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. 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.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed.John 20:1-8
Nativity and Resurrection
In Byzantine icons of the Nativity of Christ, the dark cave of his birth and the dark tomb of his resurrection coincide. Christmas anticipates Easter joy: Christ, the Light of the world, “shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Iconography is theology in symbol, color, and form. Thus we see the infant Jesus lying in a coffin-like manger at the entrance of a tomb-like cave, wrapped in white bands resembling burial cloths. The Son’s mission to free humankind from the binding coils of death began at his birth. St. Gregory of Nazianzus expressed the theology of the Nativity icon thus: “He was wrapped in swaddling clothes — but He took off the swathing bands of the grave by His rising again.”1
The Empty Tomb
In the Gospel for the Feast of the Beloved Disciple, Peter and John, alarmed by Mary Magdalene’s report that Jesus had been taken from the tomb, ran to the cave and found it empty indeed. The only trace left behind of its occupant was a pile of burial cloths. With the faith of a little child, the disciple who stood with Mary at the foot of the cross “saw and believed.”2
The details in the Gospel concerning the burial cloths indicate that the disciples considered a theft unlikely. A thief would not have bothered to unwrap Jesus, let alone roll up his head cloths and leave them behind in a tidy roll. No reasonable motive exists for such time-consuming and meticulous actions on the part of thieves.
St. John Chrysostom writes:
For a thief would not have been so foolish as to spend so much trouble on a superfluous matter. For why should he undo the clothes? And how could he have escaped detection if he had done so? Since he would probably have spent much time in so doing, and be found out by delaying and loitering. But why do the clothes lie apart, while the napkin was wrapped together by itself? That you may learn that it was not the action of men in confusion or haste, the placing some in one place, some in another, and the wrapping them together. From this they believed in the Resurrection. On this account Christ afterwards appeared to them, when they were convinced by what they had seen. Observe too here again the absence of boastfulness in the Evangelist, how he witnesses to the exactness of Peter’s search. For he himself having gotten before Peter, and having seen the linen clothes, enquired not farther, but withdrew; but that fervent one passing farther in, looked at everything carefully, and saw somewhat more, and then the other too was summoned to the sight. For he entering after Peter, saw the grave-clothes lying, and separate. Now to separate, and to place one thing by itself, and another, after rolling it up, by itself, was the act of some one doing things carefully, and not in a chance way, as if disturbed.Homily 85 on the Gospel of John
1 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration (Oration 29), XIX.
2 Commentators differ on the interpretation of John’s statement that “he saw and believed.”
According to Augustine, Erasmus, and Luther, he believed what Mary had said. He saw now that the tomb was empty, and believed her report, whether it went on to describe the first angelic message or not; but Lucke, Lange, Meyer, and Moulton, following Chrysostom, etc., rightly interpret “he believed” that Jesus had not been taken by others from the grave. He saw there were no signs of haste or confusion, or of a rifled tomb. He believed that he had risen, that this death of his had been done away, that he was living, as he said.Pulpit Commentary on John 20:8