Ever since we’ve started live streaming our Masses, I’ve had to be more careful when speaking about my family. After all, they could be watching and listening at any moment. But I must confess that ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been troubled by one detail in our gospel this morning. And that’s the fact that the beloved disciple, traditionally identified as St. John, ran faster than St. Peter. You see, my brother, Fr. John, has always been faster than me. And, so, he’s always been eager to point out this detail in our gospel—too eager, in my opinion. In fact, I’d not be surprised if he preached on it today.
In addition to St. John and St. Peter, our gospel presents us with a third figure and a third saint: St. Mary Magdalene. Each of three these saints comes to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday in a different spiritual and emotional state. Each has a transformative encounter with the Resurrection. And each of these encounters is related to a different name for Sunday: the first day, the third day, and the eighth day.
“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” (John 20:1). “It was still dark.” In the Gospel of John, darkness and light are used to describe not only physical states, like night and day, but also spiritual and emotional states like fear and trust, sin and grace, doubt and faith. In John Chapter 3, for example, the Pharisee Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night because of his fear of being outed as a follower of Jesus (Cf. John 3:1). And when Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus in John Chapter 13, the very next verse states: “And it was night” (John 13:30): a powerful description both physically and spiritually. So, when our gospel today says that “it was still dark,” its describing not only the physical state of the world—the dark before the dawn—but the spiritual state of St. Mary Magdalene. It was still dark outside, because the sun had not yet risen. And it was still dark in St. Mary’s heart, because she did not know that the Son of God had risen.
Like St. Mary, we may face the empty tomb this Easter Sunday with darkness in our hearts. But the hope of the Resurrection is that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). We catch a hint of this hope in the very first words of our gospel: “On the first day of the week.” The first day of the week is Sunday. And what happened on the first Sunday? “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth—and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-2). This is what happened on the first day of creation, on the first Sunday. And it is also what happened for St. Mary on the first Easter Sunday, and what happens for us every Easter Sunday: God sees the darkness in the abyss of our hearts, and He says, once again, “Let there be light.”
But Easter Sunday is not just the first day—the day of light. It is also the third day—the day of revelation. Jesus died on a Friday and God the Father “raised [Him] on the third day,” as we heard in our first reading (Acts 10:40). Friday—the first day, Saturday—the second day, Sunday—the third day. What is the significance of the third day? In the Old Testament, the third day was the day of revelation, the day when God revealed Himself. It was on the third day of their journey to Mount Moriah that God revealed Himself to Abraham and told him to spare his son Isaac whom he was about to sacrifice (Cf. Genesis 22:4). It was on the third day of preparation that God revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites on Mount Sinai (Cf. Exodus 19:16). In light of these past events, it was fitting that God the Father should reveal something about Himself on the third day after His Son’s death on Mount Calvary.
What did He reveal? He revealed His power over the thing which we fear the most and which causes us the most pain: death. And it was the beloved disciple, St. John, who first believed what the Father revealed. “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). St. John saw the stone removed from the tomb, he saw the burial cloths that Jesus had been wrapped in, and the cloth that had covered His head. No grave robber would have stopped to remove Jesus’ burial cloths, nor would they have taken the time to carefully roll up the cloth that had covered His head. God the Father had clearly been at work in a powerful way. St. John saw all this and believed in what the Father had done.
Now, St. John had placed his head on Jesus’ heart at the Last Supper (Cf. John 13:25). And he had stood by Jesus as He died on the Cross (Cf. John 19:26). Imagine, then, what his emotional and spiritual state must have been like when he arrived at the empty tomb. He must have been devastated. And yet He saw and believed. Like St. John, we may face the empty tomb this Easter Sunday devastated at the loss of a loved one. Will we also, like Him, see and believe? Will we believe that God the Father has power over death? Will we believe that He can raise our loved ones to new life?
Easter Sunday, finally, is the eighth day. If you take Easter Sunday, the first day of the new week, and add it to the seven days of the old week, you get eight days. The seven days of the old week represent the old creation. The eighth day, Easter Sunday, is the first day of the new creation. The old creation was under the power of sin and death. That power was broken, and all things were created anew, when Jesus defeated sin and death by rising on the eighth day. That is why, incidentally, baptismal fonts are traditionally eight-sided and why the dome on our new church will be eight-sided as well. Eight is a symbol of the new creation, and we become a new creation and a member of Christ’s Body the Church through baptism. But that’s more of an aside. What does the eighth day and the new creation have to do with the last figure in our gospel, St. Peter?
Interestingly, it comes back to the fact that St. Peter ran slower than St. John. Now, St. Peter didn’t run slower because he was less athletic than St. John, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. He ran slower because he was weighed down by sin and shame. He had denied Jesus three times whereas St. John had stood by Him at the Cross. Love made St. John lighter on his feet. Sin and shame slowed St. Peter down. It was with this heavy burden on his heart and soul that St. Peter arrived at the empty tomb. Imagine how he must have felt. Perhaps some of us feel the same way as we face the empty tomb this Easter Sunday. The empty tomb had something to offer St. Mary Magdalene and St. John. What did it have to offer St. Peter and what does it have to offer us?
It offers us a new creation through the forgiveness of our sins. Just as the burial cloths could not hold Jesus forever in physical death, so also the bonds of sin, because of the Resurrection, can no longer hold us forever in spiritual death. If we turn to our Risen Lord in true repentance, if we say “I love you” for every time we’ve denied Him, even as St. Peter did (Cf. John 21:15-17), our souls will be cleansed and created anew.
So, who are you most like this morning? Are you like St. Mary Magdalene? Do you need God to shine a light in the darkness of your heart? Are you like St. John? Do you need faith that God can raise your loved one to new life? Are you like St. Peter? Do you need to be created anew through the forgiveness of our Risen Lord? All that and more can be found in the empty tomb and in the One who rose from it. Whoever we are this Easter Sunday, let us rejoice and be glad. For Christ our hope is arisen. He is arisen indeed. Amen. Alleluia.