Inside the Tomb, II

As is the case with many holy sites in Jerusalem, there are at least two tombs that are identified as the burial place of Jesus.  It is perhaps the case that the best claim of authenticity can still be made by the tomb that has been enshrined beneath the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  

That tomb – identified in the fourth century - has seen empires rise and fall, crusaders come and go, Muslim occupation, Christian schism, warfare, tumult, squabble, earthquake, fire and every kind of upset.  The emperor Constantine built the first structure over it: what amounted to a “little house” that was itself enclosed by a larger church.  That same plan – rebuilt many times – survives today inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Beneath the great, grey dome of the church is a smaller building, surrounded by countless burning lamps, and chanting monks of various pedigrees, and tourists of every variety.

This morning, if we will, we are invited to follow Mary Magdalene to this tomb.   See what happens when we get there.

On seeing that the stone is rolled away, (only a fragment of it remains today) she hesitates at first, and runs to get others – Peter and the one known as the beloved disciple.  And now Saint John gives us marvelous details that are absent in the three other gospel accounts of the resurrection.

Peter and the beloved disciple begin to run: racing each other to the mouth of the cave.  I imagine that Mary Magdalene runs too, but she is a girl, and not so fast or so competitive as the boys are.  But all three of them have a single question burning in their minds: Is he dead or alive?

John tells us that the beloved disciple got there first.  He stoops to look in and sees the grave-clothes.  Peter catches up, and, having lost the race to the mouth of the tomb, shoves the beloved disciple aside, lowers his shoulders, bends his head low and, brash as ever, dives inside the tomb of Christ.  There must have been room for the two of them in there.  The beloved disciple follows Peter, lowers his shoulders, bends his head low, and goes inside the tomb, too.

There they find no body.  The details that they notice about the position of the linen cloths – lying undisturbed – are meant to show us that Jesus had not struggled to escape, had not performed some fantastic magic trick.  And the two men – full of excitement - scramble out of the tomb and back to their homes.

But Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside the tomb, confused, uncertain.  Is he dead or alive?  Finally she brings herself to lower her own shoulders and bend her head low and lean in far enough to look inside the tomb, where she, privileged in her grief, and undistracted by the competitive spirit that possessed the two men, sees the two angels sitting where the body of Jesus had lain.

Only in John’s Gospel are we told that anyone actually goes inside the tomb of Jesus.  Only in this last and latest gospel do the disciples lower their shoulders and bend low to get inside.  Only here does Mary Magdalene, too, stoop to get her head and shoulders inside and see the amazing site, which does not stop her weeping, for she does not yet know what it means.  Is he dead or alive?

That tomb was originally hewn out of stone in a hillside, but the hillside is nowhere in evidence.  Journalist Richard Rodriguez wrote of his recent visits to the Holy Sepulchre:  “ A mountain was chipped away from the burial cave, leaving the cave.  Later the cave was destroyed.  What remains is the interior of the cave, which is nothing….  I must lower my shoulders and bend my head [to get in]; I must crawl to pass under the low opening.  I am inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.”

A hillside was chipped away leaving a cave; the cave was destroyed leaving the interior of the cave, which is nothing.  What is left is the idea of the tomb of Christ.

Nothing prevents you and me from lowering our shoulders just now, from bending low, and crawling, ourselves, inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.  And this, after all, is where the church has led us today: into the idea of the tomb of Christ.

Since our imaginations have been shaped by courtroom dramas and forensic police work on TV, we are tempted to experience Easter Day as a particularly old episode of Law and Order.  We want to detain Peter for questioning, and we’d like to know why the beloved disciple won’t give us his name.  We’d like to hold Mary Magdalene in a separate room and see if the stories of these three corroborate.  We doubt that the two men Mary spoke with are angels and we have a few questions for them.  And how can Mary be so sure that it wasn’t the gardener she talked with?  Let’s bring him in for questioning too!  Most importantly, don’t touch anything!  We will send the linen cloths to the lab for testing.  We need some DNA!  We will scour the inside of the tomb for a fibre, a strand of hair, a fragment of fingernail.

But where would that get us?  Will it really tell us whether or not Jesus is dead or alive?  It will surely not get us inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.  Better, on this Easter morning, to lower our shoulders, bend low, and crawl inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.

