. Here are simple words that we can resonate with, ‘he saw and he believed.’
And if he, this trustworthy John, can see and believe, then even if we ourselves haven’t actually seen then maybe we can still believe. Maybe we can take all this on board and make an act of faith in the Risen Christ.
And that is precisely what John wants from his readers. And that’s the invitation that is open to us today, on this Easter Sunday morning; to believe, to profess our faith in Christ and in his resurrection.
And if we can believe this then we can believe all that flows from it. We can believe in the teaching of the Apostles, we can believe in the efficacy of the sacraments, we can believe in the Church and, above all, we can believe in eternal life.
These things are the very essence of Christianity; these things are what our faith is all about. And by believing what John is telling us we become true members of Christ’s Mystical Body, we become his faithful servants in the world of today.