Ready or Not: Reflections on the Unexpected Easter
If it's any comfort, nobody in John's account of Easter Sunday was ready for it either. They should have been. Jesus had dropped enough hints to get through to even the thickest of skulls. "Now my soul is troubled . . . it is for this reason that I have come to this hour" (12:27). "Let not your hearts be troubled, I go to prepare a place for you" (14:1, 2). "A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me" (16:16).
How odd that in this account of the first Easter, none of the disciples seems fully ready for Easter joy. All four gospels concur that the Resurrection took them by surprise!
They should have put the turkey and the candied yams in the oven, dressed in their new dresses and suits, loaded basked with multi-colored Easter grass and chocolate eggs, all signed a Happy Easter card to Jesus with an inspiring poem by Helen Steiner Rice inside, and skipped arm in arm down the path to take it to him, smiles wreathing their faces.
Instead, the first Easter morning went like this.
Mary Magdalene woke up early, while it was still dark, pulled her cloak around her, and walked shivering to the tomb, through the Jerusalem market, past sleeping dogs and horses, by one of the gates of the ancient walled city, deserted at this hour, except for the soldiers on top of the wall. Outside the gate she is suddenly in countryside, except for a large stone quarry off to the left that looks like a huge gravel pit. From this quarry many slaves had provided stone blocks for building the city. To this quarry Mary goes with her grief.
She passes beneath the cliff top. Two men who had been crucified with Jesus still hang there, on wooden crosses where they will be devoured by birds and dogs. She goes to a far corner of the quarry to a garden, where the cliff side has row upon row of handhewn caves, tombs for the dead.
All the empty tomb means for Mary is that Jesus' body has been stolen. She assumes the worst, not the best. Who would assume something that is too good to be true? She retraces her steps at a run and wakes Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple. They each clear the sleep from the corners of their eyes, throw on jeans and a sweatshirt, stuff their feet into their sneakers and come running.
1) First response to this Easter for which no one was prepared. The Beloved Disciple outran Peter. Who was he? We don't know his name. We do know he was present in key scenes from the Gospel of John. He was present at the Last Supper and at the foot of the cross. He followed Jesus into the High Priest's house, and he followed the resurrected Jesus along the shore of the Sea of Tiberius (Jn. 21:20).
What was this Beloved Disciple? Scholars debate. Maybe he was John Mark. Maybe Lazarus. Maybe Thomas.
Whoever he was, John portrays him as "one who had become very sensitive to Jesus through love" (Raymond Brown, 1005, volume 29, Anchor Bible Volume on John).
Here, on Easter morning, the Beloved Disciple is first to believe that Jesus is risen. He doesn't go in until Peter does, but after Peter goes in, the Beloved Disciple goes in the tomb. John tells us that "He saw and believed" (Jn. 20:8). But then—he goes on home, thinking, perhaps, "This changes everything, but I'm not sure how. Let me just me mull this over a while before I tell anyone else about it."
Why this response? Was he overwhelmed, feeling like this was news too good to be true?
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.