The Easter Vigil Gospel: Luke 24:1-12
USCCB link to all Vigil Readings
At daybreak on the first day of the week
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus
took the spices they had prepared
and went to the tomb.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb;
but when they entered,
they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.
While they were puzzling over this, behold,
two men in dazzling garments appeared to them.
They were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground.
They said to them,
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?
He is not here, but he has been raised.
Remember what he said to you while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners
and be crucified, and rise on the third day.”
And they remembered his words.
Then they returned from the tomb
and announced all these things to the eleven
and to all the others.
The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James;
the others who accompanied them also told this to the apostles,
but their story seemed like nonsense
and they did not believe them.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb,
bent down, and saw the burial cloths alone;
then he went home amazed at what had happened.
Easter Morning Gospel: John 20:1-9
USCCB Link to all Easter Sunday Readings
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.
So she ran and went to Simon Peter
and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them,
“They have taken the Lord from the tomb,
and we don’t know where they put him.”
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
For they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.
A good but not great number of Catholics attend the Easter Vigil as a rule, and a much larger number attend on Easter Sunday itself. This is unfortunate in the sense that the Easter Vigil is the single most important celebration of the Church Year. The Vigil, of its nature, must be celebrated at the earliest after dark on Saturday; in fact, it can be celebrated during the middle of the night until sunrise, as does occur in monasteries and other settings. In United States parish life, the Easter Vigil has acquired a reputation as an extraordinarily long service targeted for a small specialized population, those persons observing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults who are baptized during the Vigil. The somewhat lopsided emphasis upon a small number of converts is an unfortunate development since Vatican II that cries out for reform, as the Vigil—of all nights—belongs to the entire parish family. But, since we are not going to solve that issue in four days, let’s take a look at the liturgical/scriptural cards we are dealt.
There are two entirely different sets of rites in the Missal, one for the Easter Vigil, and another for Easter Sunday itself starting at sunrise. As the Vigil holds preeminence, the Gospel text for the Vigil Mass comes from the C Cycle’s evangelist, Luke. For Easter Sunday morning Masses, a portion of St. John’s resurrection narrative is proclaimed. And, interestingly, for congregations celebrated Mass in the evening of Easter Sunday, Luke’s narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus may be read. Our focus will be the Vigil and the morning masses.
It is helpful to remember that when Luke took pen in hand to record the Resurrection narratives, over a half century had passed in the interim, as most commentaries date the Gospel of Luke at around 80 A.D., give or take. Consequently, Luke has had considerable time to consider the reports handed down to him, which no doubt included reference to a confused and downcast post-crucifixion phase among Jesus’ followers that may have lasted quite some time. In reading Luke, and the other Gospels for that matter, it is good to consider that we have received an encapsulation, dramatic accounts with rapid resolutions that in fact probably played out over longer periods of time. In particular, Luke’s use of the phrase “forty days” must be seen in its biblical meaning as a “period of time.”
With that in mind, it is evident that Luke is consistent with Mark and Matthew in reporting an early morning discovery by faithful Galilean women of an empty tomb. Luke’s narrative is not nearly as dramatic as Matthew’s, who has other lessons to teach, but the presence of two men in dazzling garments is compelling enough. In fact, the women’s reaction to the stone having been rolled back and the absence of Jesus’ body is remarkably composed until they behold these messengers, and then they fall to the ground. Luke is demonstrating what we might call a psychological awareness curve: the earliest followers came to an awareness that (1) the burial site had been tampered with soon after Jesus’ burial, and (2) Jesus’ body was missing. Both of these factors would have been cause for considerable stress and confusion—as the disciples of Emmaus indicate to Jesus later in the narrative—but the two men in dazzling white apocalyptic garb take the story to a divine plane that none of Jesus’ original followers was quite ready to embrace just yet.
The message of the two men is the heart of Luke’s entire Gospel: everything in this narrative, from Zachary’s encounter with Gabriel in Chapter 1 to Jesus’ glorious farewell at the end of Chapter 24, is “the divinely ordained plan.” For the early followers of Jesus—and we who follow—some portions of God’s plan revealed in Jesus are just grand, like the promise of unending mercy. However, the pain in the plan—the cross, the scandalous death—was too much to comprehend at first. The early Christians were having great difficulty connecting the dots, and they did so haltingly and over varying time lines. In this text the women seem—with the help of the two men—to have recalled the totality of Jesus’ message, and they go off to tell the eleven and others how to connect their dots, apparently without any command or commission from the two men, whose role in the story is finished and they leave immediately.
So the next question becomes, why did the disciples brush them off? It is all the more remarkable because these women have been named in the Gospel earlier and described as virtual companion disciples; one of them is the wife of a high official. In looking at the text closely, Luke describes the women as telling the male disciples “this,” which must refer to the entire salvation narrative that the women themselves recalled with the help of the two men. “This” would also be the same content of Jesus’ own instruction of the two disciples on the Emmaus road later in the narrative. The word picture here is of a sizeable number of articulate women contending with the eleven over the essential meaning of the entire Hebrew Scripture in the light of new information and experience. It is a snapshot, actually, of a prolonged process of gradual unification and understanding among those who would become Christ’s Church.
Peter’s role in this narrative is intriguing. Luke does not tell us if Peter joined in this argument or not, but he alone decided to check the tomb on his own, and he beheld the same conditions as the women had noted earlier, except that in Peter’s visit there are no men in dazzling robes to help him connect the dots. Peter returned home “amazed at what had happened,” implying strongly that Peter at some level knew what happened. Remember too that Peter was long dead when this Gospel was written; there is a statement here of Peter’s legitimacy as the first among equals to come to Resurrection faith, as well as an endorsement of those presently preaching the Resurrection, most notably the bishop of Rome and the first generations successors of the apostles.
The Easter Sunday Gospel from John reflects much of the same teaching intent as Luke’s text above. John’s Gospel was written even later than Luke’s. One of John’s many theological goals was unity of faith. There are indications of divisions in the Church around 100 A.D. with some communities acknowledging “the disciple whom Jesus loved” as the first in faith and distrustful of the majority of churches who looked to Peter’s enduring seat of authority. The final editor of John’s Gospel attempts throughout the Johannine Resurrection narrative to bring the family together, so to speak.
This accounts for the curious protocol at the tomb where the “beloved disciple” (never named) gets there first but does not enter, allowing Peter to enter first. The author provides what I would call “useful ambivalence.” He writes that the younger disciple saw and believed, which would put him ahead of Peter in faith. But then he writes that “they” (Peter and the beloved disciple) did not understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead. The editor/author of John apparently hoped he had soothed the waters with this formula, but such was not the case. Chapter 21 was added to the original text for the precise purpose of identifying Peter’s position in the Church and vis-à-vis the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” establishing once and for all the roles of the two men as we understand them today.