On Easter Sunday, during its Octave, and on the first Sunday after Easter, the Roman Missal presents us with a different Gospel reading every day. All of these relate what happened on the day of Our Lord’s triumphant Resurrection. The accounts move us, both by the colossal nature of the events, and by the tender intimacy of the episodes. All four Evangelists attend to the Resurrection of Our Lord. It is no surprise, as this event is central to our Faith: “And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (I Cor. 15:14).
But for all their power to elicit our attention and move our hearts, the narratives can sometimes be confusing.
We are dealing with events related by four different Evangelists, each of whom has his own perspective, and whose material only partially overlaps. As with other Gospel events, the history of that first Easter Sunday presents us with some difficulties. The modernist or rationalist will deal with these difficulties by affirming that there are contradictions in the Bible. To orthodox believers, this is anathema. As did the Church fathers, popes, and sound commentators throughout the ages, we know that the material is inerrant. For us, to address the difficulties is to try to coordinate the accounts to see how they fit together.
What follows is a modest effort to do just that. I emphasize modest. The difficulties surrounding the women’s visits to the tomb make for one of the hairiest problems in Scriptural exegesis. For greater depth, consult a good Life of Christ, eg., the ones by Ferdinand Pratt and Giuseppe Ricciotti.
Before beginning, I would like to lay down a couple of principles that help to untie some of the knots. First, if one evangelist affirms that one person did something, that does not mean that there were not two who did it. Case in point is the episode of the possessed Gerasens. Saint Matthew (ch. 8) mentions two such men; Saint Mark, only one. There is no contradiction. Saint Mark did not say that there was only one. Commentators speak of Saint Mark’s as the more prominent of the two.
Secondly, when there is a collective (“they”) comprised of several individuals, that collective can be spoken of throughout a narrative without the narrator being obliged to say that some of the original number were no longer present. In relating the history of a battle, for instance, military historians certainly do not have to say that “the army” in question was with or without certain soldiers at various points of the history he narrates. It would become tiresome if he had to number the army every time he identified it. Similarly, though to a lesser numerical extent than a whole army, the evangelists will speak of groups of people as “they” even though the original composition of “them” has changed by the end of the account. This is simply a natural way of telling a story. In the case of the Apostles, the term “the eleven,” as they are known after the treason of Judas, is used at least once in reference to only ten men, for we know that “Thomas, one of the twelve, who is called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came” (Jn 20: 24), yet Saint Luke (24:33 ff.) says of that same episode that “the eleven” were there when Jesus appeared. It is not a contradiction; it is only a natural way of relating history in an uncumbersome manner.
I. Mary Magdalene and other women leave very early in the morning, before light, to gather spices and properly anoint our Lord’s body for burial.
Mark 16:1-2: “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus. And very early in the morning, the first day of the week, they come to the sepulchre, the sun being now risen.”
Saint Matthew mentions only “Mary Magdalen and the other Mary” (Mt. 28:1), while Saint Luke adds one name to Saint Mark’s group of holy “Myrrh-bearers” (as these beautiful women are known in the Christian East): “And it was Mary Magdalen, and Joanna, and Mary of James, and the other women that were with them, who told these things to the apostles.” (Lk 24:10).
II. Saint Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb alone “when it was yet dark” (Jn. 20:2) and sees stone rolled back. It is likely that she ran ahead of the others, allowing them to head to the market for the spices. This does not contradict Saint Mark’s account above, since Mark says they left very early, but that they arrived at the tomb when the sun was risen. Saint Mary Magdalene probably looked into the tomb, saw it empty, and immediately went to tell Peter and John.
John 20:1-2: “And on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalen cometh early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre; and she saw the stone taken away from the sepulchre. She ran, therefore…[to tell Peter and John…]”
Saint Matthew (28:1-10) seems to combine events that happened with Mary Magdalene alone and with the other women into one account. He rather simplifies the whole telling, but provides us with a fact that nobody else mentions, namely, how the stone was moved: “And behold there was a great earthquake. For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. And his countenance was as lightning, and his raiment as snow. And for fear of him, the guards were struck with terror, and became as dead men.” (Mt. 28:2-4).
III. The other women arrive at the tomb and seeing angels, they go to tell the disciples. Peter and John may not have been there because they left when Mary Magdalene gave them the news.
Mark 16:4-8: “And looking, they saw the stone rolled back. For it was very great. And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed with a white robe: and they were astonished. Who saith to them: Be not affrighted; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he is risen, he is not here, behold the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee; there you shall see him, as he told you. But they going out, fled from the sepulchre. For a trembling and fear had seized them: and they said nothing to any man; for they were afraid.”
As an apologetical aside, I note that the wording “his disciples and Peter” shows a certain privileged position for Saint Peter. Of course, Saint Peter was a disciple, but he was more. He was the prince, chief, and head of all the disciples.
The disciples on the whole did not believe their testimony.
Mark 16:11: “And they hearing that he was alive, and had been seen by her [Mary Magdalene], did not believe.” Luke 24:11: “And these words seemed to them as idle tales; and they did not believe them.”
III. Sts. Peter and John arrive either accompanied by Mary Magdalene or with her following not far behind. They see the empty tomb and see more in it than the Magdalene did — the Shroud and the Sudarium. It was these articles that elicited Saint John’s faith in the resurrection: “and he saw, and believed.” (Jn. 20:8) John and Peter leave, but Saint Mary Magdalene stays behind.
John 20:4-11: “Peter therefore went out, and that other disciple, and they came to the sepulchre. And they both ran together, and that other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre. And when he stooped down, he saw the linen cloths lying; but yet he went not in. Then cometh Simon Peter, following him, and went into the sepulchre, and saw the linen cloths lying, And the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place. Then that other disciple also went in, who came first to the sepulchre: and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead. The disciples therefore departed again to their home. But Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping.”
Note that Saint John lets Peter in first. Saint Peter’s inspection seems to bear the character of an “official investigation.”
IV. Meanwhile, some time this morning (9:00 or so?), Cleophas and an unnamed disciple head off for Emmaus, their false messianic hopes being dashed.
Luke 24:13: “And behold, two of them went, the same day, to a town which was sixty furlongs from Jerusalem, named Emmaus.” Sixty furlongs is about seven and a half miles.
V. The Gardner Incident: The First Recorded Apparition. Back at the tomb, Mary Magdalene has stayed behind weeping after Peter and John left. This is when she sees the “gardener” after seeing two angels in white. The gardener is actually Our Lord, who instructs her to tell “his brethren” that He will see them in Galilee. This is the First Apparition recorded by the Evangelists. She goes to tell the disciples and they, on the whole, did not believe her.
John 20:11-18: “But Mary stood at the sepulchre without, weeping. Now as she was weeping, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And she saw two angels in white, sitting, one at the head, and one at the feet, where the body of Jesus had been laid. They say to her: Woman, why weepest thou? She saith to them: Because they have taken away my Lord; and I know not where they have laid him. When she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith to her: Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, thinking it was the gardener, saith to him: Sir, if thou hast taken him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith to her: Mary. She turning, saith to him: Rabboni (which is to say, Master). Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. Mary Magdalen cometh, and telleth the disciples: I have seen the Lord, and these things he said to me.”
Mark 16:9: “But he rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalen, out of whom he had cast seven devils.”
Note that I called this the first recorded apparition. I say “recorded” on purpose, for I accept the venerable tradition that the first to see the Resurrected One was his Blessed Mother.
VI. Apparition to Saint Peter: The Second Apparition. At some point, Jesus appears to Peter. We know nothing about this apparition other than its happening.
Luke 24: 34: [This is what the disciples tell the two returned from Emmaus.] “The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.”
1 Cor. 15:3-8: “For I delivered unto you first of all, which I also received: how that Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures: And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the scriptures: And that he was seen by Cephas; and after that by the eleven. Then he was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once: of whom many remain until this present, and some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen by James, then by all the apostles. And last of all, he was seen also by me, as by one born out of due time.”
A delicate point merits attention here. Why did the Apostles believe Saint Peter and not the women? Were they simply chauvinists? It seems unlikely that they were; after all, the holy women get very good press in the apostolic writings. There is something to be said for not trusting the report of a group of excited women, especially when they report something considered unworthy of credence. Too, accepting the legal testimony of a woman was forbidden by Jewish law, as is still generally the case in the rabbinical courts of Orthodox Judaism. Beyond this, St. Peter’s gravitas as apostolic elder statesman would have merited more credence with the disciples. It is probably for all these reasons, and for general cultural biases, that Saint Paul enumerated only apparitions to men in the passage I have just cited from First Corinthians. Yet for all that, Our Lord rebuked the men for not believing “them who had seen him.”
VI. On the Road to Emmaus: The Third Apparition. The two disciples who left this morning, Cleophas and his unnamed companion, are joined by a fellow traveler, who explains the scriptures to them and whom they recognize as Our Lord in the “breaking of the bread.” This is the third apparition of Our Lord. They return — a fifteen-mile round trip — and tell the other disciples. But before they can tell their story, they are informed, “The Lord is risen indeed and hath appeared to Simon” (Lk. 24:34). This is how we know that, while some doubted, most believed Peter, even where they had doubted Saint Mary Magdalene. It is now evening.
VII. Our Lord Appears in the Upper Room: Forth Apparition. As the Emmaus disciples finish relating their tale, Our Lord enters the room, Saint Luke and Saint John record details of this apparition. Saint John’s account provides the Gospel for Low Sunday: Our Lord appears, in Thomas’ absence, and gives the disciples the power to forgive sins. According to Saint Mark, Our Lord, “upbraid[ed] them with their incredulity and hardness of heart because they did not believe them who had seen him after he was risen again.”
A week later, Jesus returns and confronts Saint Thomas, who makes the most explicit profession of Christ’s divinity of anyone to date: “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28).
There are many subsequent apparitions in Galilee. We know of about eleven apparitions of Our Lord during the forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension, but that number only sets a bottom limit. We are not told everything in Scripture!