It’s all because it’s empty.
What cathedral, basilica or church hosts an empty tomb? Many cathedrals and basilicas host occupied tombs, but only one, the Church of the Resurrection as it is known in the West and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as it is known in the East, hosts an empty tomb.
In Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, it is the hottest ticket in town. Pilgrims, having made the journey on the pavement that bears the marks of centuries of footsteps, camp out on Good Friday night to ensure a place inside the great cathedral the next day. This is the place reflected in our Stations of the Cross, although in Jerusalem they are not simply symbols on the wall of a church but the living, breathing place on which the stations are patterned.
When the massive doors are unlocked, the pilgrims enter. First, they head up a narrow set of stairs to a place of candles and incense, where they kneel at the foot of a life-sized crucifix. They place their hands through a spot on the floor to touch the rock that many believe to be the exact place of the crucifixion. The next-to-final stop on their stations journey takes them to a slab – marble, I think – that is slightly elevated from the floor. Here, the faithful recall the preparation of the body of Jesus for burial. I have seldom experienced a site of such devotion. People kneel and pray, then wipe a piece of cloth with oil onto the slab to take back home for use in healing.
Then, just a few meters further is a richly decorated chapel, into whose entrance one is forced to bend in order to kneel at Jesus’s burial site.
For hours on Holy Saturday, the faithful file into the massive church, cram into every nook and cranny, and wait expectantly for the Holy Fire. The chanting and singing builds and echoes off the wall: “Come, Lord Jesus, Come, Lord Jesus, Come, Lord Jesus.” The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, as he has done for some 1,700 years, processes in and is physically searched by police to ensure he is carrying nothing into the Empty Tomb. He enters, and then the miracle happens. No one seems to know how, but from inside the tomb a small flame mysteriously, miraculously appears. The Holy Fire is then taken from the Empty Tomb and shared with pilgrims, who are holding tapers and are now whipped into a total frenzy. The light of Christ spreads through the crowd. An awaiting car takes the original fire to the airport, where it is flown to Greece.
Quite an event and one which may fill us with skepticism.
Fr. Richard Simon of Skokie, Illinois, writes, “That sort of thing seems a bit much to swallow. After all, we are living in scientific times and know that such displays of the supernatural are nonsense. (It is interesting that the comment ‘Nonsense!’ – leiros – does appear once in the New Testament. It is the reaction of the disciples to the women’s tale of the resurrection on Easter Sunday morning.)”
Fr. Simon continues: “All moderately well-educated moderns know that the Holy Fire must be a fraud. The interesting thing is that if it is a fraud, it goes back at least 1,625 years.”
So what is your response? I don’t mean to the story of the Holy Fire, although I would be interested in what you think about it – but to Easter? To the resurrection? To the Empty Tomb? Are you excited by Easter? Is there fresh strength for you in the Easter Gospel? For what do you wait expectantly? How does the light shine in you? What is your response to Easter as a follower and disciple of Jesus Christ? What do you make of the resurrection?
I came across a piece by Archbishop Rowan Williams in a book titled Tokens of Trust; An introduction to Christian belief (pages 91-92):
“The resurrection is in part about the sheer toughness and persistence of God’s love. When we have done our worst, God remains God – and remains committed to being our God. God was God even while God in human flesh was dying in anguish on the cross; God is God now in the new life of Jesus raised from death. But what is interesting about the stories of resurrection as we read them in the Bible is that they are not a series of general statements as to how the love of God is more powerful than evil or sin. They say that just as people met God’s absolute love in the face and presence, the physical presence, of Jesus of Nazareth, so they still do. They hear the call of God and encounter the mercy of God in the same face and form of Jesus – who, in the resurrection stories, does what he always did, calling the disciples to him, breaking bread with them, teaching them what the scriptures say. The resurrection displays God’s triumphant love as still and forever having the shape of Jesus. And this is why it won’t do to reduce the resurrection to something that was going on inside the heads of the disciples. If we go down that road, we lose sight of the conviction that seems so basic in the Bible, that the disciples meet a risen Jesus who is still doing what he always did, making God present in his actual presence, his voice and touch. I don’t see how we can say all that without taking seriously what the New Testament says about the tomb being empty on Easter Day.”
I have visited the Empty Tomb on a number of occasions and been profoundly moved each time by the holiness of the place. It is there that that the “two men in dazzling clothes” question, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” and can be answered with faith that Jesus is not confined in a tomb, not shackeld by death. He is here among us now. He has taken our guilt and buried it in the tomb and offered us new life. He has risen to remove our guilt, to heal our wounds and to whisper, no shout, “Pilgrim, I adore you!” He is present in the waters of baptism, in the bread and wine given and received, and in the still, small voice. Pilgrim, I adore you! You are amazing! You are profoundly and forever loved! He is risen! We are his body!
It’s all because it’s empty.