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From Small Signs, the Wonder of the Faith


The apostles Peter and John at the empty tomb. Peter saw. John saw and believed. An interview with Jean Galot, Professor Emeritus of Christology at the Pontifical Gregorian University


Interview with Jean Galot by Gianni Valente


<I>The Risen Jesus appears to Thomas</I>,  by Santi di Tito, 1536-1603, Cathedral of Sansepolcro, Arezzo, Tuscany

The Risen Jesus appears to Thomas, by Santi di Tito, 1536-1603, Cathedral of Sansepolcro, Arezzo, Tuscany

They were Galilean fisherman, down-to-earth. Not inclined to mystical visions. After what happened on Calvary they went home, locked themselves in “for fear of the Jews”. He was really dead and so, for those poor men, everything really was over.
But that Sunday morning in front of the empty tomb, something cut through their painful, realistic resignation.
The Jesuit Jean Galot, 81-year-old Professor Emeritus of Christology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, has recently taken a fresh look at that scene. In an essay published in the Jesuit fortnightly La Civiltà Cattolica and packed with references to the latest exegetical studies and documented research on the funerary customs of the ancient Hebrew world, he went back with John and Peter to the threshold of the tomb. His aim was to discern why, suddenly, John had his first, the earliest perception that, on the contrary, they were the victors.
Father Galot’s essay has an evocative title: “Seeing and Believing”. And that is how it all began again, when his disciples, who had seen Him dead, saw Him again with those same eyes and touched Him, risen.

