Three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, made their way to the tomb of Jesus just as the first rays of light began to shine on the horizon Sunday morning. The Sabbath ended at daybreak so they were free to walk to the tomb to perform the rite of anointing Jesus’ body. Joseph of Arimathea had hurried to place the body in the tomb just before sunset on Friday. But because of the Sabbath restrictions, he was unable to perform a proper burial.
The women were very worried about the large stone disk that had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb. It was too heavy for them to move. But when they arrived at the tomb they saw that the stone had been moved. The entrance to the tomb was wide open. They rushed into the tomb and saw “a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe.” Mark had referenced another “young man” at the beginning of his Passion narrative. This person is not cited in the other three Gospels.
The crowd, armed with swords and clubs, had just descended upon Jesus in the Mount of Olives. Judas brazenly walked up to Jesus, and with a kiss, marked him as the one they were to arrest. The traitor betrayed his Lord with a sign of respect and affection – a kiss. A tussle followed during which a disciple struck the high priest’s servant with a sword cutting off his ear. The disciples immediately fled the scene.
Two of them, however, followed at a distance. Peter tagged along behind the crowd at a safe distance up to the courtyard outside the praetorium where the chief priests were interrogating Jesus. While he stood there warming himself, he was asked three times by bystanders if he was one of Jesus’ disciple. Three times he denied it; three times he betrayed him. Realizing that he had fulfilled Jesus’ prediction of his denial, Peter “broke down and wept.”
The other person who followed Jesus was unnamed. “A young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”
At daybreak on Friday morning they transferred Jesus to Pilate, the procurator. He pronounced the death sentence and had Jesus scourged. The soldiers celebrated a mock coronation for the “King of the Jews” by stripping Jesus, wrapping him in a cloth of royal purple and placing a crown of thorns on his head. From there, the “royal procession” made its way to Golgotha.
Mark presented three traitors at the beginning of his narrative: Judas, Peter and the “young man.” Judas, we are told in the other Gospels, refused to accept payment for his treachery from the chief priests and went out and hanged himself in despair. Peter wept with sorrow at what he had done, and returned to the group of disciples. But who was this young man?
I believe that Mark inserted this character into the Passion narrative as a prediction and a warning. As Mark was penning his Gospel, the Christian community was suffering persecution from the Jewish authorities. The followers of Jesus had been expelled from the Jewish communion in 50 AD. They were on their own in the Roman Empire. The Jews were exempt from the national obligation to worship the Divine Emperor. Once expelled from the synagogue, Christians were obliged to offer incense to the emperor as a patriotic act once a year. Many refused to do so. This helped spark the wider persecutions that took place sporadically between 64 AD, when Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome, and the Edict of Milan in 313 AD when the Emperor Constantine finally legalized Christianity.
This “young man” was to represent the Christians who would deny Jesus. The linen cloth he wore was his baptismal robe. When the Passion of Jesus intersected his life, in terror, he abandoned his baptismal robe, and fled for safety. Many would do this. Years later when Christianity was legalized, the Christian community faced a great challenge regarding those who had apostatized and were hoping to return to the Christian communion. Many had remained faithful to their baptism, and died because of it. The community was faced with the very difficult challenge of forgiving those who had denied Jesus. Mark wove this painful reality into his Passion narrative.
As we read Mark’s resurrection narrative today, Easter Sunday, we see the young man’s counterpart. “When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed.” Each resurrection narrative has differing details. Do not be thrown off by this. Each writer is giving a unique message regarding the resurrection. Taking note of the differences, however, can help us appreciate each writer’s unique message.
The young man in the tomb, like the “young man” in the Passion narrative, represents the newly baptized. He too is wearing his white baptismal robe. He tells the women, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. Behold, the place where they laid him.
The newly baptized can give profound testimony because they are so close to the resurrection. The tomb has just opened, and he has witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. This tomb is not a place for the dead. It is the mystical womb in which the Christian is formed, and from which the Christian is reborn.
The “young man’s” witness continues. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’” The resurrected Christ does not linger at the tomb. Jesus is present within each and every Christian community. There the women, Peter, and every other disciple will find him. This is the community of white robed believers.
Easter is our great day of renewal. We come to the Eucharist today in our Easter finest. We celebrate with symbols of the resurrection: the Christ Candle, the baptismal water and the flowers of spring. We come to the Eucharist, all of us, those who have remained faithful, those who have tottered, and perhaps even those of us who have denied him.
Today, the greatest and most solemn day in Christianity, we wear our baptismal robes as a reminder of our rebirth. However, today we are challenged to wear these robes every day – in the street, at work and at home. We wear them when we follow Christ in his passion. We wear them when we celebrate the Eucharist with Jesus and the community of the reborn.
But Mark concludes his Resurrection account with a most serious caution. The women “went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Mark is warning us that IT IS NO EASY TASK TO WEAR THE BAPTISMAL ROBE.
We may be tempted to flee Jesus when life gets rough. We may fear telling anyone about the empty tomb because we are unsure how the message will be received. We may dismiss our commitment to strengthen the community of faith by not celebrating the Eucharist together. We may be weak. So today we lift up a fervent prayer for ourselves, and for each other.
Crucified and Risen Lord, strengthen me! Give me courage! Today, the day of your triumph, I place myself into your hands. I pray for the strength to never discard the baptismal robe you have wrapped around me. or run away from you. May I live in you alone. May I live for you alone.