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 (Jn 20:1-9).
The encounter of the empty tomb was perhaps one of the first tests of faith that the disciples experienced after the death of Jesus. But note that the discovery of the empty tomb does not let them down, rather, “he saw and believed”—even though, “they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” At first glance, this seems like such a great contradiction. How can you believe in something without understanding it? Is understanding the sole criterion of belief? If we are uncertain of something, how can we come to believe in that something? These questions have been some of the most argued and thought out in the modern era (I even wrote my thesis on this subject (though I doubt that my contributions came anywhere near to amounting to anything)). Philosophy itself has seemingly been stuck in the rut that Descartes introduced when attempting to prove the existence of God by way of certainty. Ironically, his method only led to more doubt and uncertainty than ever before. So what does this have to do with the resurrection? Let us do a bit of exploring.
As the Gospel passage states: John enters the tomb, sees that Jesus is not there, believes, and does not yet understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead. Makes perfect sense, right? Well, not exactly. In the Gospel accounts of the resurrection there are three different kinds of resurrection encounters. First there is the “incognito Jesus,” where they do not recognize him until after spending time with him (the road to Emmaus, Mary Magdalene mistaking him as the gardener). Next is the “glorious Jesus,” where he appears in their midst even though the door is locked, bearing the marks of his crucifixion. And finally, there is the “missing Jesus” encounter, namely, the account that is recorded in all four Gospels that on the first day of the week, the tomb of Jesus is found to be empty.
In this latter encounter, the fact that Jesus is not there is the fire of their belief: it brings about the possibility that he truly is the messiah; that he alone is not bound by death; that he has been raised from the dead to new life. This new possibility is far more than anything that the disciples had expected when they turned up outside of his tomb on the first morning of the week. The fact that he is not there is more terrifying than the fact of his crucifixion. It is at this first stage of encountering the empty tomb that they begin to put together the pieces. So much so, that by the time they encounter him next (following the same narrative from John’s Gospel), as soon as Peter recognizes that it is Jesus on the shore, he immediately dives into the water and swims to him—his belief has come to fruition; he has begun to understand.
To make a statement of belief is to make a claim of truth. Whether or not this claim is accurate depends on its truthfulness. If something wasn’t true, you would not believe it to be so. When we say to someone: “I believe in you, you can do this,” it is an affirmation that you believe it to be true that they can perform whatever task it is that they are facing. We may not always understand why we believe it to be so that a person can accomplish whatever said task it is, but that does not change our disposition. It is a feeling, or an intuition that we have. At the same time, it is entirely much more than that, because our claim comes from our experience of that person, which has resulted in the conclusion “I believe.” This is not a mere hypothesis, it is more, it is a statement that your experiences are reasonable (that is, there are many reasons which have led to you making this claim, all which have been tried and tested, resulting in nothing else than this belief). Therefore, belief is not dependent upon understanding.
In his famous encyclical Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason), Blessed John Paul II stated that: “The preaching of Christ crucified and risen is the reef upon which the link between faith and philosophy can break up, but it is also the reef beyond which the two can set forth upon the boundless ocean of truth. Here we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet.” The paschal mystery is therefore the key to our understanding. Faith must be guided by reason, but reason must also be guided by faith. They must harmoniously work together; they are not contradictions to one another. It must be reasonable for us to proclaim that Jesus has truly risen from the dead. If it is not, then our faith is empty. In this Easter Season, let us therefore take the time to explore once again the reasonableness of our faith, so that we can transform our lives and the lives of others by proclaiming with our whole being: “Jesus the Christ has risen from the dead, alleluia!”