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The Empty Tomb: A Short Story

John's breath came out hot in short bursts, but he did not notice. His rhythmic panting kept time with his steps as he raced along the beaten path. He did not slow down to acknowledge the calls of his friend Peter, “Slow down, John, I can't keep up with you!”

John was undeterred, his face was set in absolute focus, yet his mind was running as fast as his legs below.

Could it really be empty? The tomb where his master was laid to rest had been shut by a heavy boulder. John doubted any Pharisees would have dared move it on the Sabbath. But Mary Magdala had been insistent. She had gone at first light with oils and balms- a flask of Myrrh from Mother Mary- to anoint the body of Jesus. Instead, she had come back frantic, proclaiming that the tomb empty. Could it really be empty?

Soon, he was close enough to see it. My God, the stone was moved, it was true! John stopped at the mouth of the burial place, gasping to catch his breath. Where was Peter? He looked back and saw that he was still a few minutes behind. Peter no longer had John's youthful energy, but today he seemed even more exhausted. John guessed his friend had not slept well in days. He did not enter the sepulcher. Glancing in, he saw no signs of movement.

As Peter approached, John opened his mouth to greet him, but quickly shut it. Peter's face bore an emotion John hardly recognized there; a mixture of anguish and fear. Instead of speaking, John merely nodded in reassurance and motioned for Peter to enter first.

Together they stepped through the passage to inspect the burial place.

Sure enough, there was no body where it had been laid. Instead the cloth which had

covered Jesus' face lay folded neatly in the burial spot. Small flowers which had adorned his head were sprinkled around that place. John saw the little yellow springtime wildflowers and ruby-red berries which he had helped the women to pick while Joseph and Nicodemus had gone to see Pilate.

What of the burial shroud? He glanced over at it, crumpled in a heap on the ground. Who would have folded up the face cloth, but left the shroud in a pile? John went to inspect it. As his fingers brushed by a place where blood had begun to dry and crystallize, he froze.

“Peter, look!” John gasped. The elder turned and John saw that he was weeping bitterly. His fists were clenched. As he stepped closer to behold what John had found, his grip loosened and his mouth fell agape.

On the cloth before them, brown as if lightly burned into the linen, was the face of their master. The image was light, barely noticeable at first, but it was there. This face of Jesus, encircled by his blood in the fabric, looked somber, peaceful, kind, and pained all at once.

The two knelt over the shroud in silence, save for their breathing. John drew in short excited breaths as Peter choked back labored sobs. After moments which seemed like hours, they each felt a deep peace wash over them.

“Peter, I think we should go back to the others. I wish to tell Mother that Jesus is-,” he trailed off. What would he tell her exactly? Jesus was not here, but he knew no crime had been done. No one had taken the body. This must have been one of the Lord's signs.

“Yes,” Peter replied, “Let us go.”

As they walked back to the gathering place of the disciples, they spoke little. But John heard Peter under his breath repeat the words of a psalm-prayer, “Show us your face, Oh Lord, and we shall be saved.” He was no longer fearful, no longer abject. John was deeply at peace seeing Peter this way. Though they did not yet know everything, the two Apostles had once again seen a sign and they believed.


About this story:

I wrote this short story after reflecting on John chapter 20. I imagined how John the Apostle would have experienced this scene. In the Gospel, he only provides a few lines to communicate the details of finding the tomb empty.

"So Peter and the other disciple [whom Jesus loved] went out and came to the tomb. They both ran..." (John 20:3-4)

I imagined that he, with youthful spirit, would be both curious and eager to see the tomb, but with the underlying question biting at him; why would it be empty? John being the faithful Apostle at the foot of the cross surely felt differently than Peter, the Apostle who denied his beloved friend in His dire hour.

Peter, in my imagination, struggles with a different drive. Like any of us when we deny Christ in our lives, he feels a nagging guilt. He truly loved Jesus and he feels the weight of his failure very deeply. I imagine hearing that the tomb was empty would inflict on him even more guilt and perhaps inspire anger at the thought of Jesus' body being stolen.

I included a couple of details I thought might be relevant to the real humanity of the passage. Just like how I might call my best friend's mother "Mom", I thought about the tender friendship and devotion John would have towards Mary, especially after Jesus spoke to him from the cross,

"Behold, your mother." (John 19:27)

The central piece, of course, is the discovery of the shroud. John mentions "the burial cloths" three times in this passage. (chapter 20, verses 5, 6, and 7) In an odd turn of phrase, John says that they "saw and believed." Even though they saw and believed, he says they still did not yet understand that Jesus had to rise from the dead. It is an odd detail, perhaps often overlooked. Why did they "believe" if they did not understand the Resurrection? If it were merely an empty tomb with burial cloths on the ground, it would be logical for them to go on thinking that the tomb was robbed and Jesus' body stolen. However, it is the detail of the burial cloth which seems to trigger their belief.

Modern science has revealed numerous details about the Shroud of Turin, which many believe to be this same burial cloth. It is today the single most analyzed artifact in human history. I am no expert on the topic, but the research I have done and the presentations I

have seen are awe-inspiring. There remains a nearly endless stream of details to explore on the Shroud. For brevity, I will explain a couple which I chose to include in my story here.

Around the image of the face on the shroud, some researchers noticed what

looked like the outline of small flowers. Botanists then discovered the leftover pollen grains left within the fibers and matched them to different species of flowers native to Jerusalem. Many of these were little yellow wildflowers similar in shape to a daisy. I imagined that John might have helped the Mother of Jesus as she arranged these around the face of her son. Similarly, evidence of small berries and other flowers were found on the shroud by botanists.

The image itself is in fact very light and many of its details went unnoticed before more modern photography was used. As John notes in my story, the image seems to be burned into the fibers of the cloth. Microscopic view of the body on shroud image show that there is no pigment, dye, or chemical applied. On the contrary, the outermost fibers themselves are changed. At microscopic view, they look "dried out" so to speak. This change in the fibers is what causes the image to be seen. Scientific authorities speculate that the best explanation we can offer for this phenomenon is UV light radiation. From John's view, it might perhaps look as though a very light char caused the image.

The most impressive part of the shroud image, of course, is the face. This image is often taken by itself and venerated as the Holy Face of Jesus. For the Jewish people, the idea of the face of God was absolutely sacred. Like the name of God, it represented a hidden glory. No man would be considered worthy to behold the face of God. Yet, in Jewish prayer, the face of God is important. The psalms pray often to see His face.

"Let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved" (Psalm 80)

, has shown his face to humanity first by His Incarnation, and then in this miraculous image. Personally, I have taken to a private devotion to the image of the Holy Face. I imagined that John and Peter might have similarly gazed in awe at this image once. Who knows what was in their hearts at that moment? And yet I imagine it was a moment in which they felt peace. In this image, they recognized Jesus, their friend; their savior.


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