Let’s look at the facts. That morning Mary Magdalene came back saying that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb ...
JEAN GALOT: And on hearing this news two disciples, Peter and John, ran to the tomb to see what had happened. John, running faster, got there first but did not go in. He stopped at the entrance and saw the linens still there. Then Peter arrived. He was the first to go into the tomb and he saw what was in it. John then followed him in ...
The Gospel account records their different perceptions of what they saw: Peter “saw”, John “saw and believed” ...
GALOT: Peter is moved, shocked almost by what he sees and he remains perplexed. In John, the wonder is even greater because in him we have a first, embryonic intuition of the mystery of the resurrection.
What does this difference in reaction signify?
GALOT: It does not mean that Peter’s faith is a lesser faith than John’s. But it does certainly point to the different temperaments of the two men. Peter’s faith needs more time, so to speak. Peter needs time to come to terms with what he sees. When Jesus asked the apostles, ‘Whom do you say that I am?’, he did so after a protracted period of co-existence during which Jesus allowed what He was to emerge. On that occasion, it was none other than Peter who replied in a surprising manner. He had had the time to observe and meditate. His prompt reply was the result of a protracted period of co-existence. At the tomb John, although there were few clues, nevertheless had an initial perception of how things really stood, that the body had not been stolen, for example, that Jesus, rather, had come out alive in his risen body from the linens in which he had been wrapped. There is another episode that confirms this sharper intuition in John. When Jesus appears on the lake shore and invites the apostles to cast their nets from the starboard side of the boat, just before the miraculous catch of fish it is John who immediately recognizes Jesus: ‘The disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter “It is the Lord”. At these words, “It is the Lord”, Simon Peter tied his outer garment round him and jumped into the water’ ( John 21, 7). In this case, too, John immediately recognizes the author of the miracle while Peter seems more concentrated on its results. He is concerned about the problems caused by the quantity of fish. This situation is similar to what happened when they went to the empty tomb where Peter concentrated on what seemed to testify to the disappearance of the body while John had captured the sign of the resurrection. John’s more penetrating gaze in the tomb and the signs that remained of Jesus’ presence, thus began to enter into the Easter faith.
Had this greater perception in capturing even the smallest signs anything to do with John’s being the favorite disciple of Jesus?
GALOT: Jesus’ predilection for him helped open his eyes, to make his way of seeing things coincide as far as possible with Jesus’ way. But although he has this greater and more immediate intuition, he still seems to show respect for Peter’s authority. He claims no authority for himself, no primacy. He gets to the tomb first but he does not go in. He stops at the threshold and waits for Peter to go in first although he must have been curious to know what was in there. And, in any event, he would certainly have wanted to share his initial recognition of what had happened in the tomb with his friend Peter but he realized that the time had not yet come for this sharing, for this corresponding identity of views. So he does not demand it, does not impose his own sharper intuition. He respects the time Peter needs to reach the realization of this reality.
But what was inside? What did they see exactly?
GALOT: Some recent exegetical studies have specified the true content of the text, highlighting a few inaccuracies in the current translations that could be misleading. The first error is the translation in many versions of the Greek word otónia as bands, which really means all the funerary linens in which the dead were wrapped, including the Shroud itself which was the largest linen covering the whole body. Moreover according to many current versions, his apostles saw that the linens had fallen to the ground and the sudarium that was wound around the face of the deceased to keep his or her mouth closed was set ‘rolled up in a place by itself’. But according to the recent and accurate translations, based on close grammatical analysis of the original Greek, everything was in place. Even the sudarium had not been moved but was left lying among the other linens. It stood out in relief under the unwrapped Shroud.
Are these such important details?
GALOT: They help us to realize what it was that provoked such wonder and birth of faith in John. If the body had been taken away by someone, the linens would not have stayed intact in the same place and the sudarium would have been pulled away from the other linens and set aside at the moment of removal, as indeed many current translations seem to tell us. But Jesus’ body was no longer there while all the rest – the linens and the sudarium – were in their place. The sudarium had even been left with the other linens in its place. Perhaps John, at the sight of this, intuited that no one had taken Jesus away but that he had come out alive from the tomb, mysteriously extracting himself from the Shroud and the sudarium he had been wrapped in leaving none of the usual signs of having moved, leaving everything intact. The signs were there of some supernatural intervention which had subtracted Jesus from where he had lain in the tomb but without disturbing any of the cloths used in his burial. And so we may say that, at the sight of those cloths lying there, he began to recognize the event of the resurrection.
An event that Jesus himself had repeatedly announced ...
GALOT: Every time he mentioned his passion Jesus added that on the third day the Son of Man would rise again. And yet, after his crucifixion, no one remembered that. Many would not remember it even when they saw him risen. They had all forgotten except Mary, she who for nine months had carried that body in her womb, the body they had crucified. We can say that, during those three days, the whole hope of the world was nurtured by Mary alone. John himself had heard Jesus several times announce the resurrection. Together with Peter and James, he had been present at the event of the transfiguration when Jesus had warned them not to tell anyone what they had seen ‘until after the Son of man had risen from the dead’. They had observed the warning, “though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean” ( Mark 9, 9. 10). So John should have been ready to accept the mystery of the resurrection. And yet he would remember those words only when he saw the Shroud and the sudarium left intact in the tomb after Jesus went out from it alive. The beginning of his adherence to the faith, as the Gospel reports, is brought about by what he saw in the tomb. It was provoked by small signs but which were also real and visible.
How does this beginning grow for John? Through religious reflection, perhaps?
GALOT: Before that experience at the empty tomb, John had had only a vague and indirect idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Noting his absence from the tomb, perhaps he intuited the supernatural way in which it came about. But it was only after Jesus’ appearance in the following 40 days, only after his real contact with the Risen One that he was enabled to found with certainty his mission as a witness. In those encounters, Jesus manifested himself in order to encourage the faith, to give the faith a real and more evident foundation. He did not hesitate to show his body and insistently so, a body that still bore the signs of the crucifixion. He reinforced the seeing to provoke believing. As the signs multiplied, they moved on from an initial intuitive recognition of an unimaginable reality, of a real fact that proved to be greater and more surprising than anything they expected.
And this happened to a little group of frightened, resigned Jews little inclined to mystical visions now that it was all over ...
GALOT: The point of departure for encouraging faith, starting with the signs of the empty tomb, is always a visible reality. This factor is important because it belies people who interpret faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a mere conviction of the heart. It sweeps away all the idealistic theories claiming that the disciples had merely convinced themselves that Jesus had risen, charging this auto-suggestion with their very subjective feelings of love for their Teacher. But it was because they saw the Lord risen that they believed. Faith is born of the recognition of visible realities. It is not a subjective mental operation generating its own object. In De civitate Dei, Saint Augustine stresses how, because of this aspect, the Christian fact is the exact opposite of the religious sentiment dynamic triggered in man and represented by the imperial cult that rendered the objects of devotions divine: ‘Illa illum amando esse deum credidit; ista istum Deum esse credendo amavit’, ‘Rome, in its love of Romulus, believed him God. But the Church, in its recognition of Jesus Christ as God, loved him’.
So many spiritual masters in the Church today teach that the interior purity of the faith has no need of outward signs. A faith that depends on seeing and touching is said to be a gross, rough-hewn faith ...
GALOT: And yet that is the testimony of the apostles. Their whole faith lies in the simplicity of a realization, begins in them when they see Him and touch Him risen. When Peter tries to find a substitute for Judas in the apostolic college, he uses only one criterion: whoever replaces Judas will have to be a witness, not to the life but to the resurrection of Jesus. The apostles are the eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus. And all is entrusted to their experience and depends on it, given that Jesus left no written teaching, no codified spiritual doctrine. In short, the act of seeing is at the origin of the Church’s faith in the resurrection. And the faith of the Church cannot ever be separated from this initial act of seeing. It will always have its foundation in the apostles’ experience and in their testimony. As Saint Augustine writes again in De civitate Dei: ‘Resurrexit tertia die sicut apostoli suis etiam sensibus probaverunt’, ‘He rose on the third day as the apostles, with their senses, verified’.


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