Question: If Jesus was stripped for crucifixion, and his body was wrapped in linens after his death for a quick burial, and the linens were left in the tomb when he rose from the dead, where did he get clothes to wear when he greeted Mary Magdalene and the apostles?
Good question. Of course, the truthful answer is that we don’t know. The gospel texts don’t tell us. We’re even assuming that Jesus was wearing something when he greeted people after his resurrection because, well, we can’t imagine him greeting people while naked, and because that’s the way the artists have portrayed him. However, he’s usually portrayed as wrapped in a linen or a toga-like garment rather than the tunic and cloak he is usually portrayed in during his earthly ministry. The artists’ intentions may have been to portray Jesus wrapped in a burial linen. But the Gospel of John says explicitly that Simon Peter “saw the linen wrappings lying there” when he went into the tomb to look around. So he wasn’t wrapped in burial linens when he emerged from the tomb.
Michelangelo was surely correct to imagine, in his sculpture of The Risen Christ (1521), Jesus coming forth naked from the tomb; just as he was surely correct to imagine, in his mural of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, that we will all rise from the dead naked. In the paradise restored of the heavenly kingdom on earth there will surely be no need for modesty. In both cases later popes had Jesus’ genitals covered—a bronze cloth improbably attached to the sculpture of the The Risen Christ and a thin linen over Jesus’ groin in The Last Judgment. However, here is a sketch by Michelangelo of Christ rising from the tomb from 1533.
But the question remains: did Jesus have something to put on as he greeted people? Where would he have gotten something to wear?
Throughout the passion stories people other than the chosen twelve disciples are taking care of his needs. Someone behind the scenes arranged for Jesus to procure a colt or donkey on which to ride into Jerusalem. Someone behind the scenes arranged for the upper room in which Jesus observed the Passover Seder with the twelve. We know the names of some of Jesus’s friends, admirers, and secret disciples from the four gospel narratives. There’s Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany. There’s Joseph of Arimathea, who requested permission from Pontius Pilate to take down Jesus’s body from the cross and not have it left on the cross (as was Roman custom). He also provided the tomb. There’s Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus by night to discuss spiritual matters, who provided the burial supplies. Did any of these people believe that Jesus would rise from the dead on the third day, as he had prophesied, and leave some garments in the tomb at the time of Jesus’ burial? Did an angel bring something for Jesus to wear when the stone was rolled away? What about the young man in Mark’s Gospel who was sitting on the burial slab when the three women arrived early in the morning on the third day?
In all four gospels someone is at the tomb to announce to the women, who came early in the morning on the first day of the week to prepare the body for a proper burial, that Jesus had risen and gone ahead of them back to Galilee. In Matthew, there was a fearsome angel. In Mark, it was a young man in a white robe. Presumably this is the same young man who came out from the baths the night of Jesus’ arrest to see the commotion and lost his linen towel in the melee and ran off naked into the night. Commentators have assumed this is the evangelist. In Luke, there are two men in dazzling apparel. In John, Mary Magdalene, consumed by grief, goes alone to the tomb and sees two angels. Someone—man or angel—was present at the resurrection to announce it to those who came to the now empty tomb.
The angels tended to his needs after Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the wilderness after his baptism. Could they, who themselves needed no clothing—or the young man in the white robe in Mark’s Gospel—have brought Jesus new apparel as he continued his post-resurrection ministry on earth for a short time longer? Jesus still had some work to do. He had to reconcile with his failed disciples and give them a commission as his apostles to go into all the world with his gospel. He must have worn something.
We decorate our bodies with fancier clothing for festive celebrations. So artists are not wrong to portray the risen and ascended Lord in priestly robes and the redeemed saints in white robes as they all celebrate the heavenly liturgy and attend the marriage feast of the Lamb.
Icon of Christ the High Priest dressed in Byzantine bishop’s vestments by Sergey Radonezhsky and Evfimy of Suzdal
It’s pretty certain that Jesus left the tomb naked but put on some kind of garment before he met with the apostles. Likewise, in the ancient church the newly baptized emerged naked from the baptismal font and were clothed in white tunics (albs) to take their place, for the first time, at the Eucharistic feast. This solemn celebration of Christian initiation came to be celebrated preeminently at the Easter Vigil. It may be in deference to the newly baptized putting on their new garments that the custom arose of Christians wearing new clothes to church on Easter Day. Can we see in the wearing of new clothes on Easter a renewal of our own Baptism as we gather “at the Lamb’s high feast?”
Wearing new clothes on Easter even became the opportunity for a procession. The origin of the famous Easter parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City was the procession of the members of Holy Communion Episcopal Church on Broadway who, under the leadership of their rector William A. Muhlenberg in the 1840s, brought Easter flowers to the indigent patients of St. Luke’s Infirmary, which the parish had founded. (Muhlenberg was one of the first to place flowers on the altar in American churches.) The congregation was sent from the Easter liturgy to serve the Lord and love their neighbors, bringing with them the joy and hope of the gospel of Christ as they paraded in their new Easter clothes (and bonnets!) with flowers and gifts to gladden the lives of the poor and the sick. The idea of an Easter parade caught on and unfortunately, like many things, lost its original religious purpose as it became a major social event in New York and other cities.
We don’t seem to have Easter parades of people strolling down the street in their new Easter clothes, but maybe it’s an idea waiting to be revived for its original intent. So here’s another little incident, although not in the gospels but something that has to be concluded from the accounts, that is not without potential significance for us. Jesus had new Easter clothes to wear when he greeted people, and so do we as we celebrate on our bodies the new reality that dawned on the day of resurrection.
Pastor Frank Senn
Easter parade on New York City’s Fifth Avenue in 1899
Image above post: “The Risen Christ” by Bramantino, c. 1490