Two days ago it seemed so different: so dark.  But then, darkness covered the whole land on that Friday.  Isn’t it surprisingly light in here now?  Is it the candles, or is there residual glow from the angel-light?  Is the air sweet with the smell of incense and spices?  Do we have the sense that Jesus was here just a minute ago?  Or can we tell somehow that he did not stay long in this tomb, that he had work to tend to, and got straight to it?  Is it creepy in here, inside the idea of Jesus tomb, in this chamber of death?  Are we frightened?    Could we somehow get stuck in here?  Is the stone rolled back far enough, and held tight?  It won’t roll back across the door and seal us in?  And where is Jesus?  Is he dead or is he alive?

If we pause here, inside the idea of the tomb of Christ, does it occur to us to think about our own death?  Isn’t it a little weird to be inside this grave?  What are we doing in here, inside the idea of this tomb?  And if we pause here for a moment or two longer than Peter stayed, longer than the beloved disciple paused here, do we find that the question begins to shift from him to us?

We thought that we had come here to investigate Jesus.  But inside the idea of his tomb we begin to find the question that we had not thought to ask: do we die or do we live?  We thought  - because the world had tried to convince us – that the question was whether or not Jesus was dead or alive.  We thought that was what brought is to his tomb, looking for evidence, for an argument, for proof.  But here, inside the idea of his tomb, we discover that the question shifts from him to us: will we die, or will we live?

We realize that the world is killing us all day long, one way or another, and the world tells us that if we just keep buying things, everything will be OK.  (Can I interest you in a satin pillow for the inside of that tomb?)  But we know that everything we buy ends up being thrown in the trash and goes to the dump.  And we want to know – is that what will happen to us in our graves?

And while we are inside the idea of his tomb, perhaps we cannot tell.  There are the grave clothes: un-rumpled, no sign of struggle.  It does not appear to be a trick.  But still, we are uncertain.  Is he dead or alive?  Will we die or will we live?

And from in here, we can hear a sound nearby, but from a distant time: Mary Magdalene, stands outside weeping, and we can hear her sobs.  She has poked her head and shoulders in here.  She has seen what we see – and more.  But there she stands weeping.  And who are we to console her?  We have only been inside the idea of Christ’s tomb; she has looked into the real thing.  We have only seen the details that others reported to us; she has spoken with angels.  But still she weeps.  For as long as she does not know if Jesus is dead or alive, she cannot know if she will live or if she will die.   And from in here, inside the idea of Christ’s tomb, can we know either?

This morning, the sound of Mary weeping is enough, I hope, to bring us out of the idea of that tomb.  Although there was that strange light in the tomb, to sunlight is brighter, and we blink in the brightness of it as we draw close to Mary.  As her sobs become louder, I begin to feel that maybe I will join her in her tears, for there is sadness enough in this world, and this tomb is empty, and they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

And I know somehow that my fate is tied to his fate, and so is yours.  And I know, with Mary, that if he is dead, then perhaps the best thing to do is crawl back inside that tomb and get used to it – because that is what awaits us anyway.

But before I have gotten close enough to put my arm around her, to join my sobs to hers, there is this voice.  And I am certain it is not the gardener, because I am only standing outside the idea of the tomb of Christ, and many centuries have past.  And I have heard the story before (and so have you).  And when I hear him call her name, I remember that the tomb was always going to be empty, could only ever be empty.

And now the tomb doesn’t matter at all, because once it was a hillside that was chipped away leaving a cave; then the cave was destroyed leaving the interior of the cave, which is nothing.  And you and I cannot be trapped inside of nothing – not even for a moment.

And I cannot tell the difference anymore between my sobs and the sobs of Mary Magdalene.  I cannot say how close she is to me, or to you.  But I am sure we are all standing outside of the tomb now.  And I am sure that tomb is nothing but an idea.  And I know that it doesn’t matter any more.  Because I hear a voice, and I think you do, too.  And a moment ago that voice seemed to be calling, “Mary!”  But now I hear my own name, and I know, somehow, that you hear yours.

And now I know that my redeemer liveth!  And once I know that, in a instant, in the twinkling of an eye, I know, too, that every tomb has been chipped away, as his tomb has been, and reduced to nothing, as his tomb is nothing; nothing but an idea.  And I know that Mary’s sobs have been turned into songs of joy, and I can hear myself singing, and you too!  And I know that Christ is alive, and that if he lives then you and I will not die when our mortal bodies are done on this earth, but that we shall live, because he lives, and calls us each by name!  Alleluia!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 23, 2008 .