Easter Tuesday: Peter and John at the Tomb


“Peter bent down and saw the binding cloths and nothing else; he went away wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.” (Luke 24.12)

“Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed.” (John 20.8)

Henry Ossawa Tanner, Two Disciples at the Tomb (1906) Art Institute of Chicago.

What follows is a talk that I gave at the commencement Mass for the University of St Thomas graduating class of 2007. I was serving as the Vice President for Academic Affairs. I spoke from an outline sketched on the back of the program; I have filled it in, adding a flourish or two.
John and Peter as Types of Faith and Reason
The Hallmark of Catholic Education at UST
Address at the Baccalaureate Mass
University of St. Thomas, Houston
May 18, 2007
I wish to thank Archbishop DiNardo for joining us this evening on the Mall on a beautiful spring evening in Houston. On this mall we are reminded that faith and reason are the hallmarks of Catholic education at UST: here we are at the chapel, an anchor of the north end of the mall and we can look down to the south end of the mall to see the library. Prayer and scholarship should go hand and hand at UST.
This evening it is fitting that we stop and take a moment to reflect upon the deeper meaning of our education here at UST. We do so in the celebration of Mass, the source and summit of the Christian life, according to Vatican II. This most of all affirms who we are as a Catholic institution. We are blessed to have the Archbishop as our celebrant. According to Ex corde, we exists as a Catholic university in our communion with the Bishop. We recognize his authority in matters of faith and morals; our theologians receive a mandatum from him. Archbishop DiNardo is here as a friend and partner in the venture of Catholic education at UST. We share in a journey towards the fullness of wisdom. The Catholic University in Houston stands with the Archbishop with pride and gratitude.
But this should become an opportunity for a deeper reflection upon the role and reason in Catholic education. The authority of the Bishop derives from his role as the apostolic witness to the resurrection of Christ. As the Archbishop reminded us, we are still in the Easter season. So I would like to consider that great source for the witness – the first encounter by Saint John and Saint Peter of the evidence for the resurrection.
Upon hearing the story of the empty tomb from Mary Magdelan the two apostles ran to the tomb, the younger John far outpacing Peter; in deference to Peter, John waited and allowed him to go in first. Peter saw the head wrapping set apart from the linen shroud laying on the floor. As Peter was taking it all in, John stepped into the sepulcher “and he saw and believed.” (John 20.8) The disciple who loved Jesus, John, immediately understood. Because of his ardent love, his faith was high. And what of Peter, who made many admissions of faith, and also turned in denial? “Peter went away wondering in himself at that which was come to pass.” (Luke 24.12) There right at the beginning of the apostolic witness to the glorious resurrection we find the seeds of both faith and reason, the two supporting each other. Peter and John are types of reason and faith.
Let me say at the outset I learned this lesson from Georges Chevrot in his marvelous book, The Third Day (1961) and also from Bishop Alban Goodier, SJ, The Risen Christ (1924).
Chevrot points out that the phrase used to describe Peter is “secum mirans” or “wondering within himself.” There is the root of philosophy, wonder. An amazement that is not yet able to see or understand the causes, must set out in quest for the reason for the facts at hand. “Peter did not behave as impulsively as of old when he was unable to keep his feelings to himself. He reflected.” So Chevrot says “We cannot fail to admire the prudence of the first leader of the Church.” Peter remained alone and prayed but then the report comes out that “He appeared to Simon.”
John, on the other hand, saw and believed. Chevrot suggests that he “penetrated the mystery of the inexplicable disappearance.” His was an instantaneous acceptance based on love, for he was, after all, the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and John was faithful until the death on the cross. The other disciples remained skeptics, but not John. John “crossed the border of reasoning and at a single sign took a leap into faith.” So Chevrot’s lesson from John – “there are circumstances when we must not beg the question, but plunge bravely into the obscurity of the mystery and await God’s response to our love: by the revelation of himself to our hearts.”
Bishop Goodier made a similar analysis of the event. With John, he says, “the heart of love made sure the act of faith, let what might come of it.” He saw it all at a glance, the truth of the mysterious prophecies. He witnessed the betrayal, the suffering, the death – John saw it all, so why not the fourth part, the resurrection? And Peter was still bewildered. Once more impulsive, “these last days had bewildered him; he could no longer trust himself.” So he pondered the meaning of it all. But they left the tomb together “filled with a new joy.”
Father Chevrot says that we should “guard against preferring Peter’s reserve or John’s leap, for they are complementary to each other.” Yes I see them as types of faith and reason. Faith and reason are the two wings by which we ascend to wisdom. Each strengthens the other. Each contains the other. Peter stops and wonders, pondering the evidence before him; John leaps to faith through love. We are led from the apostolic witness at the tomb to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio, which should be the guide to our education at UST. The connection between Ex corde with its account of the authority of the bishop and the faith, and Fides et ratio with its tight dynamic of faith and reason, is the image of these two apostles at the empty tomb.
Tomorrow is commencement. You will soon start anew. You will leave this place to begin a new job or a new educational effort. Perhaps you will travel far from Houston in your life’s adventure. But I hope that in your mind and heart, when in some “vacant or pensive mood,” it may flash upon your eye the beauty of this celebration this evening on the mall. For here at the chapel you may have caught a glimpse of the disciple whom Jesus loved, in full devotion to the sacred mystery of faith. But then you may have also seen over yonder near the library, the disciple who wondered within himself what it all means, stopping to ponder the evidence and arguments. At the university dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas we will always make room for both. And this evening they join together to rejoice in the truth.
Thank you and may God bless you this special weekend.

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