Emptied Graves

Saint James Fordham • Easter Day • Tobias Haller BSG
Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.+

Easter Day dawns for us as a great day of rejoicing. We wake up and get dressed in our Sunday best, some of it new and some of it old, but all of it special. We get ready for church knowing the liturgy will have some wonderful music, that the Easter lilies and hyacinths will be decorating the church, and that the festival day will truly be well-hailed. It is a holiday of holidays, a wonderful day whatever the weather is like, though planned always to come at the beginning of spring.

But it wasn’t like that the first Easter Day. When Mary Magdalene made her slow and weary way to the tomb that morning, she wasn’t wearing her Sunday best. She probably hadn’t changed her clothes from the night before. She wasn’t heading to a festival celebration, but to a lonely and solitary funeral, to weep by the tomb, as Mary and Martha of Bethany had wept by the tomb of their brother Lazarus, as people have been weeping at tombs and grave-sides for tens of thousands of years. Since prehistoric times people have buried their dead with flowers and tears and ceremony, and marked the spot with everything from a simple pile of stones to the great pyramids.

There is something consoling about visiting a grave. I remember those trips to the cemetery from my childhood. Usually on a Sunday afternoon, we’d pile in the car and head out to the cemetery, flowers in hand, to visit the graves of grandparents and uncles and aunts, great aunts and great uncles, most of whom I’d never known — their names familiar from being heard spoken of, names I shared with some of them, a last name or a Christian name, but names to which I could attach no face other than the ones in the photo album, names familiar and yet distant, carved in stone or on a brass plaque, but not known by me in living flesh and blood.

But for those who had know them, to be able to stand for a moment in those spots, and to remember, and to mourn — this is consolation, a momentary sense of connection with the one who has died.

So imagine for a moment the desolation that pierced the heart of Mary Magdalene, and later of Simon Peter and the beloved disciple as they saw the empty tomb. They knew the body ought to have been there — they saw the body of their Lord laid in the tomb themselves. And yet now, it was — gone! What a horrible thing to greet them; what cruelty to rob them even of the chance to offer a final farewell to their beloved Lord. Who could possibly have done such a terrible thing, as to steal a body from its tomb!

The wonderful Tiffany window at the north side of the church, entitled “The Easter Morn” sums it all up. It has always amazed me how daring Mr Tiffany’s design of the weeping Magdalen is, how he risked piling up the glass and pigment to be so dark and thick that even when the window is lit by the full rays of the sun, the figure of Mary Magdalen in desolation at the tomb is still be too dark to make out completely, more of a sculpture than a window.

That is the desolation that Mary felt, there at the empty tomb. For Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple the empty tomb was not good news — it was just an empty tomb, a second loss of their beloved Lord, lost from life, and now lost from death.

You see, they had yet to realize the truth of the resurrection. All they could realize at this point was the shock and horror of a desecration, the aftermath of a stolen body, an insult added to an injury. Novelist Iris Murdoch described this feeling with a wonderfully painful phrase, “a blow upon a bruise.” Instead of a place in which to mourn and remember, they were left with an overturned stone, an empty hole, a few scraps of linen cloth, and a sense of desolation that robbed them even of the small comfort that mourning brings. Who could do such a thing?

It was almost beyond belief: and the disciples didn’t believe Mary when she first brought them the terrible news, news not of resurrection, but of grave-robbery. Only when the disciples saw for themselves did they believe Mary’s story — not that he had been raised from the dead, but only that his body was gone, stolen from the tomb — for at this point, as John tells us, they still did not “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” All they knew was that someone had stolen the body of their beloved friend.

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What is that emptiness like? With a heart and stomach as empty as the tomb, what does it feel like to have even this small comfort taken away? On how many windswept coasts throughout the world are there monuments to sailors lost at sea, empty tombs that mark the absence of a loved one? How many war memorials stand in our cities and squares to commemorate soldiers dead and buried half-way around the world, in graves their families may never see? How many young faces peer out of pictures on the sides of milk cartons and billboards, lost and missing children whose absence is felt like a wound that will not heal, like a continued battering against a heart already numb with grief. How many dear ones’ bodies are there never to be recovered from the tragedy of 9-11, how many vaporized in an instant by the flames of hatred, crushed to dust beneath the weight of malice? How many who are now simply as if they never were, only photographs remaining, last voicemail messages retained for those left behind to hear, and remember, and weep; but with no place to go to other than a memorial or a monument, unable even to say for sure, “Here my beloved one rests”?

The angels ask Mary Magdalen, “Why are you weeping?” And Mary thinks, Don’t they know? How can they be so cruel? How can they mock my grief? “They have taken his body!” Jesus asks her the same question, and Mary’s eyes are so filled with tears, tears of grief and anger and desperation, that she cannot even see who it is that asks the question. Her only hope is that perhaps he knows something — perhaps it is all a mistake and this stranger may even be the one responsible.

But finally, he says her name, Mary! And with that one word, all her grief, all the wounding of the cross, all the desolation and anguish of the empty tomb, is wiped away. The empty spot where her heart had been is suddenly filled with a joy so great she cannot contain herself, and she reaches out to him — he who is her Teacher and ours, her Lord and our Lord, the true and only and living Son of her Father and our Father, of her God and our God.

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The same joy awaits us, that same Easter joy of which our celebration today is only a rehearsal for the real thing that awaits us at the end of time. On that great day we shall each be called by name, and see through our tears our Risen Lord holding out his wounded hands to us. And with him we will find all who have gone before, all the grandparents and uncles and aunts, and fathers and mothers, and all the sailors lost at sea and the soldiers buried far from home, and the comfortless widows now comforted, and the children lost and slain in innocence, and those killed by the flames of hate, and those crushed by the weight of malice, and the spirits of the righteous made perfect.

This, my beloved sisters and brothers in Christ — in the Risen Christ — is what we are called to set our minds upon this Easter Day. Not on the things of earth, the empty tombs and comfortless griefs, the unhealed wounds and inconsolable hearts, the continued strife, the unending battles — but upon the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, where we are hidden with him, and in him, until that great day comes, when Christ who is our life will be revealed, and we also will be revealed with him in glory. For the earth will give up its dead, and the sea its dead, and the graves will be opened — all of them emptied at last! And we shall be raised, incorruptible, to see the Lord in his glory and to live with him for ever and ever. Alleluia, the Lord is risen, The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.+