Christians throughout the world recently honored what is quite possibly the greatest liturgical celebration that exists: Easter Sunday! Our entire faith hinges on the truth of the Resurrection. As a Catholic, I have 40 days leading up to Easter (called Lent, which you can read more about here) to ponder the life of Jesus Christ and also, to prepare for the Resurrection celebration. I know I’m not the only one who has spent countless hours trying to imagine what it must have been like for Peter and John to race to the tomb after Mary Magdalene told them what she’d seen.
When Peter entered the tomb, he did not find the body of Jesus where they had buried him. He did, however, find the burial cloths lying there. Also, apart from the cloth that had wrapped Christ’s body, Peter saw the napkin that had covered Jesus’s head and face, neatly folded and set aside. Many people believe this was a message from Jesus to His followers!
What did it mean?
It was Jewish tradition at the time for young servants to set the tables at which their masters would dine. These boys were trained to pay attention to detail. They prided themselves on making sure everything was perfect. As their masters enjoyed their meals, the servants would keep watch.
If a master stood up at the table, the young servant would pay special attention. His eyes would be on the master’s napkin cloth. Every Jewish servant boy knew that if his master balled up the cloth and laid it on the table in a heap, it meant that he was finished dining. The servant knew that it was time to clear the table.
A master might give another message
A master did not always toss a napkin cloth on table in a balled-up heap. Sometimes, he would neatly fold his linen cloth and set it on the table. This was a message to the servant that the master was, in fact, not finished dining and that he planned to return to table. Now, think again of the Resurrection!
What did Peter find when he entered Jesus’s tomb? (John 20:7) He found the linen cloths that had wrapped his Master’s body lying on the ground. However, the napkin cloth that they had used as a covering for Jesus’s head and face (called a sudarium) was neatly folded and set aside, apart from the other cloths.
What message was Jesus giving His Apostles?
Every faithful Jewish man of the time clearly understood the protocol that servant boys employed when they tended to their masters at a dining table. Did Peter recognize the neatly folded napkin as a Resurrection message from his Master? Was it a message, not only for Peter, but for the world? Was Jesus saying, “I am coming back!” ?
Further significance regarding cloths in the Resurrection
The Scriptures tell us that Peter found the body linens “lying” in the tomb. While our English translation of the word evokes images of cloths crumpled in a heap, the Greek word for “lying” has a much more literal meaning. The word “keimai” means ” to lie outstretched.” Most Biblical scholars believe this is significant. It suggests that the linens were “lying” on the ground as though a body were still in them — “outstretched.” It is evidence that a body had been there, and then wasn’t. It’s also evidence that no one stole the body of Jesus, because, if they had, it would be unlikely they would have removed the linens and then stretched them out on the ground.
As Christians, we believe Jesus is coming back
We cannot prove these theories regarding the Resurrection and the significance of the various types of linen cloths Peter found in the tomb. The eisegesis (translation of text through personal interpretation) that Jesus may have been sending a message about His plan to return sounds logical to me. He was always comforting people, especially His Apostles. He understood how confused and bereft they would be after His death.
It makes logical sense to me that He would have done something to send a message of comfort — something He knew they’d understand. Jesus often spoke in parables and told stories in simple ways that people could apply to their daily lives and Jewish traditions. If leaving a napkin neatly folded to the side would bring comfort to His grieving friends, why wouldn’t Jesus want to send a message from the tomb? “Fear not! I will return!” To me, it’s sounds exactly like something He might do. What do you think?