The mystery of the empty tomb

The mystery of the empty tomb (published in Italian, Osservatore Romano May 3 2017)

Speaking of Christ’s resurrection, we immediately think of the empty tomb. This is a negative fact that cannot provide a foundation of the Christian faith, as a negative perception of nothingness cannot sustain existence. Historically, the stories of the empty tomb seem to have been formulated later than those of Christ’ apparitions. However, the empty tomb is a fundamental starting point, without which the saving experience of Christ’s apparitions would not have been possible. Without death – and the burial ground to which death leads – there can be no resurrection.

What is the meaning of the empty tomb on Easter Day? The women who entered the sepulcher were afraid. Was it fear of a corpse that had disappeared or of the fact that Jesus’ living body was no longer there?  Was it fear of the void that this left behind ? Every Christian experiences the same void on Holy Saturday, when all altars in churches are veiled. The life of the body of Christ, which is the Church, stops and, for a day, it seems dead. Every man experiences the same emptiness before the death of a dear one, when the heart stops to beat.

The women came out of the tomb to tell the apostles that they had no longer found the Lord, partaking their anguish. The first of the apostles to enter the sepulcher was the same who forsook and abandoned Jesus to his executioners. Entering the sepulcher, this apostle did not find the one Jesus whom he had loved and followed. The living Jesus was no longer there and it was no longer possible to ask for forgiveness and understanding. There was no remedy to the guilt and remorse of having abandoned him. It is only afterwards, with the experience of a still-living Jesus, stronger than death, that the apostle would receive forgiveness from his master, who brought to him new strength and life, sending him out into the world.

According to the detractors of the Christian faith, there was a corpse in that tomb on Easter morning, or it had been stolen. Benedict XVI says in his book on Jesus that the presence of his corpse at the opening of the tomb would have not been compatible with the faith in his resurrection. This would be true now as then, if the Gospels’ accounts are a literal description of what happened that day. But one has to wonder whether what mattered was the absence of Jesus’ corpse or rather the void that his death left behind. At the same time, one must say clearly, and not just whisper between professional theologians, that the opening of the grave with the missing corpse is not necessarily a material account of the facts that happened as we understand them now. It should be stressed that the Christian faith and hope in Christ’s resurrection do no depend or start with an empty tomb, but with the abyss of his death. The angel asks the women who entered the sepulcher: “What are you looking for? The living Jesus you are looking for is no longer here. ” With every man who dies, all that remains is a clump of cells and organic material, but his person is no longer there, it is ‘gone’.

Instead of Jesus, women found an angel and were scared of this. It was pointed out before that there are no angels in the parts of the Gospels that are most commonly called historical, which corresponds to Jesus’ public life. The angels, however, play an important role at the beginning and the end of the Gospels, and their presence is meant to express the more “metaphysical” dimension of the Christian experience. It would be important to have this clear in mind, to announce with greater strength and conviction the Christian faith to the so many people who think that it is just an irrational belief of bygone times, a self-illusion or a superstition.

The true mystery of the Christian faith does not reside in the disappearance of Jesus’ body thanks to some undefined sublimation or evaporation, but it is to be found in the historical and at the same time “metaphysical” certainty of his resurrection. By saying that, one does not want to eliminate the material “bodily” aspect of the mystery and reduce it to something only spiritual or personal. On the contrary. As well known by those involved in scientific research, be it on elementary particles or complex biological systems, “physics” always “goes beyond” itself, it is always “metaphysics.” Physics and metaphysics are both integral parts of the reality in which we are immersed as persons. The mystery of the empty tomb – as a negative experience that has opened the door to the positive and overwhelming experience of the apparitions – is thus amenable to the mystery of the human person and its inseparable unity of flesh and spirit, projected forward in time and space.

Abyssus invocat abyssum, as Henry de Lubac wrote. It is the abyss of our own very particular person who emerges from and goes back into the abyss of the encompassing universe. It is the mystery of the human person, of who we are, made of bones and muscles that move in space and time, and of intellect and spirit that vibrate in unison with the outside reality. It is the mystery of what remains of the human person when the heart ceases to beat and all movements stop. With death, does the human person dissolve into nothingness, or is it possible for it, somehow, to last “forever“? Is it possible for this “center” of will and love, not only to remain, but to transform reality in a new dimension, beyond time and space? Is it possible that even those who have died can still, through their love, live and forgive?

There is an upside-down logic in the Christian faith relative to the way that it is typically presented, which goes back to a fundamental document, the 15th chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians. If Jesus is not risen, says St. Paul, those who believe in him would have no sense and be the most unfortunate of men. But one also reads, in the same text, that if men do not resuscitate (or have the possibility to resuscitate), even Christ has not risen. If the resurrection is something unique or highly unlikely, beyond human possibilities, then one might as well forget about it. The mystery of Jesus’ divinity does not annul humanity, but “raises” it, as he can raise those who follow him. As Jesus after descending into the tomb did not stay there but came back to life, so we can do the same, following in his steps.

The man Jesus really lived during the time of Caesar Augustus, died, and was buried. It is historically proven what happened to the disciples after his death. After a period of discouragement and fear, this small group of people radically changed their way of life. They had seen the Risen One, ate and drank with him and followed his call to go outside. The desolating experience of his death led to the blinding mystery of his resurrection.

Xavier Leon-Dufour wrote, in his beautiful book on Jesus, that the existence of a human person does not end with his/her death, but continues with the response that it causes in others. One can propose an analogy between the human person and a musical symphony. Even when the instruments cease to play, the vibrations of the sound continue to propagate in the air. With Jesus Christ it can be said, and it is historically indisputable, that the notes of his symphony were never extinguished and continue to propagate today, finding “mysteriously” ever new energy with every person that listens to them and is moved by them.

Here are key notes of Jesus’ symphony, words that vibrate now like then: “eat my body, drink my blood and live forever“. This is the mysterious invitation that he addressed to the disciples before dying. In offering his own body and blood, Jesus, foresaw his death but went beyond, opening the door to the new life to which everyone can participate.