Empty tomb: Gateway to new existence by Rev. Jerome A. Magat
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, "They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put him." So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
The last sentence of the Easter Sunday Gospel reads, "For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead." St. John's insight gives us clear evidence that the resurrection of Christ confounded the Apostles. Like the Apostles, we ask, "What does the resurrection really mean? What did the Apostles see in the empty tomb and why should it give us new hope in life beyond death?"
In the Gospel account, we observe that while Mary Magdalene was the first to arrive at the tomb, it was Peter and John who were the first to examine the evidence that Christ had been resurrected. St. John devotes painstaking detail regarding the status of the burial cloths and the cloth that covered Our Lord's head in the tomb. The original Greek text reveals much more about the status of the burial cloths than our English translation.
In Greek, the words used to describe the condition of the burial cloths suggest that the linens were deflated or flattened, not pushed aside like a person does to their blanket and comforter when they wake-up in the morning. The Greek version of the text suggests that Our Lord passed through the linens. Our Lord's ability to pass through solid objects would be confirmed on Easter Sunday night when He would pass through the locked doors of the upper room.
We also read that the cloth that covered Our Lord's head was rolled up in a separate place, apart from the burial cloth. In Greek, the head covering's condition suggests that Our Lord's body was not stolen, because remaining ointment-laden linens stuck to the head would have been difficult to remove and thieves would not have taken the time to care for the status of the facial cloth in this way. This head cloth, known as the sudarium, is kept in the Cathedral of San Salvador in Spain. As early as the fifth century, Nonnus of Panopolis wrote that the sudarium was always tied in a knot at the top when placed on the deceased. When a body carried for burial arrived at the tomb, the sudarium was removed and the shroud was used to cover the head. This know would have given the sudarium a twisted or rolled-up appearance, just as St. John records.
The condition of the burial cloths and the cloth that covered Our Lord's head made a lasting impression on St. John. Their status suggests that the resurrection transcends all the laws of nature such that Our Lord passed right through the burial cloths - the shroud. Thus, the resurrection is not the same phenomenon as that which Lazarus experienced when he was raised from the dead.
Unlike the resurrected Christ, who would never die again, Lazarus would surely experience death a second time. Unlike the resurrected Christ who passed through the linen burial cloths, Lazarus would have to be unbound of his bandages.
The resurrection introduces us into an entirely new dimension of existence. A resurrected body is a glorified body, capable of passing through walls and doors; not subject to disease or death; a body that enjoys a certain glow and total perfection. In this single event of the resurrection, Christ's human body and human soul are reunited. And so, we believe that at the final judgment, cemeteries will be very busy places because every human body will be reconstituted in a glorified state and rejoined to the soul that once animated it to either enjoy the eternal bliss of heaven or the eternal fires of hell.
While we have evidence of an empty tomb and eye-witnesses, the resurrection is still a matter of faith for it reveals a level of existence well-beyond ordinary human comprehension. The gift of faith is needed in order to penetrate this mystery. Its promise gives us renewed hope in eternal beatitude and life in the world to come. Let us entrust ourselves to the Resurrected One, who has conquered sin and death itself.
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