Something happened in the night.
In a garden outside Jerusalem is a tomb. The stone that sealed it has been rolled away. The tomb is empty.
What God chooses to reveal or keep secret is always a puzzle.
This is a very strange way to launch a world mission.
God acted in the dark. No CCTV captured it. There was no live-streaming or press conferences. Sometime before daybreak, while the world was asleep, God raised the dead, opened the tomb and left it for someone to find. Matthew’s gospel says there was an earthquake but it doesn’t seem to have woken anyone up.
It is strange to think that if you or I had been staying in Jerusalem on that first Easter weekend we would have slept through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
This tomb itself was owned by a prominent member of Jerusalem high society, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27.57‑60). His request for the body of Jesus was public and courageous. He was offering his own tomb to a man condemned for blasphemy and executed as a common criminal. We know that the tomb was close to the place of crucifixion and that it was a located in a private garden (Jn 19.41‑2). Joseph was assisted in the burial by Nicodemus, another prominent religious leader (Jn 19.39). Several witnesses watched them place the body of Jesus in the tomb and seal it (Matt 27.61; Lk 23.55).
Short of putting the postcode and directions to the tomb into their accounts, the gospels, taken together, could hardly have been more specific. In the intense world of Jerusalem society the location of that tomb would have been notoriously well known.
This was the tomb that was found empty on Easter morning. The body was gone. And, with the kind of odd detail you surely wouldn’t make up, the grave clothes had been left neatly folded.
Only one of the disciples is spoken of as believing on the basis of that scene (Jn 20.8). For the rest the empty tomb was a further overwhelming of further grief and confusion for people still traumatised by the events of the weekend. They appeared too dazed and bewildered to even search the site or alert the authorities. That is what makes the abrupt (original) ending of Mark’s gospel so believable. The impression he gives is that the ministry of angels only made things worse. Nothing could calm them. ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ (Mk 16.8)
That tomb lies at the centre of the Easter story – an empty, apophatic space. Without offering any explanations it points to three truths.
– the empty tomb reveals an act of God. The resurrection is first and foremost something that happened to Jesus rather than something that happened to the disciples.
– the empty tomb points to the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Whatever happened included the body. This separates Christian faith from vague ‘spiritualising’ theories of resurrection. There is an unembarrassed physicality to the resurrection hope.
– the empty tomb connects the resurrection with the cross. The one who has risen is the one who died. This was his tomb and he is no longer there.
In Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia, the scientist Valentine contrasts the wooden predictability of old Newtonian physics with Chaos Theory. For him this is a revolution full of new life and possibilities. It is a transformation of understanding so complete that it feels as if life itself is starting all over again. On the threshold of this new age he rejoices in the language of exhilarating faith.
‘It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again, knowing almost nothing. The future is disorder. A door like this has cracked open five or six times since we got up on our hind legs. It’s the best possible time to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong!’ (6)
I think of those words as I imagine standing before that empty tomb.
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of change in this world. Most common is what we might call continuous change. Though not without surprises, it is a way of speaking of the relatively predictable stages of growing and maturing across what we call the stages of life.
Then there is discontinuous change. This describes those times when an event or crisis so convulses our world that received ways of thinking, living and understanding are tipped into chaos. To respond requires ‘upside-down thinking’ and the developing of entirely new ways of responding and acting.
Discontinuous change describes our present time. How to understand or respond to what this requires of us is not at all certain. What kind of society and world will emerge from this is simply unknown.
The empty tomb is an act of discontinuous change.
The world and one of its most established and final certainties has been decisively, forever breached.
The tomb was not opened to let Jesus out. Death could not hold him.
The tomb was opened to let us in.
Like the first disciples, we have a journey to make.
a day like any other
it begins like any other
somewhere in the half light
a dog barks
a beggar wraps again
against the cold
an early traveller coughs into
the damp morning air
somewhere a shutter swings
on the edge of waking
a hint of mist
of hanging smells
of trees and bread
and rotting things
somewhere a bird stirs
on the first rising colours
it begins like any other
is a garden with a tomb
that has no stone across it
it is a day like any other
soon the traders will rise and markets fill a day
with noise and bustle
it is a day like any other
breaks upon us
on a day like any other
we will simply rise from sleep
to discover it
long before our sleepy hands
can make a mark upon it
it is transfigured
the faintest breeze and
still only half awake
a rumour of angels