December 27

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

First Reading: 1 John 1:1-4

1 What was from the beginning, what (we) have heard, what (we) have seen with our eyes, what (we) saw and our hands touched – 2 and the life made manifest, and (we) have seen it, and (we) testify (about it) and we tell you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – 3 what (we) have seen and have heard, we also tell you, so that you might have fellowship with us. Our fellowship (is) with the Father and with his Son, JESUS CHRIST. 4 We write these (things), so that our joy might be complete.

The prologue to 1 John was a statement about evangelization. The author and his cohorts (the “we” in the verses) witnessed from the various dimensions of personal experience: sight, hearing, and touch. Even though the witness came from sense experience, the “we” spoke of a transcendent reality. “That which was from the beginning” was “the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us.” That which was not of this world is now in this world. The eternal entered the temporal. God revealed himself in the person of Jesus the Christ.

Revelation (that which was “made manifest”) is one of the hallmarks in Western religion. Judaism had its revelation when Moses saw God in the burning bush (and later in the reception of the Torah). Islam had its revelation when Muhammad retired to the cave near Mecca and received the first message from Allah. Christianity has its revelation in the person of Jesus from Nazareth. In all three cases, adherents believe God the eternal revealed his will within the lives of people. Unlike Judaism and Islam, the result of Christian revelation is not primarily the fulfillment of a promise (the covenant in Judaism) or surrender to the will of God in divine writings (the Quran in Islam). The goal of Christian revelation is fellowship, intimate relationships with God the Father, his Son Jesus the Christ, and his people, the Church.

If we compare the prologue in 1 John with the prologue and resurrection narratives in John’s gospel, we can see the sensory witness could refer to the Incarnation (“the Word made flesh” in John 1:14) or the Resurrection (the demand for tactile experience by Thomas in John 19). It is possible the author referred to both realities. Indeed, the dividing line of the crucifixion (Incarnation before death and Resurrection after death) might be an artificial one in the eyes of the author. After all, the Incarnation and the Resurrection are two different aspects of the same revelation: the divine made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.

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Gospel: John 20:1-8

1 After the Sabbath, Mary Magdelene went to the tomb in the morning still being dark and she saw the stone having been lifted away from the tomb. 2 She ran and came to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved and said to them, “They lifted the Lord away from the tomb and we do not know where they put him!” 3 Peter and the other disciple went out and they came to the tomb. 4 The two ran side by side, and the other disciple ran ahead of (and) faster than Peter and came first to the grave, 5 and, having bent down, he saw the (burial) linen strips lying (there), but he did not enter. 6 Then, Simon Peter also came, following (the other disciple), and he entered the tomb and saw the (burial) linen strips lying (there) 7 and the cloth piece which was on his head, not with the linen strips lying (there), but having been tied up separately in one place. 8 Then the other disciple, the (one) having arrived first to the tomb, also entered and he saw and he believed.

20:1 “After the Sabbath” is literally “in one of the Sabbaths.” This is a Semitic term. The plural of Sabbath meant “week.” So the phrase meant “on the first (day) of the week.”

20:7 “cloth piece which was on his head...having been tied up separately in one place” This cloth piece was tied around the head to keep the mouth closed for burial. The verb used in 20:7c, “tied” could also be translated as “rolled” or “folded.” Peter saw the cloth had a definitive shape. The shape of the cloth could be easily explained as “tied.” The cloth (which was once around the head) kept its oval shape after it was removed.

This resurrection scene from John’s gospel emphasized the empty tomb as a cause for faith, not the appearance of Jesus. Later, the vision of the risen Lord would cause others to believe (Mary Magdalene in John 20:14-18 and Thomas 20:26-28).

The time frame and the initial audience for encounter with the tomb was different in John. In the Synoptic gospels, a group of women (including the Magdalene) reached the tomb just at or after sunrise. But, in John, Mary Magdalene arrived alone before dawn. Unlike the other scenes, Mary ran to Peter and the other disciple (18:15) whom Jesus loved (13:23 and 19:26). They returned and inspected the tomb before Mary saw the angels (20:11-13). John placed the arrival of Peter and the other disciple to heighten the importance of the empty tomb. For John, this took precedent over the vision of angelic messengers.

Why was the empty tomb so important? Part of the answer could have been polemical. The audience of John had been ejected from the synagogues throughout the empire and had endured prejudice by the Jewish population. One of the attacks on John’s audience could have been a challenge to veracity. “Did your Jesus really rise from the dead?” Jewish critics could have exclaimed. “Prove it!”

Witness to the empty tomb during burial rites would have supported Christian claims for their Lord. Especially within a tradition that prized the service of those who cared for the dead, despite the fact that such care made one “unclean.” Preparing the body for burial was a cultural privilege and duty that ranked with care for the widows and orphans. Caring for the dead elevated one’s reputation. The discovery of the empty tomb took place in the context of a charitable act. This alone cast the scepter of shame on those who publicly criticized Christians.

But John added another twist. There were two male witnesses to the event (which, in an ancient Jewish court of law, verified the fact of the case). With two male witnesses to the empty tomb, the onus was back upon the critic. The Christian could claim, “We know the body from a sealed tomb was missing.” It would have been only a small leap of faith to conclude the Lord had truly risen! The vision of the angels to a woman and the appearance of a dead man to his followers could not be so easily dismissed as the signs of lunacy or a mass hallucination.

Yet, only the disciple whom the Lord loved believed (i.e., made the connection between the empty tomb and the Lord’s resurrection). After all, Mary Magdalene saw grave robbers as the most likely suspects for the missing body (yet, why would anyone rob the grave of a poor, traveling preacher?) The key to understanding the other disciple’s faith is the phrase “the one Jesus loved.” In John’s gospel, Jesus revealed himself to those he loved. After the resurrection, the “other disciple” (unwavering in faith at the foot of the cross) was the first to understand, then Mary Magdalene (20:14-17), next the other disciples and Thomas (20:19-29), and finally, Peter by name (21:1-23). Those who fully believed in the time of testing were those who said “yes’ to the Lord and who understood the full impact of the empty tomb. Those who abandoned the Lord in his hour were the last to come to faith. The Lord loved all who followed him completely. But who received that love and acted upon it? The one who grasped the import of the tomb without a body.