From the Empty Tomb to Meeting the Risen Christ

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 1 February 1989, the Holy Father reflected on Jesus' power over life and death.

The profession of faith which we make in the creed when we proclaim that Jesus Christ "on the third day rose again from the dead," is based on the Gospel texts which, in their turn, transmit and make known to us the early preaching of the apostles. From these it is clear that faith in the resurrection is, from the very beginning, a conviction based on a fact, a real event. It is not based on a myth or on a conception. It is not an idea thought up by the apostles or invented by the post-paschal community gathered around the apostles at Jerusalem in order to overcome together with them the disappointment following upon Christ's death on the cross. The texts show quite the contrary, and therefore, as I said, the hypothesis put forward is also critically and historically untenable. The apostles and disciples did not invent the resurrection. It is easy to understand that they were quite incapable of doing so. There is no trace of their being in a state of exaltation, either individually or as a group, which would have led them to imagine an event desired and expected, and to pass it off on public opinion and belief as real, as though to make up for their disappointment. There is no trace of a creative process of the psychological, sociological or literary order, not even in the primitive community or in the authors of the early centuries. The apostles were the first to believe, not without reluctance, that Christ had risen, simply because they had experienced the resurrection as a real event. They were personally convinced of it by having, on several occasions, met Christ newly alive, during the course of forty days. Succeeding Christian generations accepted that testimony, trusting the apostles and the other disciples as credible witnesses. The Christian faith in Christ's resurrection is linked to a fact which has a precise historical dimension.

However, the resurrection is a truth which, in its deepest dimension, pertains to divine revelation. It had gradually been foretold by Christ in the course of his messianic activity during the prepaschal period. Several times Jesus had explicitly foretold that, after having suffered much and being put to death, he would rise again. Thus it is stated in Mark's Gospel that, after Peter's profession of faith near Caesarea Philippi, Jesus "began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly" (Mk 8:31-32). Mark also says that after the transfiguration, "as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead" (Mk 9:9). The disciples were puzzled about the meaning of "resurrection" and they raised the question, already discussed in the Jewish world, about the return of Elijah (cf. Mk 9:11). But Jesus confirmed the idea that the Son of Man must "suffer many things and be treated with contempt" (Mk 9:12).

After the cure of the epileptic possessed of a dumb spirit, and while passing through Galilee in secret, Jesus resumed the instruction of his disciples: "'The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. When he is killed, after three days he will rise.' But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him" (Mk 9:31-32). It was the second announcement of his passion and resurrection, and it would be followed by a third one when they were already on the road to Jerusalem: "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise" (Mk 10:33-34).

1.  Jesus' power over life and death

Here we have a prophetic vision and prediction of events in which Jesus acted as revealer, by unifying his death and resurrection in the redemptive purpose of these events, and by referring to the divine plan, according to which all that he foresaw and foretold "must" happen. Therefore, Jesus made known to the astonished and even appalled disciples something of the theological mystery underlying the proximate events, and indeed the whole of his life. Other flashes of light on this mystery occur in the allusion to the "sign of Jonah" (cf. Mt 12:40), which Jesus made his own and applied to the days of his death and resurrection, and likewise in the challenge to the Jews: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (Jn 2:19). John notes that Jesus "was speaking of the temple of his body. When, therefore, he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken" (Jn 2:20-21). Once again we are confronted with the relation between Christ's resurrection and his word, with his announcements linked "to the Scriptures."

Over and above Jesus' words, his messianic activity in the prepaschal period shows his power over life and death, and his awareness of this power. We see this clearly in the raising to life of the daughter of Jairus (cf. Mk 5:39-42), and likewise of the son of the widow of Naim (cf. Lk 7:12-15). We see it, above all, in the raising to life of Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:42-44), which is presented in John's Gospel as an announcement and foreshadowing of Jesus' resurrection. In the words addressed to Martha during this last episode, there is a clear manifestation of his self-knowledge about his identity as the Lord of life and death, and that he held the keys of the mystery of resurrection: "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" (Jn 11:25-26).

They are all words and events which contain in different ways the revelation of the truth about the resurrection in the prepaschal period.

