The twentieth chapter of John’s Gospel contributes greatly to our understanding and thinking about the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It complements the idea of the interplay between ontology and epistemology that we talked about last week in the story of the Road to Emmaus. We learn about the reality of essential life through words and deeds, through different forms of knowing. That, too, is highlighted in this remarkable chapter.
The first part of the chapter is read as the Gospel on Easter Day and continues on the Evening of Easter Day; then the story of the Risen Christ appearing to the disciples (minus Thomas) behind closed doors is read on the following Sunday, the Octave Day of Easter, with the scene of his appearing again behind closed doors to the disciples (now with ‘doubting’ Thomas) read on the Evening of the Octave Day of Easter.
How do we deal with disappointment, with sorrow and loss, with fears and anxieties, with suffering and death? This is especially important in a week that concerns the death of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, as well as a former chaplain, Rev’d James Small, and, very sadly, Josh Baker (Class of 2013). Do we run away like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus? Do we go and hide in the bathroom? Or do we face things honestly and thoughtfully? This chapter speaks precisely to such concerns and in ways that belong to the educational project of the School. In Chapel on Monday and Tuesday, we heard part of the beginning of Chapter Twenty. It is the powerful and, dare I say, ‘touching’ story of Mary Magdalene coming in her early morning grief and sorrow to the tomb of Christ a second time. On Thursday and Friday, we read the second half of the Chapter about Jesus appearing twice to the disciples huddled in fear behind closed doors. In the first part, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, noli me tangere, touch me not. In the second part, Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his sides and later tells Thomas to touch and to see and believe. Don’t touch and then touch! Two completely contrary commands in the same chapter.
In both cases we are being made aware of the Resurrection as belonging to the being of things, to reality. It is all about essential life, the essential life of God which is the principle of all life. Such is ontology, our knowing about being. But we come to that in different ways each accord to the capacity of the knower to know, we might say with Augustine; in short, by various forms of epistemology, the different ways of knowing
There are things that are known to us through the operation of our minds independent of things outside our minds which becomes known as rationalism. But there are things that are made known to us through our sense perception of the world which is empiricism. It is not simply a matter of one over and against the other but a matter of recognising both ways of knowing as belonging to our grasp, albeit in a glass darkly, of reality.
That is what we see in these readings. Mary comes in grief and sorrow expecting a body. She finds instead an empty tomb and two angels who ask her why she is weeping. Her response shows what she was expecting, “because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.” She was expecting a body. Only then she encounters Jesus whom she does not recognise - she was, after all, expecting a corpse. She mistakes him for the gardener. “She knew not that it was Jesus.” Jesus repeats the question of the angels; in other words, he draws out of her what she thinks she is seeking. Her response shows again exactly what she is expecting. At that point and only at that point, Jesus says one word, “Mary.” It is a moment of realization, the beginnings of her learning about the Resurrection.
It begins with Jesus telling her not to touch him, meaning do not cling to me. She is meant to know Jesus in a new way and not simply through the sensual and the physical. And instead of grief and sorrow, she is set in motion to make things known to the others. She is apostle apostolorum, an apostle to the apostles and the first witness to the Risen Christ. Jesus commissions her to go and say to my brethren, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God.” She is set in motion. There is a complete transformation in her, from sorrow to joy. Such is Resurrection.
In response to the devastation of the Crucifixion, the other disciples are huddled in fear behind closed doors. Some ran away; others huddle and hide. Jesus ran out on the road to Emmaus. Here Jesus appears to them behind closed doors. The image is obvious. Our minds are like closed tombs. The message of the Resurrection is that the tomb becomes the womb of new life. Jesus shows them his hands and his side, the wounds of his Passion. The past is neither denied nor ignored. But the first time he appeared; Thomas was not there. Having heard about the encounter, he makes his famous boast that “except I shall see in his hands the print of his nails and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” He asserts what will become known as empiricism - that what we know (or claim to know) is through our senses.
The wonder is that Jesus bids him touch. To Mary, he says, do not touch; to Thomas, he says, touch and believe. Each according to the capacity of the knower to know about ultimate reality. The Resurrection is just so radical. We are being opened out to the life of God who is essential life yet each in accord with our own capacities and forms of knowing. This all belongs to the mystery and the wonder of the Resurrection in us. We are transformed and set in motion as opposed to running away or hiding away behind closed doors, even the closed doors of our minds.
We are changed, transformed in our whole outlook towards reality. Such is the purpose of education. It is not about confirming in us our prejudices and self-interests or conforming us to the arbitrary dictates of others. It opens us out to the things which belong to a deeper understanding of reality; in short, to the essential life of God.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy