Among the rituals of the Papal Paschal celebrations is a brief, but poignant custom of the Holy Father venerating an icon of the Risen Christ. This simple custom calls to mind the tradition that Christ appeared first to the Prince of the Apostles and then to the remaining ten. This ritual dates back to the 14th century and was restored to the Easter Sunday liturgy by the Venerable Pope John Paul II during the 2000 Jubilee Year.
St. Paul tells us in one of his Epistles that Christ first appeared to Cephas (Peter) and then to the rest of the Apostles. In today's Gospel, taken from St. John's account, Mary Magdalene runs to tell the Apostles. Peter and John hurry towards the tomb; however, because he is younger, the beloved disciple arrives first. Peter, huffing along, gets there shortly thereafter. However, even though John reaches the tomb first, he does not enter it. He defers to Peter. As soon as Peter arrives, he enters the tomb and inspects it; but, he cannot yet make sense of what has happened. John then enters the tomb, sees the burial cloths and the head wrapping and seems to understand.
St. John gives us an interesting perspective on Peter's supremacy. The beloved disciple gets to the tomb ahead of Peter, but, he chooses not to enter. He waits for Peter. He respects Peter's authority because such was conferred by no less than Jesus, Himself. It falls to Peter to enter the empty tomb, inspect it and see for himself. He is the first of the surviving Apostles, then, to see the effects of the resurrection. He is also the first, at Pentecost, to boldly proclaim to the crowds that Jesus is risen.
The Holy Father is the Successor of St. Peter. He acts in and with the aouthority of Jesus, as His Vicar on Earth. He is called, first and foremost, to continuosly proclaim the message that Jesus has vanquished death, that He is victorious over sin. Peter's words resonate through all times in the message proclaimed by his successors.
This simple ritual of the Successor of St. Peter being the first to gaze upon the figure of the Risen Christ is not a mere sentimental gesture. It is a renewal of the Petrine ministry to preach the Risen Lord.