15 April 2015
People of the Empty Tomb
The Resurrection of the Lord—Easter Sunday
There I was, standing in line to go into the aediculum, the structure which is built over the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, but I know that I was getting more and more excited just to go inside and see whatever it was that was in there. I had been waiting in line for a while with all the other pilgrims who wanted to see the place where Jesus had been buried. Finally, it was my turn. I ducked down to walk inside the structure. I waited in a very small ante-chamber for the group of four people ahead of me to leave. And then I went in, and guess what I saw? Nothing!
Now sure, there were candles and icons, but it was an empty tomb! Jesus was not there. I saw almost the same thing that Peter and John saw when they arrived at the tomb: nothing. They saw Jesus’ burial cloths, but other than that, they saw nothing. I wasn’t expecting to see Jesus’ Body there, but still I think I did expect to see something amazing. Instead, it was not very ornate: just a few icons of the Resurrection and a few candles burning.
We should be people who expect to see nothing. Our faith centers around going to a certain place to see nothing. As believers in the Resurrection, we are believers in not seeing what we should have seen: a corpse of a 33-year-old Jewish man. Instead, just as Mary of Magdala told Peter and John, and just as Peter and John told the other apostles and disciples in the Upper Room, there was nothing there. We are the people who rely on the eyewitness testimony of at least four or five people that the tomb is empty. We are also the people who rely on the eyewitness testimony of the apostles and disciples who not only saw or heard about an empty tomb, but saw the risen Jesus.
We are the people about whom St. Peter spoke in the first reading: the people who must rely on the witnesses chosen by God in advance, the witnesses who ate and drank with Jesus after He rose from the dead. We are the ones who received the good news from our parents, who received it from theirs, who received it from theirs, all the way back to eleven, mostly uneducated, men, who told our ancestors that they saw Jesus risen from dead and that if we want that new life, then we, too, must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and believe in Jesus and follow Him and His rule of life.
Because Christianity has become so common, we often forget the power of the message that there is new life after death. We forget what force that proclamation has. But to the first believers it was incredible–literally unbelievable. How could a man rise from the dead? But the story was too consistent. The uneducated fishermen, tax collector, and rag tag bunch of men had too convincing of arguments. And they were willing to die for that message. Certainly if they had made it up, they would have recanted as they were about to be skinned alive, crucified, or beheaded. But they didn’t. They were joyful, even feeling unworthy to die in a manner like their Lord, and “love for life did not deter them from death.” Those who believed the apostles also put up with horrible pain and torture; even though they had never seen Jesus. They just trusted the words of these men. They were nailed to posts, doused with oil, and lit on fire to illumine the Roman evening. They were fed to wild beasts, maimed, tortured, and mocked. But the power of the testimony of those witnesses was strong enough to give them no fear over those who could harm the body but not the soul. They believed the story of the empty tomb. Do we?
To believe in the empty tomb, the empty tomb that I saw with my own two eyes, is to fear nothing but to be separated from God. To believe in the empty tomb is to be impelled, drawn, summoned to proclaim it to others. To believe in the empty tomb is not simply to believe in a negative, a lack of something, but to believe that the tomb is empty because Jesus is not dead, but alive, and that when Christ returns to show Himself to those who believed in the words of His witnesses, they, too, “will appear with him in glory.”
When was the last time we lived as if we believed in the empty tomb? When was the last time we lived not worrying about those who can harm our prosperity, but focusing on the one who saved our soul? That belief is not meant to eliminate all the suffering in our life, but to help us to realize that suffering is not the end unless we want it to be. And then it only is the end for us because we would rather have the suffering we know than the heavenly bliss that we have to take on the words of eleven uneducated men.
Believers in the empty tomb still struggle to make a living; still get sick; still watch their loved ones struggle with pain and even death. But believers in the empty tomb can at the same time know that for those united to Christ in baptism, they have already died with Him, and should rise with Him, too.
I have been to the tomb in Jerusalem. I have seen the candles and the icons. I have seen the emptiness which means that the Resurrection is real. I still struggle to live each day as a believer in the empty tomb, giving proof that I do not fear what the world may throw at me because I belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God the Father, and the Father cares for those who are His own. Maybe you struggle to live that way, too. But today, let us reaffirm our faith in the empty tomb so that we can live like the eleven whose lives were changed by the Resurrection, and who changed others’ lives by the Resurrection. Today, as the first of many days, let us live as people of the empty tomb with zeal for the kingdom and confidence that God will take care of us in all circumstances, just as He took care of Jesus, His Beloved Son, in raising Him from the dead.