The story of Easter begins in darkness. The women who, on Friday, and watched Jesus die, and who had seen him buried, travel to the tomb. They go with spices, and with a certain negative expectation based on an understanding of how life and the world and everything is. They expect to offer just a little dignity in the undignified business of dying and to ease just a little of the burden of their grief. Their expectations are quickly subverted and their understanding shortly after is transformed by what they find at the tomb:
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb but when they went in they didn’t find the body.
The women arrive on Sunday morning and find that the tomb is empty. Rather, they don’t find Jesus’ body. They discover an absence. It is what they don’t find, what isn’t there, that matters. The empty tomb is not the Easter event. It is, instead, the evidence, the sign which is left behind by the Easter event.
We talk about the Resurrection. The Easter event is the resurrection of Jesus. But here is another absence, another thing which isn’t there. What the Gospels do not describe is the Resurrection. There is no scene in the New Testament that shows us what happened. We do not see the old world become the new. Even the women, who came in the dark on that first day of the week, find the Resurrection as an already established fact. They discover the sign of what God has already done.
The Gospels do not describe the Resurrection. How could they? It is an event which is beyond comparison. Its uniqueness leaves us without anything to compare it to, and therefore without the possibility of words to describe it. The Resurrection lies outside of what happens that we can place in a sequence of causes and effects that allows us to link one thing to the next with verbs and nouns and adjectives. The word “Resurrection” is merely the label which we apply to this one unique moment for which we have no other means to speak. What has happened here is not the resuscitation of a corpse. We have actually seen Jesus do that. We have seen the widow of Nain’s son restored to his mother. We have seen Jairus’ daughter lifted from her bed of death. Those are events that do fit into the one thing after another, that sequence of causes and effects. But they would die again one day. We have seen Lazarus’ tomb emptied. But there would come a day when it would be filled again by Lazarus. In those cases, as remarkable and wonderful as they are, death has not been overcome so much as it has been sidestepped for now. Like all of Jesus’ healings the restoration of life is a gift of that life in greater fullness that he always offers, but in the end death has merely been postponed.
What has happened to make the tomb empty and leave the women with nothing to find is something quite different. Jesus is raised to life from death in a way that means that his death cannot be repeated. There is no grave to which he will have to return. Death is a one time event for each of us, a boundary which can be crossed in only one direction.
Jesus is raised to a life in which death is already past and forever behind him. The empty tomb is merely the sign that this is so.
But Christians do not believe in the empty tomb but in the Resurrection. Christians believe in a living Christ. The empty tomb is the sign that the Resurrection has happened. The Resurrection presupposes that the tomb will be empty. If Jesus has been raised, then there can be noting left except that absence in the tomb. The women can only find something that is not there. The tomb’s emptiness is only a sign. But it is an indispensable one. So we can’t believe in a living Christ, without believing in an empty tomb. This might be clear to us now. But it is not something which can be grasped without help. For the women it takes two men in shining clothes to point them to the significance of what they have found or not found:
Why do you look for the living among the dead. He is not here but has risen.
The angels, since given the nature of their message that is what the must be, the angels tell the women what this all means. The Resurrection is that unique event, that is beyond comparison, which cannot be fitted into the sequence of event which we can grasp for ourselves. Like everything else truthful about God it requires revelation. This understanding of God is not something we can reason ourselves to from what we already know. It has to be given in the first place. It is given to the women at the tomb by the angels. The angels remind the women what Jesus has already revealed to them:
Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and crucified and on the third day rise again.
The disciples had always struggled to accept what Jesus had told them. The force of events as they have actually played out has demonstrated that the first two elements of Jesus’ prediction were true. He had been handed over to sinners. He had been crucified. Now the angels point out that the third and final part of Jesus’ prediction is also true. Jesus is no longer dead but living, therefore a tomb is not the place where you are going to find him. Having once been revealed, this can only be announce and proclaimed: “He is not here but has risen. He is risen indeed.”
But as a sign the emptiness of the tomb is ambiguous and contestable. The women run from the tomb back to where the other disciples and make the announcement and point to the sign. But Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James and the other women were met with scepticism.
But these words seemed to them like an idle tale and they didn’t believe them.
It is easy to be very harsh about the disciples’ response at this point. It is easy to be critical and to be suspicious about what is happening here. Not least because what we have here is a group of men disbelieving the testimony of a group of women. No one can actually be surprised at that. And there is indeed something in that. If there is one thing that it is going to stand in the way of faith it is an entitled sense of superior understanding. And the (male) disciples do appear to think that they know better. But in fairness to them, what the women present them with lies outside what could be fitted into what they or we already know about the world The women tell them that the tomb is empty, and that this emptiness is explained by the Resurrection. The sign which has been left by the Easter event is ambiguous and contestable. The disciples’ reaction is that surely there is a better explanation for what the women are telling them. It could be explained either by establishing that the tomb isn’t empty. The women’s testimony could be reject if the sign isn’t there. Or if the tomb is empty, their testimony can be rejected by explaining it some other way. There must be no end of more plausible explanations for why a tomb is empty than the one which the women are giving. And this is where the Resurrection and the sign of an empty tomb are decisive to Christian faith. The acceptance, or the rejection of the claims of Christianity hinge on how anyone responds to the testimony of the women. There is a whole history of scepticism which leads to the rejection of the living Christ that has been built on saying either that the tomb was not empty, indeed that there was no tomb and that Jesus never died, or indeed was never born. Or built on some alternative explanation for what the women found that morning, they went to the wrong tomb, the body had been moved, or more cynical that the disciples themselves had removed the body, or the women were lying. But Christian faith, or the rejection of Christian faith requires anyone to decide what the women found and what their testimony points to.
What Christianity relies on is what happens next. Along with the other disciples when Peter hears the announcement which the women make he is inclined to dismiss it as a fairy tale, a pious fantasy, the product of imaginations overloaded with grief. But something prompts Peter to doubt his disbelief.
But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.
Perhaps the humiliation Peter had experienced during the early hours of Friday morning, when he denied Jesus three times, had left him humbled enough to hear the words of the women and not be so certain about the world and about himself. There is a moment of grace, when something moves Peter to respond differently to what he has heard. Peter heard the announcement of the Resurrection, and having heard was prepared to look for the sign himself. Christians don’t believe in the empty tomb but in the Resurrection. But that faith is built on the foundation of a sign that points to the Resurrection. It is built on what the women found and what was revealed to them. And it is built on the willingness of Peter to doubt his unbelief and look for a sign himself. And it is built on everyone subsequently who has accepted that announcement the Jesus has overcome death. And who has gone on to proclaim, “He is risen, he is risen indeed!”
An Empty Tomb, The Sign of Resurrection by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0