Easter Sunday: All the Feels
By: The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
When I was in junior high, my family visited the Musée d’Orsay, where I saw this painting:
The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb on the Morning of the Resurrection by Eugéne Burnand, 1898
I was so struck by the emotions on the faces of the two disciples running to the tomb that I took a photograph of the painting to look at after I returned home. I still have the printed photo, blurry and poorly lit though it is, on my home altar.
I think the painting made such an impact on me because the Gospels often leave out explicit reference to emotion. In today’s lectionary reading, for example, it’s only in the second pericope when Mary weeps that we get any sense of feeling. In the entire first pericope, no one is described as sad, anguished, fearful, anxious, heart-in-mouth, barely daring to hope… They’re just running—Mary from the tomb to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (later identified as John), Peter and John back to the tomb to see for themselves.
What I love about Burnand’s painting is that you can see not just what’s in the text—the wind in their hair and the inclination of their bodies indicate their movement—but what’s not in the text: the mix of feelings on their faces as they hasten to discover whether their beloved teacher and friend might be alive; whether they might have reason to hope. As the Catholic blogger Bill Donaghy notes, unlike many other depictions, “this Resurrection scene does not put us before still figures near a stagnant stone, nor figures standing with stony faces in a contrived, plastic posture, pointing to an empty tomb.” Instead, it brings the passage to life.
It appears, though, that Burnand might have engaged in a little artistic ret-conning, or retroactive continuity—a rewriting of earlier events to line up with present realities. What Mary tells the disciples (that Jesus’ body must have been moved from the tomb) suggests bodysnatchers rather than resurrection. So why are Peter and John depicted as though they already know they’re running toward new life?
There is disagreement about whether Peter and John knew what the empty tomb really meant. Verse 8 says that the beloved disciple saw the neatly folded burial wrappings “and believed”—but what did he believe? That the resurrection had taken place? Or did he simply believe Mary’s account that the body had been moved? The Greek word episteusen can mean either simple agreement with another’s words, or a deeper assent to a spiritual truth. Many modern scholars join John Calvin in arguing for the latter, while St. Augustine and many after him assert the former. (There’s also a third option supported by the Codex Bezae – that v. 8 is an error and should read “did not believe.”)
Though far from being a New Testament scholar, I’m casting my vote for Augustine’s interpretation. The context indicates that John believed Mary’s words. Why else would the next verse offer the explanation “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead”? (v. 9) Taking Mary’s interpretation at face value also explains why the disciples then “returned to their homes” without further ado. (v. 10) If John had just realized that Jesus was alive, I’m willing to bet that he would have just kept on running, hot-footing it back out of there to spread the good news.
Why does all this matter? Christians today read this part of the world’s most well-known story with dramatic irony, inescapably aware of the happy ending even if the disciples aren’t. Maybe the pervasiveness of this hindsight, and a reluctance to admit that Jesus’ beloved disciple would have been kept in the dark, account for why so many scholars have read John’s belief into the passage.
But I think it’s important to sit with the possibility that Jesus’ nearest and dearest disciple, along with a woman Jesus cherished and the close friend who would start his church—people who had listened to his message and staked their lives on his ministry for three years—might have seen the empty tomb and not believed.
Sitting in the pews at your church or in the cubicle next to you are likely to be other Johns, or Janes, who observe the empty wrappings and see nothing but death. Where do we meet them this morning? How do we sit with them through the deflated return home, the exhausted tears, the numbness that comes from yet another blow following a devastating loss? Especially in such a tumultuous political climate, how do we preach life to the Johns of our world – the Johns inside all of us?
It’s interesting to me that the next pericope begins with a “but”: “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” (v. 11a) The conjunction puts Mary’s defeated tears in opposition to Peter and John’s return home. If I’m to stick with my own analysis, haven’t they all given up, whether they stayed at the tomb or left? Why is remaining at the scene rather than going home a “but”?
Conventional wisdom, of course, tells us to follow the disciples when we face tragedy—to move on, not dwell on it. But—is there perhaps power in sitting with our grief instead of walking away from it? Might it be, as it was for Mary, the location of our resurrection?
Mary had already seen the inside of the tomb; I imagine her ducking her head back in again (v. 11b) in disbelief, trying to wrap her mind around the disappearance of her beloved rabbi. Suddenly, she is tag-teamed by two angels and Jesus disguised as a gardener. Here, at least, is a place where I have little trouble reading the emotions of the text; indeed, Mary’s anguish seems to bleed through the page: ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ (v. 15) And although I imagine a painting or a superbly acted scene might better do it justice, I have no trouble perceiving the compassion, the intimacy behind Jesus’ cry—“Mary!”—or the sheer relief, the resuscitating wonder, of Mary’s response—“Rabbouni!”—literally, “my teacher.” (v.16)
From there the narrative slides into rather sterile, unfeeling directives—go there, tell them this. But actually Jesus is doing an astounding new thing: for the first time he calls the disciples adelphous, “my brothers,” a term used for peers in one’s religious community. Then he explicitly bequeaths to Mary and the disciples the intimate, parental relationship he has enjoyed with God: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (v. 17) Jesus has just inaugurated a religious fellowship where each member is to relate to God as a cherished parent and to Jesus as a beloved brother.
With all the running in the previous paragraph, you’d think that after realizing her dearly loved Jesus was alive and they were all entering into this new reality, Mary would run back to the disciples to share with them the good news. Yet the text simply says “went” (v. 18). I wonder if Mary, profoundly moved by the new kindom Jesus had just outlined for her, was taking her time, pondering all these things in her heart like another Mary before her.
As we prepare to preach this Easter, may we follow in the footsteps of Mary, taking time to contemplate, live into, and acknowledge to our parishioners “all the feels.”
Extra resource for your congregation: use Burnand’s painting (which is in the public domain) to engage in Video Divina—the visual equivalent of Lectio Divina. You can find simple instructions for Lectio Divina here and on many other wesbsites; just substitute “viewing the image” for “reading the text.”
A Midwest transplant to the South, The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and serves as a preaching pastor at Decatur UCC in Atlanta. She works bi-vocationally as an administrator for a Presbyterian PC(USA) church; if one day she serves a church with its own administrator, she plans to treat that person like royalty. She’s also a mama, pastor’s wife, and Head Thriftvangelist over at http://www.thriftshopchic.com.
 Burnand, Eugène. The disciples Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.1898. Musée D’Orsay, Paris, France. Accessed through Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Disciples_running_by_EB.jpg
 Donaghy, Bill. “The Posture of New Evangelization.” The Heart of Things. July 11, 2013. http://missionmoment.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-posture-of-new-evangelization.html