The account in St. John's Gospel describing how Mary Magdalene ran to tell Sts. Peter and John about the Empty Tomb resonates in our hearts and minds (Jn 20:1-10). Of all the Gospel stories, this one especially cannot be contained by the printed word. The images form instantly in the mind's eye and the whole scene is at once vivid and clear: Mary Magdalene, out of breath and agitated, the apostles Peter and John at first confused, but once comprehending Mary's message, shocked into action, running hard toward the tomb. We need little in the way of imagination to place ourselves as observers in their midst, to hear their voices, and share their emotions.
Why does St. John's account of these events leap so readily from the page? Part of the answer is simply the inherent drama of the moments he is describing: The confusion of our Lord's disciples which is suddenly replaced by excitement, an excitement which surprisingly manages to pierce their depression and guilt. Perhaps the first faint stirrings of hope, a feeling which must have been difficult to allow, to permit, to indulge, so early on that awful Sunday morning. We cannot help but to feel and to see this unfolding drama.
But perhaps the larger reason why St. John's account is so remarkably present to us is because it rings true. The Gospel accounts of the life of Christ are all true, but this one, in particular, perhaps more than any other, has all the hallmarks of an eyewitness account of events. From the initial flurry of confused emotions to the excitement that impels Peter and John to run to the tomb, to the fact of the younger man outrunning the older and arriving first—all of these things are natural to us. These people react as we expect them to react, as we would react in their place. St. John's story remains with us precisely because it is not a story. It is true, and we know it to be true.
Perhaps in that moment he paused outside the tomb, St. John fought an epic battle with two demons: Despair and Doubt.
There is, however, a curious moment in this true story, one that begs an explanation and invites our reflection. Upon reaching the tomb, St. John stops, peers in, but does not enter. Instead, he pauses, and his pause allows time for Simon Peter to arrive and enter the tomb first. After running to get there, why does St. John hesitate upon reaching the tomb? This seems an uncharacteristic tentativeness on the part of the apostle who laid his head on the Lord's breast at the Last Supper. This is the same man who was the only apostle brave enough to stand by Jesus at the foot of the Cross. This is the Evangelist, he who proclaimed the Word so clearly and powerfully that the Roman authorities exiled him to an isolated Greek island. Why, at the entrance to the tomb, does this man, of all men, pause?
One reason may be St. John feared that upon entering the tomb he would find Mary Magdalene had been wrong. Instead of finding an empty tomb, with all the possibilities that entailed, perhaps he was afraid he would be confronted with the corpse of Christ. Wasn't that what was to be expected? And if John had entered the tomb and found the body of Jesus, that would mean he would have to accept the finality of the victory of the Sanhedrin and the Romans. He would be forced to admit to himself that Jesus' beautiful words were nothing more than that, that Jesus' promises were empty, and that the man whom he had followed and loved for three years was lost to him forever.
Perhaps in that moment he paused outside the tomb, St. John fought an epic battle with two demons: Despair and Doubt. His exhausted faith had been tried and tested over three long days. How much more did he have left? Perhaps his hesitation was a desperate attempt to hold on for one more moment to that sliver of hope he had allowed himself upon learning Mary Magdalene's tale. Perhaps, in his mind, by hesitating St. John was clinging to Jesus and His memory and His promises when, by entering the tomb and confronting Christ's corpse, it would mean letting all of that pass away. Maybe by pausing, St. John was trying to keep faith with Jesus, when his faith was faltering.
There is another possibility. What if St. John paused outside the tomb because he was afraid he would find it empty? An empty tomb. What would that mean? On one level, it might mean that the Sanhedrin and the Romans had taken Jesus' body for unknown purposes, perhaps as a prelude to a future persecution of Jesus' disciples. This was certainly a legitimate fear.
But what if St. John was afraid of the Empty Tomb because he realized what that would truly mean? What if in that moment St. John became aware of the reality of the Resurrection? His pause may have been the instant when he first grasped the possibility that Christ had been raised from the dead. Entering the tomb and finding it empty would mean that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that his promises—all of his promises—would be fulfilled. The weight of that reality at once understood would give any of us pause. For St. John, it would mean that his Master was alive, Amen, a cause for rejoicing. But that overwhelming and powerful reality would also mean that St. John would no longer have any choice, he would have to follow Christ wherever He led, whatever the cost. For how could he deny the Messiah? He would have to give his life to Christ, to be - as St. Paul would later describe—"captured like prey."
