Easter Day Homily: A Certain Detail
Readings for Easter Sunday can be found: [HERE]
Details matter. There’s a detail we hear today that only appears in the gospel according to John. For whatever reason, it had never quite caught my focused attention before. Those of us who have been Catholic for many years have heard this passage many times. It’s familiar by now. We listen it year after year on Easter Sunday.
John the apostle and evangelist never wrote everything that he knew of Jesus. He was remarkably selective about the details he includes. Considering that the four gospels are the only eye-witness accounts of Jesus preserved in history these past two-thousand years, every detail that is written should arrest our attention.
The detail in question is this: and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
In our passage, the beloved disciple (generally understood to be John the evangelist himself) had arrived at the tomb first, after hearing the news of the missing body from Mary Magdalene. He saw the burial cloths while still standing outside. Then Simon Peter arrived. He went in and also saw the burial cloths, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the beloved disciple entered into the tomb: he saw and believed.
What did he see that he could not see from the outside? It was what Peter could see from the inside: the cloth that had covered Christ’s head. Something about that head covering caught the beloved disciple’s attention. He was particularly attuned or primed to pick up on it, as if he had seen it before, or recognized a certain details about it.
On Good Friday, we heard of the burial that led up to this moment. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had brought aloes and myrrh and took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, and placed the body of Jesus in the tomb. We read about this together just two evenings ago.
Not a lot of detail is given in scripture regarding Christ’s burial. The details we are given sketch an outline for us, leaving enough space for each of us to contemplate the scene for our own edification.
The lack of details has allowed producers and directors to creatively interpret some scenes and present them on film, the greatest depiction, perhaps, is Mel’s Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ. Of particular note is how Mary is portrayed. We see her in her proper place. She is with Jesus at every step: the new Eve who accompanies the new Adam. That’s very clear in the film.
Near the end of it, we witness Jesus being lowered from the Cross, and placed into the arms of Mary. She lovingly touches his face; and then she looks into the eyes of the viewer.
It is unfathomable, at least to my mind and heart, that the blessed Mother would not have been at the tomb at her son’s burial. She was with him at his birth in a cave as she welcomed him into the world. It would be fitting for her to be there—again at a cave—to say goodbye to him up to the very end. She saw him open his eyes for the first time; and she had seen him close them for the last time.
Scripture tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the body of Jesus for burial. But Mary, I feel, would have that special privilege of preparing his head. She was the one, who in the beginning with a mother’s love, planted so many kisses on her baby boy’s face, and countless again throughout his childhood. Very likely, she must also have cleaned his face at times, wiping dirt away and perhaps at times, dried tears.
No one else could have that honor of doing the same at his burial. She would wipe his face again and with finality. She’d wipe away the spittle received from his abusers in his final hours. She’d wipe away the dirt he gained from the three falls while he carried the cross. She’d wipe away dried blood, and uncover the wounds from which they came. In doing all of this, she’d reveal the true face of our Savior.
I can picture Mary cleaning and combing through his matted hair, remembering the last time she did that for him as a child. Perhaps she sang to him—her son—in that sleep of death: a goodnight hymn and blessing. And then she would have veiled his head in that covering with such tender love and care.
The beloved disciple would have seen this. He had been entrusted with her care, after all, by our Lord himself with his dying words: Behold your Mother. The beloved disciple would have witnessed that final act of maternal care.
Why was that head covering rolled up separately? Who would have the audacity to unveil his sacred head? Or who else would have been attuned to notice it and given it particular attention—to roll it up in a separate place? Who could even be in a position to do that. Who else except Jesus? Jesus himself would have been the first person to notice that head covering and give it due respect. He would have recognized his mother’s handiwork instantly.
One might presume—erroneously—that a man resurrected from the dead couldn’t be bothered by anything so mundane or trivial, anything that had to do with this existence. What is a piece of cloth to one who is clothed by light and grace itself, who transcends time and space and dies no more? Could any piece of cloth have any value?
Yes. As a brief aside [ad lib personal anecdote]: when a man is ordained a priest, sacred chrism is poured over his hands, because with those hands, he’ll consecrate bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; he’ll anoint the sick and forgive sins. Most of that oil he wipes off onto a cloth called a maniturgium. He then puts that maniturgium into a small wooden box, which he’ll give to his mother during his first Mass as a priest.
When she dies, that wooden box is placed in her casket, so that when she sees our Lord face to face, should our Lord ask her: “What did you do for me in your life,” she’ll be able to present that box to our Lord, and say:
“I gave you my son”.
The hope is that, seeing that cloth, our Lord will accept her sacrifice. More than any other, Our Lord knows its immeasurable value, and how heavy the sacrifice of a son can weigh upon a mother’s heart.
Yes. Even the tiniest scrap can attract our Savior’s gaze. The Son of God is still the son of Mary. His humanity was not lost by his death and resurrection; it had been glorified to true perfection. Jesus would have seen that cloth and known its true value. Not the tiniest detail is beneath his notice.
You know, God could have saved us in any way—without going through all this trouble. [Snap finger] Just like that. But it pleased God to work through human circumstance and bring everything full circle. At the Fall, there was involved a man, a woman, an angel, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life.
In the redemption, we see them again: Jesus and Mary, the new Adam and Eve; angels appear at the beginning of his life and at his resurrection; the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life make their appearance as the Cross.
These are just a few examples. But every prophecy was fulfilled. The Lord brings resolution and harmony to every detail. Everything comes back full circle in God’s plan. And we’re invited this Easter to trust in that.
Today we celebrate our Lord’s glorious resurrection from the dead. And we are reminded that details do matter. God is there in the details. Jesus himself said, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not a letter—or even the smallest part of a letter—will pass away until all things are accomplished”.
All things are subject to Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Let’s turn everything in our lives over to him—in detail. And then, let’s see what happens. By the grace of God, we will see and believe.
The Virgin of the Angels, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, c. 1881, Forest Lawn Museum, [Public Domain]