Among the events connected with the resurrection, the first is the discovery of the empty tomb. Needless to say, this in itself is not a direct proof of the resurrection. The absence of Christ's body from the tomb in which it had been buried could be explained differently. On seeing the empty tomb, Mary Magdalen presumed that someone had taken away the body of Jesus (cf. Jn 20:13). Indeed, the Sanhedrin tried to spread the story that, while the soldiers were asleep, the disciples had stolen the body. "This story," Matthew notes, "has been spread among the Jews to this day" (Mt 28:12-15).

Nonetheless, the empty tomb was for all, friend and foe alike, an impressive sign. For those of good will it was a first step toward recognizing the "fact" of the resurrection as a truth which could not be denied.

So it was first of all for the women who went early in the morning to the tomb to anoint Christ's body. They were the first to receive the news: "He has risen, he is not here.... Go, tell his disciples and Peter..." (Mk 16:7-8). "'Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.' And they remembered his words" (Lk 24:6-7).

Certainly the women were upset and frightened (cf. Mk 16:8; Lk 24:5). Not even they were inclined to accept too readily a fact which, though foretold by Jesus, effectively surpassed all power of imagination and invention. In their intuitive sensitivity and refinement they, and especially Mary Magdalen, grasped the truth and ran to the apostles to tell them the good news.

Matthew's Gospel (cf. 28:8-10) tells us that along the way Jesus himself met them. He greeted them and repeated the command to tell the news to his brethren. Thus the women were the first messengers of Christ's resurrection, even for the apostles themselves (cf. Lk 24:10)—an eloquent testimony of woman's importance even in the days of the paschal event!

Peter and John were among those who received the news from Mary Magdalen (cf. Jn 20:3-8). They went to the tomb with a certain hesitancy, all the more so since Mary had told them that Jesus' body was missing from the tomb (cf. Jn 20:2). On arriving at the tomb, they too found it empty. They ended by believing, after quite some hesitation, because as John says, "they did not yet understand the Scriptures, that he had to rise from the dead" (Jn 20:9).

Truth to tell, the fact was dumbfounding for those men who were confronted by a situation which was far beyond them. The same difficulty which the traditions of the event show in giving a fully consistent account of it, confirms its extraordinary character and the upsetting effect it had on the minds of the fortunate witnesses. The reference "to the Scripture" is a proof of their confused perception of finding themselves in the presence of a mystery, on which only revelation could throw light.

Here there is still another fact to be well pondered over. The empty tomb could at first sight cause upsetment and even give rise to a certain suspicion. But the gradual knowledge of this initial event, as noted by the Gospels, ended by leading to the discovery of the truth of the resurrection.

In fact, we are told that the women, and later the apostles, found themselves in the presence of a particular "sign": the sign of victory over death. If the tomb itself, closed by a heavy stone, was a witness to death, the empty tomb and the stone rolled away gave the first news that death had been overcome.

One cannot but be struck by the state of mind of the three women who, on their way to the tomb at sunrise, were saying to one another: "Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?" (Mk 6:13). On arriving at the tomb later, they were utterly amazed to find that "the stone was rolled back, for it was very large" (Mk 16:4). According to Mark's Gospel, the women found in the tomb someone who gave them the news of the resurrection (cf. Mk 16:4). But they were afraid and, notwithstanding the reassurances of the young man dressed in a white robe, "they fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come upon them" (Mk 16:8). How can one fail to understand them? And yet a comparison with the parallel texts of the other evangelists permits us to state that, although frightened, the women brought the news of the resurrection, of which the "empty tomb" with the stone rolled back was the first sign.

For the women and for the apostles the road opened by the "sign" closes with the meeting with the risen one. Then the still timid and uncertain perception became conviction, indeed faith in him who "is truly risen." Thus it was for the women who, on seeing Jesus on their path and on hearing his greeting to them, threw themselves at his feet and adored him (cf. Mt 28:9). Thus it was especially in the case of Mary Magdalen. On hearing Jesus call her by name, she addressed him at first by the customary name, " Rabbouni, Teacher!" (Jn 20:16). Enlightened by him about the paschal mystery, she ran full of radiance to give the news to the disciples: "I have seen the Lord" (Jn 20:18). Thus it was for the disciples assembled in the upper room, who, on the evening of that "first day after the Sabbath," when they finally saw Jesus in their midst, were happy because of the new certainty that had entered their hearts: "They were glad when they saw the Lord" (Jn 20:18-20). Direct contact with Christ releases the spark that enkindles faith!