A Meditation on an Empty Tomb

Oh, what it must have been like to see that empty tomb on that first Easter day! Early in the morning the day after the Sabbath, the word begins to spread, as a whispering murmur first, but then openly, in an ever louder voice, that the body of Jesus was nowhere to be found. The narrative of that blissful morning comes to us in a stream of at times conflicting stories, all of them different, yet all of them true. That is how we find them in the Gospels, confusing and bewildering, not unlike what the apostles themselves thought of them when they heard them: “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them” (Lk. 24:11). And could we expect less? Should we demand a comprehensive account of an incomprehensible event? Can human words exhaust the inexhaustible mystery of the Resurrection? Confusion and perplexity are to be expected from any reliable account of such an event. How could it be otherwise when they were attempting to describe the indescribable, that a man who once was dead was now alive?

It was the women who first came to the tomb. The women who had followed him from one corner of Judea to the other; the women who had provided for him and his disciples out of their own livelihood; the women who alone stood at the foot of his Cross, the ever-faithful women! When all had fled they remained steadfast. When all had hidden they came forth. And on that blessed morning, ere the sun had risen, they set out to anoint the body of the Lord. It was to them that the message was first delivered; it was to them that the word first came, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Lk. 24:5). The divine messenger seems surprised at their surprise: “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him” (Mk. 16:6) But how could they not be surprised if all they had ever known was that the dead remain that way! And though the Lord had told them many times that He would die and be raised, “they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him” (Mk. 9:32).

What of that most faithful of all women, Mary, the mother of the Lord? There is no record, written or spoken, of her encountering her Son on that morning. And yet, would not the new Adam seek before anyone else the new Eve? This is something that is not given to us to know, and perhaps human curiosity should not dwell on what God has reserved for her alone to know.

We do, however, know of that other Mary, the one from Magdala, the one who was forgiven much because she had loved much. We know from St. John that she was the first to see the risen Christ, she was the first to touch Him, to verify that the Resurrection was not a dream or an illusion, but a reality hitherto unknown. She is commissioned with telling the others, and so becomes the apostle to the apostles, the herald of the risen Lord.

The Resurrection by El Greco

The Resurrection by El Greco

The apostles, still sunk in their grief and in the guilt of their betrayal, dismiss her message as nonsense. Not even the testimony of the other women is enough to break through their hardened and bitter hearts. But something stirs in Peter and in the beloved disciple. He jumps up and runs towards the tomb with his eyes still throbbing from the tears that followed his denial. The rock was not broken by the sea of tears, it only found its strength again. The beloved disciple follows behind. With nimble feet he passes Peter and arrives there first. Everything is as the women had described. In deference to Peter he does not enter but waits. Undying hope was burning in the breast of that most pure of all the apostles! Not in vain had he rested his head on the heart of Our Lord! Soon thereafter Peter would come tumbling along, like a boulder rolling down a hill, and see the stone that had blocked the entrance to the tomb. What a sight it must have been to see the two rocks, one in front of the other. The one standing for Christ’s Church and the one rolled aside for the power of death. “And the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Mt. 16:18) Peter entered the tomb and John behind him, and they gazed into the darkness, into the unfathomable depths of the mystery that is beyond human understanding and which human words cannot convey. It was in gazing into it that they finally understood. They saw and they believed.

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