The Garden Tomb

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

The food at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem is adequate, but not more than adequate.  And if I am going to travel all the way to the Holy Land – as 22 of us from Saint Mark’s did about six months ago – I am going to find food that is better than adequate.  On our journey we maintained a pretty full itinerary, so there was not a lot of time to search out good food, but I did my best; poking my way through the winding alleys of the Old City, taking the train to the Mehane Yehuda Market and consulting online reviews to find the best places to eat.  I’m happy to report that I found some memorable meals in Jerusalem, as well as some good Israeli wines!

The Ambassador Hotel sits uphill from the Old City of Jerusalem along the Nablus Road.  And on my fast and furious expeditions to find food, and the nearest liquor store, I regularly made my way down this road, past the far swankier American Colony Hotel, the British cathedral, and then past a little sign on a street that turned off to the left as I walked downhill: a street named after Conrad Shick, and a sign pointing to The Garden Tomb.  This tomb is the alternative site to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, where pilgrims line up for hours (as we did) to get a chance to stoop low and visit the strange supposed burial place of Jesus – which really hardly resembles a tomb at all, and which requires more than a little imagination to connect with the image of Jesus’ death and burial, which were supposed to take place on a hill outside the city wall, since, there is no evidence that you are on a hill, and you are well inside the current walls of the city.  Nevertheless, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been recognized as the likely place of Jesus’ burial at least since the 4th century, and if it marks the place of his burial, then it is also the kind of Ground Zero of his resurrection: the site of the original Easter

The Garden Tomb, by contrast, has been identified as a possible site only since the 19th century.  And it tends to have a certain currency with people from Protestant churches, who may feel a bit put off by the chanting monks, the flickering candles, and the burning incense over at the Holy Sepulcher.

A curious pilgrim, open to possibilities, with no ax to grind, with only two competing sites to compare, could easily visit both the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb on a visit to Jerusalem, especially if his hotel was just up the road from them both, and he had to pass one on his way to get to the other.  But I had meals to scope out, and restaurant menus to inspect; my sorties down the Nablus Road led me right past the turn-off to the Garden Tomb for five days in a row.  But I never even flinched as I went in search of olives and cheeses, and Halvah, and other delicious things – and wine.  And, of course, we’d already been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – if you’ve seen one Messiah’s tomb, I figured, you’ve seen ‘em all.  As I say, a clearer head might have decided that if you have traveled half way around the world to visit holy sites, and two different places contend to be the holiest of them all, what’s the harm in visiting both of them?  But I had pistachios, and pomegranates to track down and taste.   I’d already cast my lot with the ancients at the Holy Sepulcher – why muddy the waters?

To many people, the mere fact that there is more than one potential spot where Jesus may have been buried, more than one possible Ground Zero of the Resurrection, provides ample evidence of the foolishness of the faith that so many others have placed in Jesus, lo these many centuries.  If we cannot even locate with any measure of certainty the very places where his Cross stood, where his Body lay, and where disciples discovered an empty tomb on that first Easter morning, does that not cast some significant doubt on the stories themselves?  Here was a man who claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, whose life was given, the scriptures tell us, for the salvation of the whole world.  Could it have been so impossible to mark the spot of his burial, to remember where it was that the empty tomb was located?  Wouldn’t someone have placed a pile of rocks there?  Or planted tree?  Or drawn a map?

The suspicion is that these things did not happen as the scriptures report them; that if a man named Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and if his body was placed in a tomb, then the dusty remains of his flesh and bones are lying there now; that the reason we cannot say for certain where the empty tomb of the risen Christ is to be found, is because there is no such thing: no such thing as the empty tomb, no such thing as the Christ, the anointed of God, and no such thing as the Resurrection.

But there is plenty of delicious food to be found in Jerusalem.  And I highly recommend the fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice from street vendors, and I can give you a recommendation for a really good restaurant just outside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City.  But I digress.

Maybe there is another reason that the precise location of the empty tomb of Jesus is in some doubt.  Maybe this question of where exactly Jesus rose from the dead need not undermine faith, but could strengthen it.  Maybe God has not unfolded his plans in such a way as to be successfully litigated with forensic evidence, but has, instead, been at work in subtler, more personal ways.  Maybe it’s a good thing that we don’t know with absolute certainty where the empty tomb of Jesus is, since knowing, or thinking you know, seems to provide Christians with something to fight over, as much as anything else.  And maybe it’s somewhat unimportant to know which of the two contending sites in Jerusalem is the real empty tomb of Jesus.

