Running Towards Hope on the Morning of the Resurrection: An Easter Sermon

Eugène Burnand, Les disciples Pierre et Jean courant au sépulcre le matin de la Résurrection  (1898)

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 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.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first (John 20:1-4)

The essential meaning of Easter—for me at least—can be found in a single painting, which I have mentioned here before as my favorite work of devotional art. The painting is by Eugène Burnand, about whom I know nothing else except that he was Swiss. The text it illustrates is in the Gospel of John. And the unwieldy title, “The Disciples Peter and John Running to the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection,” tells us everything we need to know to understand what is going on. Peter and John are running towards the tomb that Jesus was buried in because Mary Magdalene has told them that his body was no longer there.

In just a few verses, Jesus will appear to Mary Magdalene, and that same evening, he will appear to all of the apostles (except Thomas) and will confirm the great miracle of the Resurrection. They will feel the nail marks in his hands and the place in his side where the spear pierced him. Doubt will give way to a faith based in sure knowledge, and the disciples will understand the true nature of Christ’s victory over death.

But not in this painting.

Les disciples takes place in a moment of deep uncertainty. Mary has not yet seen the Lord. She has simply seen an empty tomb and has assumed that somebody has removed the body. She runs to tell the disciples, and two of them—Peter and John—run to the tomb. They don’t know where the body is, and the rational explanations are all bad news: maybe the Romans confiscated it so that it would not become a cult object, or maybe the Pharisees removed it to further humiliate the man who claimed to be the Son of God.

Or maybe, just maybe, their master has somehow come back. The disciples don’t have good reasons to believe this yet, but they want to believe it. They desperately want to see the Lord again, and they have allowed themselves to hope.

Nothing about the painting conveys serenity or peace. Everything about it moves–not just Peter and John, who appear to be running as fast as they can. The ground looks like it is moving. And the clouds. This is a painting that portrays a world in a frantic, nervous, and desperate motion. Peter and John are running the tomb–not because they know that Jesus is there, but because they hope he is there. They have only the faintest reasons to believe in the Resurrection, but it is enough to give them hope. And that hope, as faint as it may be, is enough to spur them into action.

It is also clear that Peter and John are running for different reasons, which makes sense when we read the Gospels. John is running because he loved his master, profoundly and absolutely, and was loved the same way in return. He appears to be praying as he runs because he hopes it is true. Peter, on the other hand, has reasons to be nervous about seeing Jesus again, after having denied him three times just days before. But Peter has also (I imagine) been consumed with guilt over his failure, and Christ’s return might give him the opportunity to make amends for his actions. Peter is running for a second chance.

Together, I think, Peter and John capture the range of reactions that almost all of us, to some degree, have to Christ: from profound reverence and love in the one hand, to guilt and inadequacy on the other. And both of them are deeply uncertain about the whole resurrection thing—that is why they are running. They desperately want something to be true, but they don’t really have any good reason to believe that it is. So they run as fast as they can, knowing that, if the tomb really is empty, it might be the most important thing that has ever happened in the world.

And that is the message of Easter—not just that Christ’s tomb was empty, but that ours will be too. Death’s final victory is not final at all. Easter wants us to believe that the “three score years and ten” allotted to human beings is not all that we get. Something about us survives even the seeming finality of death. As John Donne wrote, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more.” This is an expression of our greatest hope, which is wonderful, but also terrible, since hope makes us vulnerable to disappointment and betrayal. We tend to exercise it cautiously so that it doesn’t hurt too much when the things that we hope for don’t come true.

What separates Peter and John from most of us, I think, is that they were willing to give themselves up completely to hope. Even the possibility of a resurrection propels them to run as fast as they can to see if it could be true, which means they will be vulnerable to profound disappointment if it turns out to be something else. Most of us, I suspect, would react differently. Maybe we will take a leisurely stroll to the tomb, if we happen to be going in that direction, and take a peek behind the rock if it isn’t too crowded. As long as we expect the worst, we can be pleasantly surprised if it turns out better.

But genuine hope—the theological virtue that sits next to faith and charity—requires more from us than cautious optimism and a leisurely stroll. It is a frantic running towards something that we have heard about–perhaps all of our lives–and desperately want to be true. The essence of Easter is not a passive hope, but an anxious and even a desperate hope. A longing to believe. Maybe our lives don’t end when we die. Maybe we can be reconciled to a perfect and loving God. Maybe we can find joy in our lives that endures for eternity. Even if we don’t know for sure, the news is something worth breaking a sweat for.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. Your phrase, “A longing to believe,” is a wonderful, poetic definition of hope. I can relate to wanting to run to anywhere the Saviour might be.

  2. Margaret says:

    Love this. Thank you so very much!

  3. Antoni Parr says:

    This meditation on the resurrection of Jesus is wonderful in every respect. Thank you.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Very nice, thanks for sharing.

  5. Freckles says:

    So beautiful, and true. Thanks so much for sharing.

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