To See and Believe

Easter Sunday Scripture Readings

This Easter morning, we are treated to the story of the Resurrection of Jesus according to John, the beloved disciple. While by this time, we’re well acquainted with the mystical gospel and how John carefully crafts his narrative to encourage his readers to delve more deeply into the mystery of the coming of the Messiah, today’s reading is a sort of outlier. When it comes to his description of the Resurrection, John provides us with almost scientific accuracy. Like the other evangelists, John acknowledges that there were no eyewitnesses to Jesus’s Resurrection. It occurred at some unknown time between sundown on the Passover Sabbath and dawn the following morning. All the evangelists also agree that the first witnesses of the empty tomb were the women who ministered to Jesus right up until the end. Mary Magdalene was certainly one of them. She, and possibly others, were compelled to run and tell the other disciples immediately upon discovering that the stone was rolled back, and the tomb was empty.

The scene that John paints for us is surely the report of an eyewitness to what followed. He describes how Mary Magdalene gave her breathless report to Peter and the others. According to John, she had not experienced the risen Christ—or even angels for that matter—but was in a panic that someone had stolen Jesus’s body. Without hesitation, Peter and the beloved disciple took off for the burial place, perhaps followed by the others. Impulsive Peter ran there without regard for his personal safety, and John, the teenager, ran along with him. The scene of their arrival at the tomb is poignant. John outpaces the older Peter, whom we imagine huffing and puffing to catch up. But the youngster is spooked. He’s not about to go into that dark tomb alone, so he peeks in from the entrance. Peter has no such hesitation and he charges right in. Only then does the young John dare to enter the tomb himself.

The gospel says that Peter and John “saw and believed.” What did they see? We’re told that they saw “the burial cloths there, and the cloth that covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.” To better understand what they saw, it would be helpful to know a little about Jewish burial customs at the time. A common burial practice was to wash the body and anoint it with aromatic oils and spices. It was then laid at one end of a long burial cloth—or shroud—and packets of perfumed spices were placed alongside the body. A band of linen was placed under the chin and tied on top of the head to keep the jaw closed. Finally, the rest of the shroud was drawn down over the head to cover the body. Finally, cloth bands were tied around the whole to keep everything in place.

So, the disciples saw the burial cloths lying where the body had lain, but the chin strap was rolled up separately. The first question that must have gone through the disciples’ minds would have been, if someone were going to steal the body, why would they have gone through the trouble of unwrapping it? Apparently, something else must have occurred that deeply affected both Peter and John so that they “saw and believed.” What was it?

In 1978, a priest friend of mine and I, along with two other young friends, traveled to Rome. The day after we arrived, we witnessed the election of Albino Cardinal Luciani as Pope John Paul I. The next day, we celebrated Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. From there, we traveled to the city of Turin, where one of the rare expositions of the Holy Shroud was in progress. It was on display in a very large glass case behind the altar in the cathedral where it has been kept for centuries. We not only came within two or three feet of the should, we also celebrated the Eucharist in its presence.

I’ve seen a lot of relics in my lifetime. Many of the oldest ones, especially relics of Christ’s suffering and death, have a foggy and uncertain past and need to be viewed with the realization that many—if not most of them—need to be viewed as objects of devotion rather than as historical artifacts. That was not our experience standing before the Shroud of Turin. To this day, I am convinced that what I saw was the only genuine relic of the Resurrection. The image of Christ’s crucified body was scorched onto the linen burial shroud. Scientific examination of the shroud has not been conclusive because it’s impossible to factor in the effects of whatever radiation was generated by a resurrected body—radiation powerful enough to scorch the cloth in a perfect three-dimensional photographic negative. I don’t need further convincing that it was that image seared onto Christ’s burial shroud that caused Peter and John to see and believe.

You could go to Turin during one of the rare expositions and see the relic yourself. The last one was in 2015. But is that really necessary? The image of the risen Christ left by the energy of his Resurrection isn’t confined to that piece of cloth in Italy, regardless of how awesome it may be. Unless you can see the image of the risen Christ in yourself and in those around you throughout history who have truly made a positive difference in our world, then no relic, no matter how well-documented will change your mind.

The point is this: for very many generations, women and men sinking into spiritual hopelessness and death have not only been able to experience the presence of the risen Christ but have trusted him and found their lives renewed by the power of the Spirit who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. We’ve not only the witness of Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John but the witness of all those whose spirits have been raised from the dead who bear testimony to what they’ve seen and experienced. We can look at the image of the risen Christ seared into their lives and we can see and believe.

Today, we can echo the words of Pope John Paul II who said, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia! is our song.” In the words of my native Ukrainian culture, Christ is risen! Христос Воскрес! (Christos Voskres) Воїстено Воскрес! (Voyistyno Voskres) He is truly risen!

Readings & Homily Video

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