Because the truth is that there are empty tombs in churches and in homes and in the hearts of God’s people all over the world this morning.  These are the places where Jesus’ rising matters this morning, and every morning.

It’s in our lives, our homes, our church families, after all that death and his accomplices have been at work.

It’s your child who was rushed to the hospital, whose bed you stood by and prayed by and waited by, hoping the doctors were skilled enough that a miracle wouldn’t be needed.

It’s your mother who cannot remember who you are anymore, and who looks at you with a vacant stare.

It’s your sister, your brother who received the diagnosis last week, and who now must decide whether to undergo the misery of a treatment that may or may not provide a cure.

It’s your friend who was in a freak accident and will never walk again.

It’s your beloved whose body has been wracked by the chemo and the radiation, and yet who still doesn’t know if the cancer is gone.

It’s your daughter who lost the pregnancy.

It’s your brother who has been languishing in prison.

It’s your son who refuses to admit he has a problem, refuses to go to AA, refuses to let go of his addiction.

It’s your father who finally died, and whose death and memory has left a hole in your life bigger than any you ever knew he could fill.

Death, disaster, sickness and despair are at work in your life and mine, right here, right now.  We do not need to travel to Jerusalem to find them.  And if we had to bring all that threatens and frightens and condemns us to the empty tomb in a far away place, we could never afford the additional baggage fees.

The Resurrection has not been fixed by God to a tomb in Jerusalem because you and I don’t need a Resurrection that happened once, long ago, in a faraway place.  We need a Resurrection here and now, in our lives, in the things that are killing us even now.  We don’t need to go in search of hope through the winding streets of an ancient city.  We need hope in Philadelphia this morning!

There is a tradition, reported in the scriptures, that says that when Jesus died, the tombs of the dead were opened, and the bodies of the dead were raised, and they walked around and visited their friends and families.  Far-fetched though this tradition may sound, I think it makes sense if we don’t insist on a finding a single empty tomb for Jesus.  I think the dead were making way for Jesus, who was claiming every tomb he could find as his own, and he pushed the bodies of the dead up, out of his way as he came up from their tombs, sharing a measure of his new life with them as he went.

Perhaps you think there is a tomb already prepared for you or for someone you love. Even if you don’t, the time will come when you do, when you realize that the coldness of a tomb lies as close at hand as the next sunrise, and you can’t be sure which will greet you the next morning.  This is the human experience, the reality of our lives.  Which means that the most important tomb this Easter is not either of the ones in Jerusalem that claim to be the tomb of the Savior of the world.  The most important tomb this Easter is the one you have imagined in your mind, that grabs you by the throat and leaves you struggling to catch your breath.

It may not be your own tomb.  It may be the tomb of your spouse, your partner, your parent, or your child.  It is the tomb whose chill you cannot shake, the tomb you never fail to visit in your imagination.  This tomb contains the remains of more than just a body: it holds your hope, your dream, your life in its unforgiving darkness, and although you may try to avoid it with forays into various distractions, this tomb owns your imagination like nothing else, for you are always ready for something to die in it, and to be buried for ever.

I might never see the sign that points to that tomb, the most important tomb of your imagination, the tomb that holds the end of the thing you love.  I might ignore it just as easily as I ignored the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, and so might everyone else in this church, and everywhere in the world today.  But Jesus will not ignore that tomb.  He will claim it as his own.  He moved into it three days ago, and he has been renovating.

Jesus has pushed everything that could ever die in the tomb of your imagination out of his way, and in the process he has loaned new life to the previous inhabitants of this tomb.  For nothing can die in the presence of this great life.  No tomb can be a final resting place after the Resurrection.  We don’t need to decide which tomb was Jesus’ burial place, because his burial hardly matters – only his rising matters.  And he is risen from every tomb, in every corner of the world, on every Easter, and every day till he claims all creation for himself again.

After this mass is over, like you, I will start thinking about food.  Well, I might start thinking about food before you do, but you take the point.  After church this morning, we will go our ways in search of our Easter brunches, our Easter dinners.  I already have a schedule written down: the ham goes in the oven at 2:30, I put my parents to work at 4. etc, etc.  Just as I was distracted by many things in Jerusalem, and never visited the Garden Tomb, you will be distracted soon enough, and Easter will begin to recede for another year.

But Christ is not through rising from the dead – though he has already accomplished it.  He is rising from every tomb that fills your heart and mine with dread.  Jesus is rising from the dead, indeed he is risen, and it hardly matters which tomb was his before; he has no need of it now, he is risen indeed, Alleluia!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

Easter Day 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on April 9, 2012 .