St. John’s humility and sense of propriety led him to wait for the leader of the apostles.
After all, this resurrected Jesus is one who allowed himself to be beaten and nailed to a cross. If such was the price of being the Master, what was the cost of discipleship? For Jesus' words were all beautiful, but they weren't always pretty. Didn't he say, "I come not to bring peace, but the sword?" Wasn't it Jesus who taught "whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his live shall preserve it?" And did not Jesus proclaim, "Blessed are you who are persecuted in my name's sake...?" What future lay in store for John in the world of the resurrected Christ?
If it were these thoughts that were passing through St. John's mind as he stood outside the tomb, his hesitation may be attributable to a very different crisis of faith. By acknowledging the reality of the resurrected Christ, St John would have to confront the end of his life as he knew it. Seeing the Empty Tomb would mean accepting the unwanted costs and responsibilities of discipleship, the likelihood of persecution and pain, the certainty of ridicule and scorn. It would mean embracing all of the things that cause each of us to hesitate outside the Empty Tomb. St. John's life had already been uprooted once that long weekend. Now he faced the prospect of losing his life a second time. If this explanation of the Pause of St. John is true, the real question is not "why did he pause?" but "why ever did he go in?"
There is still a third explanation of St. John's hesitation outside the Empty Tomb, an explanation that coexists with either of the two already considered. This explanation has a special meaning for Catholics, and a special relevance for us as Christians in a divided Church. St. John waited for Peter.
Whatever other reasons there may have been for his hesitation, surely St. John's humility and sense of propriety led him to wait for the leader of the apostles. Although St. John was the apostle whom Christ loved, it was St. Peter to whom it was first revealed and who first proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. And it was because of St. Peter's declaration of faith that Jesus said to him, "Thou art Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church and not even the Gates of Hell shall prevail against it." The Gospels and especially the Acts of the Apostles attest to the primacy of St. Peter among the apostles and his leadership of them. St. John could not help but be mindful of St. Peter's role and position. Likely, St. John gave no conscious thought to allowing St. Peter to enter the tomb first; it was simply natural and appropriate. And it mattered little to him that Peter had thrice denied the Lord two days before. Peter was still and forever the Rock. Certainly, it was not a coincidence that the apostle whom Jesus loved and the apostle whom Jesus chose to lead his church were alone together that miraculous morning.
Perhaps we hesitate to embrace the reality of the resurrected Lord because we know it means giving control of our lives to Christ.
And on a personal and human level, how natural it must have been for John to wait for Peter's arrival. Recall, John was among the youngest and least experienced of the apostles, while Peter was the oldest and worldliest. How comforting it must have been for John, as he pondered confronting whatever awaited him in the tomb, to do so, not alone, but in the company of Peter, who was not only the Lord's chosen head of the Church, but a friend who must have been like a beloved older brother for the young Evangelist.
The Pause of St. John—like so many truths of the Faith - will remain a mystery to us. But like all the sacred mysteries, precisely because they are mysteries, the Pause invites our meditation, through which we gain insight for our own lives. In truth, we do not know why St. John paused outside the Empty Tomb. But we know we have all paused there with him. At times, perhaps, like St. John fearing to see the corpse of Christ, we pause because we fear our faith is in vain, empty and useless. Or, like St. John fearing the consequences of an empty tomb, other times we hesitate to embrace the reality of the resurrected Lord because we know it means giving control of our lives to Christ.
We've all stood there, and paused, sometimes wanting to turn and run away. But the grace of God within us calls us to cross the threshold and enter the Empty Tomb. We don't have to do it alone. We can enter with Peter and with the Church of which he is the head. Whatever lies ahead for us, whatever fears we must confront, Peter and the Church are with us with help and guidance. Christ did not leave us alone, He is with us and has sent us Peter and the Church to accompany us through life's challenges. We need no longer hesitate. Let us follow Peter, and enter the Empty Tomb.