Inside the Tomb, I

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.

The 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 there:  “ 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 Good Friday as a particularly old episode of Law and Order.  We want to analyze Pilate’s motives, interview the soldiers who led Jesus to Golgotha.  We’d like to get a statement on the record from Simon of Cyrene.  It would be helpful if we could cross-examine the centurion.  And of course we long for DNA samples.  We would like to secure the scene and scour the inside of the tomb for a fibre, a strand of hair, a fragment of fingernail.

But where would that get us?  It will surely not take us inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.  Better to lower our shoulders, bend low, and crawl inside the idea of the tomb of Christ, (just for a moment or two if that is all we can tolerate).

Is it dark in here?  Or is there a candle burning already?  Has angel-light already begun to cause the stone to glow?  Does it smell in here yet – the sweet spices have net yet been brought by the women.  Is the air heavy with the scent of blood and sweat and tears?  Is Jesus’ body still; is it cold?  Is he given time to rest in death, regain strength after his ordeal?  Or does he spring to work instantly like an escape artist with limited time to get out of his shroud?

Will he speak to us?  Could we understand him if he did?  Is there anything we can do?  Is he even there?  Or is he gone already?  Of course, he must be gone – we are only inside the idea of his tomb.  And it is centuries later.  But if we are here, what does that say about us?  Are we dead or alive?  Could we get stuck in here?  Is the stone outside propped back?  It won’t roll across the door and seal us in?  No, really?  What are we doing in here?  What good can it do us to come inside the idea of the tomb of Christ?  Why are we here?  Are we dead or alive?

Are we dead or alive?

Here, inside the idea of the tomb of Christ, we find the question that we had not thought to ask: are we dead or alive?  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 if we will be buried with him in his death, the question shifts from him to us.

And do we find that here, inside the idea of his tomb the question of the rock, the cave, the hillside that once stood around his actual tomb – these all become immaterial?  Who cares where the precise location of his grave is, if we can be buried in his death without ever having to search for it?  And who cares about anything, really, except the answer to that burning question: are we dead or alive?

Here in the idea of Jesus’ tomb I think it is dark, and very still.  I think that I am lying on the shelf where his body lay.  And I think you are there too, but I am not sure that I can feel you there.  I do not think I can hear you; I am not sure you are breathing.  I am not sure I am.

And I think I am dead, as I think Jesus must have been.

I know I cannot stay here for three days.  It has only been a few minutes, but already it feels like hours.  I think I was frightened for a moment, but now that has passed.  I don’t know if I can feel my feet or wiggle my toes; I don’t know if I can move; I don’t know if I can see or hear.  And I don’t know if you can either – or if you are really there.  Is there room for us all in here?  Yes, it is very dark, and very still in here, inside the idea of Jesus’ tomb.  And I am wondering if I am dead or alive.  And what about you?  I cannot feel or hear my heartbeat.

+ + +

But now, I am sure I hear something like a breath.  It was not mine or yours, but it was a breath.  And I know that I have been buried with Christ inside the idea of his tomb.  And I can hear now.  And my heart is thumping.  And there is air in my lungs.  And the smell is sweet.  And it is still dark, but my eyes are open.  And I cannot tell, but I think I am beginning to see something like light.  And I can feel you there next to me; I can feel you tremble - or is it me who trembles?

And I know I was dead.  Here, in the idea of Jesus’ tomb, I know that I was dead, before I lowered my shoulders, and bent low, and crawled inside this death where Jesus has already been.

And I know I want to get out of here – out of this tomb of death.  And I know that I can; and I know that I will, because I know that this is why Jesus led me here.  Because he has been here himself.  And he made room for me and for you inside the idea of his tomb, so that we could know whether we are dead or alive.

He knows that we are desperate to know this: are we dead or alive?  He knows the world is killing us all day long and telling us that if we just keep buying things it will be OK.  But we know that everything we buy ends up be thrown in the trash and goes to the dump.  And we want to know – is that what will happen to us in our graves.

So Jesus calls us to come and die with him, and lie for a moment or two inside the idea of his tomb, and see.

Are we dead?  or are we alive?

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Good Friday 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on March 21, 2008 .