The burial cloths: Jesus is alive
March 21st, 2016
By Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM
The death of Jesus was a chaotic din – a Passover festival in Jerusalem turned into a bloody nightmare of brutality. Roman soldiers and Temple priests, enemies of Jesus, joined forces in a politically expedient collaboration. Jesus was captured and subjected to trials that were a mockery of justice. Soldiers flogged him, and drove him stumbling, humiliated and exhausted to his crucifixion at Calvary. Counted a criminal, he was tortured to death in a public execution. The male disciples, terrified, fled into hiding. A few helpless women remained, watching from a distance.
Resurrection morning presents a complete change. It is quiet. The violence is over, enemies melted away, no crowds, a lone woman on a path against a dark sky. The tradition in all the Gospels is that a woman was the first witness and first announcer of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalen arrives to see nothing but a stone rolled back and an empty tomb. John inserts an episode no other evangelist includes. Before Mary Magdalen has a personal encounter with Jesus, she runs back to tell Peter and “the other disciple whom Jesus loved” that Jesus is gone.
The two male disciples run to the tomb and she with them. The Gospel shows dual interests: The beloved disciple is a model for believers because his heart runs ahead of his head, giving him insight. So he is first. But at a time when various preachers competed for authority, the evangelist affirms Peter as “first.” Thus, the beloved disciple defers to Peter and he enters the tomb first.
The disciples see the burial cloths arranged in one place, but the face cloth is rolled up separately. Commentators say this was a sign there hadn’t been a grave robbery; if so, the burial clothes would have been left in disarray. Was it only a sign that Jesus had awakened as if in his own room, made his bed, and left everything in order?
What do the burial cloths and the rolled up face cloth in a separate place communicate? You remember from childhood that your mother always folded your washed clothes in a way that was distinctly hers. Your sister, your dad, your grandmother or the housekeeper folded your clothes differently. You knew from looking at your socks who’d done the folding.
Likewise here, the beloved disciple sees evidence of Jesus being alive – a simple, individualized human touch, a familiar, unique gesture of Jesus the disciples knew from years of living and traveling with him. No one else but his family or friends could have known such an intimate detail. This was the distinct way he folded up his linen tunic in the morning before the journey to the next town. No one but Jesus rolled up a linen cloth this way. It meant he must be as alive now as he was then.
It didn’t take words or elaborate intellectualization for the beloved disciple to “see and believe” that Jesus must be alive. What Jesus always did before his death with clothes he wore was exactly what he’d just done after his death with the burial cloths – and then left them behind.
Resurrection is first of all the most intimate of revelations to Jesus’ closest friends that he is alive. The resurrection of Jesus is quiet and unassuming, like yeast in the minds of the disciples. Resurrection later becomes a public narrative, a preaching to all the people in Acts, “This man God raised on the third day… .” But first of all, resurrection is the proof that Jesus’ death could never end his love for his friends and presence to them.
Mercy Sister Eloise Rosenblatt is a PhD theologian and an attorney in private practice in family law. She lives in San Jose.
From March 24, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.