Today’s reading at Easter Mass is also an option when we offer spiritual and sacramental care for people who are sick or dying. There are different reason why it might be chosen. First, it is the season. Second, the ill person might have an experience of coming through a long Lent, either in real time or spiritually. Third, a person on the cusp of death might find solace that where Jesus has been, we will follow.
It is important to remember that this chapter of the Gospel reads very much like a drama. The author is communicating realities of faith by more than just the words on parchment. There is movement, as there would be if actors were presenting this on stage. It might make the sequence easier to digest, if we can use our mind’s eye to imagine it. Or even be a part of the action.
According to the evangelist, Mary is the first witness to the empty tomb:
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.
Mary moves and testifies:
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.”
Two disciples move, but each at a different pace:
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.
This is an illustration of growing in faith. We have an initial enthusiasm, but when confronted with a situation difficult to fathom, we stand back. Peter, like some others, will rush into the thick of it:
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.
Then the disciples returned home.
The witness of the beloved disciple is intriguing. He has belief. But he does not yet have understanding. This is a key example for us. The human brain may not have completed all the connections or pieced together the puzzle of life. Our knowledge of God may be yet imperfect. (Likely true for all of us, to be truthful.) But faith is a graced gift from God. We can wait for it, expectantly.
Turning to the situation of a person seriously ill or in danger of dying, we might identify. We don’t understand “why-us?” We might look back on our life and wonder about the meaning of our path of our personal history. A person of faith will be hard-pressed to trust at times like this. If faith is shaken, this may be a difficult reading to absorb.
Some clergy, well-attuned with the liturgy, might use this easily in the Easter season. A bit of discernment may be needed. One possible entry is to reflect on which of these disciples appeals to our imagination. Do we see ourselves in one more than the other two? Would we have a different response confronted by an empty tomb and not knowing what had happened or what the future might hold? Which actor here affirms our faith? Which one is trying to tell us something about the Lord Jesus?
For an in-depth treatment of the Pastoral Care rites, check this page that outlines our examination from a decade ago.