Reflection Questions for Easter Gospels
April 5, 2015
Note: There are three possible Gospel readings for the celebration of Easter: Mark 16:1-7 for the Vigil Mass, John 20:1-9 for Masses on Easter Morning, and Luke 24:13-35 for afternoon celebrations. The text from Luke (for Easter afternoons) was also the text for the third Sunday of Easter. Therefore the background and reflection questions for that text are those that were provided for the third Sunday of Easter. The focus here is on the gospel texts for the Vigil Mass and the Easter Morning Masses.
Mark 16:1-7 (Easter Vigil)
1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. 2 Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. 3 They were saying to one another, "Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. 5 On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. 6 He said to them, "Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. 7 But go and tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'"
This gospel text describes the situation the morning after the Sabbath. Jesus had died the day before the Sabbath. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were going to anoint the body of Jesus. They expected to find the dead body of Jesus in the tomb. Whatever instruction Jesus had given about his death and resurrection had not affected what these women were expecting to find that morning as they made their way to the tomb of Jesus.
What they found once they arrived at the tomb is described in such way that people of day would know that this was a supernatural experience. Physical reality had been changed; a huge stone that the three of them together could not have moved had been moved. In the tomb they encountered a young man clothed in white. In the Old Testament, angels are described as appearing as young men. “Tobiah went to look for someone acquainted with the roads who would travel with him to Media. As soon as he went out, he found the angel Raphael standing before him, though he did not know that this was an angel of God. Tobiah said to him, ‘Who are you, young man?’ He replied, "I am an Israelite, one of your kinsmen. I have come here to work." Tobiah said, ‘Do you know the way to Media?’” (Tobit 5:4-5) “While the high priest was offering the sacrifice of atonement, the same young men in the same clothing again appeared and stood before Heliodorus. ‘Be very grateful to the high priest Onias,’ they told him. ‘It is for his sake that the Lord has spared your life.’” (2 Maccabees 3:36) The young man at the tomb responded to the women’s amazement in the typical fashion of a heavenly messenger. He reassured them first, and then delivered his message.
The women were commissioned to be the first to proclaim the resurrection. They had come to anoint the dead body of Jesus, but were instead sent away with an entirely different task. God’s plan for them was very different from what they had been prepared to do. Many questions still remain unanswered: Why would the risen Jesus meet them in Galilee, and not there at the tomb, or where they had gathered? Why was Peter singled out as the one who should be told? Is it because he was the leader, or because he was the one who most vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus? Why is it that the angel appeared only to the women at the tomb and not to the men where they were? The resurrection of Jesus, like his birth, leaves people free to respond with faith, questions, total rejection, and even open opposition.
1. What kind of women would have been willing to go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus?
2. Why would the disciples let these women go alone to the tomb?
3. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome were worried about who was going to roll away the stone. Do you ever find that you worry about things that do not really exist? Does the worry or fear itself ever keep you from proceeding?
4. What do you think the conversation among these women was like as they returned to Peter and the disciples?
5. Are you disappointed that this Easter Gospel does not contain a dramatic account of the risen Lord?
6. Why does the Church choose this text for the celebration of Easter?
7. The women came expecting to anoint the body of Jesus, and got sent away commissioned to proclaim the resurrection. Do you ever feel like you are prepared to do one thing but God wants you to do something different?
John 20:1-9 (Easter Morning)
1 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. 2 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." 3 So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; 5 he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. 6 When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, 7 and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. 8 Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed. 9 For they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead.
This familiar gospel text may seem a likely choice for Easter, but here, too, the risen Lord is not encountered. Rather, the text centers on the empty tomb and the first disciples’ encounter with the absent body of Jesus. However, the belief in the resurrection for John’s community was not based on their firsthand experience of the risen Christ, but on the testimony and faith of the Christian community. The faith journey of each of us begins, to some extent, on the faith and testimony of those who have come before us.
John begins this text while it is dark. Mary of Magdala, Peter, and the disciples are in the dark about what has taken place. When Mary discovers the empty tomb, she presumes that someone has taken the body. The possibility that Jesus has risen is not a consideration. By suggesting that Mary had first believed that the body was stolen, John confronts those who have suggested that the Christians’ belief in the resurrection could more accurately be explained by the fact that someone removed the body.
Throughout his gospel, John uses the lack of understanding of those who encountered Jesus as a tool for Jesus to further explain his role. Because of their lack of understanding, they receive a fuller teaching, and they are invited to move toward deeper faith in Jesus. Think of the account of the woman at the well, the man born blind, and even Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. The fact that Mary of Magdala does not comprehend what has happened is not a problem, because she has faith in Jesus. With her basic faith in Jesus, her comprehension will develop within her, as it does within all the early disciples. The texts used throughout the Easter season will highlight this development. Next Sunday the text will describe the disciples’ first encounter with the risen Lord in the upper room. In a few weeks the Gospel will describe the encounter with two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
1. In this text Mary of Magdala travels alone to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. Today do you feel like your journey to believe is a road you are walking alone, or with others?
2. Why do you think John tells his community that Mary of Magdala went to the tomb first? (He could have easily not included that piece of information in the text.) What does it say to you?
3. Mary of Magdala, Peter, and the other disciple all respond differently to the empty tomb, yet their responses are part of the text of the gospel for Easter. Is that important for you as you celebrate this Easter?
4. When you reflect on your relationship with the risen Lord, does it feel more like that of Mary of Magdala, Peter, or the other disciple in this gospel?
5. Why do you think Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb? Would anything have been different if they had just walked? When you think of your relationship with God, and with the community of believers, are you walking, running, standing still, backing away…?
6. Are you aware of the ways that you choose to believe or be faithful even though you do not understand? Is the tension between believing and understanding disturbing for you? Do you think it was disturbing for the early disciples?
7. How do you feel when you stand with other Christians on Sundays to say the creed together? Does it feel any different for you on Easter? Does it feel different this Easter?
On Wednesday of each week, the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday is posted at the following link: http://www.il-ritiro.org/gospel-reflections.aspx.
Reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM. They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel. To be added to the distribution list, send your name and email address to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Spanish translation of the reflection questions is made possible by Fernando Alessandrini.
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