The Politics of the Empty Tomb—John 20:1-18 (Alastair Roberts)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

The encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Christ provides us with a model for understanding political theology. The elusive presence of the resurrected one and the emptiness of his tomb forbid all our attempts to secure his presence in our praxis and open up new ways of perceiving our social task.

John 20:1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14 When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’ 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Before dawn, early on the first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb. The other gospel accounts mention her companions. In John’s account, even though companions are implied (v.2b—‘we do not know’), Mary is the only character in the frame. Simon Peter and the beloved disciple make an appearance later but this passage is Mary’s scene. Twice Mary—the apostle to the apostles—is sent to other disciples with news, first about the empty tomb and then about her encounter with the risen Christ. After the two disciples had seen the empty tomb and departed to their homes, Mary remained weeping outside.

Unlike the beloved disciple, Mary Magdalene did not as yet believe. As our focus is so often upon the presence or absence of faith in the context of the empty tomb and the resurrection, it can be easy to miss the significance of Mary’s response. Reflecting upon the character of Mary Magdalene, I am reminded of Tomáš Halík’s description of St. Thérèse de Lisieux.[1] In a ‘night of nothingness,’ thrust ‘far from all suns,’ Thérèse experienced the complete extinction of her faith. However, when her faith died, her love continued to burn fiercely in the darkness, refusing to grant the darkness its victory.

Earlier in her life, St. Thérèse articulated her vocation to be ‘love in the heart of the church.’[2] The terrible darkness into which she was later cast gave this vocation a remarkable and entirely unsentimental character. In patient and enduring love, having lost all sight of her Lord, she waits out the night which promises no dawn. If St. Thérèse was ‘love in the heart of the church,’ it was as one following in the steps of Mary Magdalene. Halík writes: ‘Christian faith—unlike “natural religiosity” and happy-go-lucky religiosity—is resurrected faith, faith that has to die on the cross, be buried, and rise again—in a new form.’[3] It was not faith, but love, which survived the long night of Easter Saturday and it is Mary in whom this love is most visible.

The presence and absence of Jesus is a prominent theme within this passage. When she came to the tomb early in the morning, what did Mary expect to find but the corpse of Jesus, safely secured in its place?[4] However, the corpse of Jesus, an entity that could easily be located and made available to the senses was absent. Instead of the body of Jesus, there was an absence, ‘filled with a “sign to be believed”’ in the folded grave clothes and the two angels.[5]

When Mary sees Jesus, she does not recognize him. He speaks to her, yet she presumes him to be the gardener. Even as Jesus is present to her, he is absent to her perception and she knows only the continuing absence of his corpse—‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus only truly ‘appears’ to Mary when he calls her by name—as Jesus declared in John 10:3, his sheep know the voice of their shepherd. When she finally recognizes him, Jesus tells her not to cling to him and her that he will be departing as he ascends to his Father.

The resurrection of Mary’s faith occurred as her patient love, a love stronger than death, was answered by the voice of her beloved. As in Luke’s account of the Emmaus Road, the risen Christ makes himself known to his people, not by subjecting himself to the control of our natural senses, by through his gift of himself in Word, Sacrament, and loving address.

The opening of the tomb on that first Easter morning is accompanied by the opening of the Scriptures and the opening of the eyes of the disciples.[6] The disciples had once been assured that Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel, the expected answer to the nation’s plight. With the death of Christ, it appeared as if the promise of the Scripture had perished too. The Scriptures were now closed to the disciples (v.9), like the stone-covered tomb.

With delicate literary brushstrokes, the Evangelist performs the resurrection of the Scriptures within this passage. Looking into the tomb, Mary sees two angels sitting, one at the head and another at the foot of where Jesus’ body had lain, as the mercy-seat that covered the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:18-21). The Holy of Holies, from which access was once prevented by a veil, is now thrown open. The two angels of the new mercy-seat cover an absence—the place where the body of Christ once lay. Where once they had covered the dead testament of stone tablets in their ‘coffin’ (the word used for ‘ark’ is also used in this sense, cf. Genesis 50:26), they now mark the open site of the resurrection of the living Word. The Scriptures are ‘opened’ as the risen Christ emerges from their once closed testimony.

A similar ‘resurrection’ occurs as Mary’s eyes are opened. Mary initially mistakes Christ for the gardener. The presence of a man and a woman in a garden sanctuary recalls Eden and the sudden awakening of transformative understanding for Mary parallels the opening of Adam and Eve’s eyes after the eating of the forbidden fruit in Genesis. Here the eyes of Mary—the loving one who is the heart of the Easter Church—are opened not to her nakedness and shame but to her glorious risen Lord.

What does all of this have to do with political theology?

Political theology, like many other forms of theology, is in constant danger of quests to secure the stable and settled presence of Christ. It risks denying the continuing reality of his absence and, indeed, how integral absence is to the ascended Christ’s mode of presence in our world. Louis-Marie Chauvet suggests that the presence of this temptation to political theology is most acutely experienced in a moralistic tendency associated with social action.[7] Effacing the absence of the risen Christ, we risk identifying his reign with forms of this world and his salvation with our political visions of liberation. In such a manner, we would return the risen Christ to the safety of his tomb, our political praxis being the memorial of the departed prophet. This is a Christ who can be securely known apart from faith and love.

A truly Christian political theology must start with the experience of Mary Magdalene, with the death of ‘natural religiosity’ and the discovery of the absence of the body of Christ. Our praxis must be thrown open, like the tomb of our risen Lord. Our political activity is not the spicing of a sepulchre, containing and maintaining the presence of Christ’s cadaver. Rather, it is a site of a glorious absence, a sign of resurrection to be believed by those whose loving eyes have been opened.


[1] Tomáš Halík, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us (London: Doubleday, 2009), 24-45.
[2] Ibid. 31
[3] Ibid. 42
[4] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995), 173
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid. 169
[7] Ibid. 176

2 thoughts on “The Politics of the Empty Tomb—John 20:1-18 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. Jesus’ resurrection after his death is the ultimate and defining proof of Jesus’ divinity. Just about everyone knows the story, which is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he arose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

    There is only one way for Jesus to prove that he rose from the dead. He had to appear to people. Therefore, several different places in the Bible describe Jesus’ appearances after his death:

    •Matthew chapter 28
    •Mark chapter 16
    •Luke chapter 24
    •John Chapter 20 and 21

    1 Corinthians 15:3-6 provides a nice summary of those passages, as written by Paul:

    For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

    As you can see in this passage, Jesus appeared to hundreds of people a number of different times.

    Being like Paul: When we look at these Bible passages, there is a question that comes to mind — why did Jesus stop making these appearances? Why isn’t Jesus appearing today? It really is odd.

    Obviously Paul benefitted from a personal meeting with the resurrected Christ. Because of the personal visit, Paul could see for himself the truth of the resurrection, and he could ask Jesus questions. So… Why doesn’t Jesus appear to everyone and prove that he is resurrected, just like he appeared to Paul? There is nothing to stop Jesus from materializing in your kitchen tonight to have a personal chat with you.

    And if you think about it, Jesus really does need to appear to each of us. If Paul needed a personal visit from Jesus to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why wouldn’t you? It is an important question for the following reasons:

    •We are told by the Bible that Jesus appeared to hundreds of people.

    •We therefore know that it is OK for Jesus to appear to people — it does not take away their free will, for example.

    •We know that it would be easy for Jesus to appear to everyone all through history, since Jesus is all-powerful and timeless.

    •We know that, if Jesus did reappear to everyone, it would be incredibly helpful. We could all know, personally, that Jesus is resurrected and that Jesus is God. If Paul (and all the other people in the Bible) needed a personal visit to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why not you and me?

    Yet, we all know that Jesus has not appeared to anyone in 2,000 years.

    THINK, folks! Which is more likely: A dead man walked out of his grave 2,000 years ago, ate a broiled fish lunch with his fishing buddies and then 40 days later levitated into outer space, or, this entire story of a Resurrection is a legend: a legend based on false sightings and/or visions and hallucinations, of well-intentioned but uneducated, illiterate, hope-shattered, superstitious Galilean peasants, desperately trying to keep alive their only source of hope in their miserable, first century existence?

  2. Are our pastors telling us the truth?

    Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a “mountain of evidence” for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?

    You MUST read this Christian pastor’s defense of the Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners, a man who lost his faith and is now a nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection:

    -A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro’s Defense of the Resurrection-

    (copy and paste this article title into your browser to find and read this fascinating review of the evidence for the Resurrection)

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