The Empty Tomb(s)

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When we think about the Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ on that first Day of the Lord, we should not romanticize about the tomb of Christ.  These Holy Women Disciples of the Lord are not on their way to see if Jesus has risen – the resurrection is far from their minds because it formed no part of their experience of life.  They are on their way to pour funeral oils on a decomposing corpse.  Tombs for them were a bottomless pit into which the dead were placed never to be seen or heard from again.  Tombs were nothing but the entrance way into Hades, Sheol, that place of the dead.

Their Scriptures had taught them that death, the grave and Sheol all have an insatiable appetite – consuming every human being and always hungry to swallow more (See Numbers 16:30-33; Job 7:9; Psalm 89:48; Proverbs 27:20, 30:15-16; Isaiah 5:14; Habakkuk 2:5).  Hades was a prison from which there was no escape. It was a gulag from which no one returned alive.  The tombs were the all consuming mouth which was the entrance to the belly of Sheol.  It was a mouth always open, always ready to devour more people.  Sheol is never full, nor even half full for it is an endless abyss into which humanity falls.

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And it was into this gaping mouth that the body of the Lord was placed.  One more victim swallowed up by death’s insatiable appetite.

The tombs were a symbol of God’s creation gone awry.  They reminded everyone that there were forces at work in the world over which they had no control.   The tombs reminded everyone that wealth and beauty are fleeting – they last only a short while, and you can’t take it with you.  The women going to the tomb of Christ knew how fragile life is for they already had many friends and family members in the tombs, in the bottomless pit of the belly of Sheol.

Jesus himself had said:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”   (Matthew 23:27)

27115684791_feab1caf2b_nYou could decorate the tombs and make them look quite beautiful, but they still contained rotting flesh and the bones which are all that remain of the dead.

So we remember the Holy Myrrhbearing Women, those saints of our church who were the first to hear of the resurrection, but who on that first day of the week 2000 years ago were in fact looking for Jesus, but thinking He was nothing but a corpse.

And we can think about our life in the Church today.  We too can make beautiful church buildings which are nothing more than the white washed tombs which Jesus criticized.  I remember years ago going to the main cathedral of a European city on Easter Sunday and though Easter mass was going on, the building was eerily vacant as few people were attending – the empty tomb had taken on a new meaning.

We have to make our churches full of God’s grace by becoming a living temple (1 Peter 2:5) because we each are alive in Christ.  Then people will not come to the church looking for the corpse of Christ, but to receive His resurrected Body.  There may be people out there like the Myrrhbearing women who are searching for something, but don’t even realize what they could find in the Church.  If we are the tomb of Christ – we need to become that tomb from which life will flow from us, and  in which all who die and are buried with Christ in baptism will also be raised with Him to eternal life.  We have to be true witnesses to Christ and live for the Kingdom of God, not for this world, live as if we actually believed in the life of the world to come.

The Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ tell us to consider what we are as church – the empty tomb of the dead? a museum of antiquities?   A way to the past?     OR, the place where we hear the angels sing, “Christ is risen!”  The place where we encounter the Risen Lord, the place where we enter into eternal life.  God lives not in buildings, but in our hearts and in our midst.  If there is life in our churches, then we should be flocking to them ourselves to be nurtured and nourished in the way of life everlasting.  We should be there for prayer, worship, fellowship, bible study, peace making, charity and to do the ministry Christ needs us to do.  We should be living the Beatitudes, a light to the world.

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And those same women also remind us that not only our church buildings, but our hearts within us can also be either the empty tomb, void of life, or the place where the Risen Christ abides, reigning in our hearts and through us giving life to the world.  Our souls, our hearts and minds are also to be beautiful temples for the Lord – the place where the Holy Spirit can dwell on earth to bring forth the fruit of paradise.

The Myrrhbearing Women tell us to look for Christ – we should know Him in our hearts and in our parish congregations.  He should be present with us, so that anyone else can see Him in us.

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The Resurrection in Our Life

“How the facts of Christ’s life perplex us! Never are they exactly what we are expecting. And yet they go even further and are more positive than we were expecting. Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, but Jesus is He whom no sepulchre can contain or restrain.

The women bring aromatic spices to the tomb; now it is a God already risen whom they plan to anoint. A woman breaks a jar of perfume on the Lord’s living body, in order to give Him glory; now Jesus says that it is with a view to His burial that she performed this act. The cross seems to destroy hope, but the resurrection destroys despair.

The divine acts, which ruin our plans, go beyond either hope or despair. Thus it is with each of Jesus’ interventions in our personal life. Every one of them makes something explode, but also makes flight possible. Jesus won’t fit into any of our plans. His presence, His word, break every bound.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus, a Dialogue with the Savior, pp. 19-20)

Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.

Humans Were Created for Christ

St Nicholas Cabasilas  says that we humans were created by God with our unique set of characteristics precisely that we might know Christ. Adam was created with Christ already “in mind”  –  God didn’t send Christ into the world in response to a broken Adam, rather God created Adam in Christ’s image so that Christ could become incarnate as a human.   The human was designed to be capable of bearing God.   God knew where He was going with these creatures created in God’s image – with mind, desire, reason and memory.  God the Trinity was planning for the incarnation of God the Son from before the humans were ever first created.  Adam was not the model for Christ, but rather Christ was the Archetype which made the particular human characteristics necessary so that God could be incarnate as a human.  God knew what was needed in a creature for the incarnation to take place, and God created us accordingly to prepare us and the world for the incarnation.

“It was for the new man that human nature was created at the beginning, and for him mind and desire were prepared. Our reason we have received in order that we may know Christ, our desire in order that we might hasten to Him. We have memory in order that we may carry Him in us, since He Himself is the Archetype for those who are created. It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old, even though it is said that the new Adam was generated according to the likeness of the old (Rom 8:3) because of the corruption which the old Adam initiated.

The latter Adam inherited it in order that He might abolish the infirmity of our nature by means of the remedies which He brings and, as Paul says, so ‘that which is mortal might be swallowed up by life‘ (2 Cor. 5:4).”   (The Life in Christ, p 190)

The Risen Christ: A Drop of the Ocean

Christ is risen, chosen people! The earth cannot harm Him, nor can the tomb restrain Him. Let your souls arise, you who are filled with the grace of Christ! Let the image of God within you shine, cleansed of earth and saved from mortal decay! Rejoice and be glad, for your Messiah, the One and Only, has conquered death, that terror of all those born on earth!

The miraculous resurrection of Christ the Lord from the tomb was completely in accord with His miraculous appearance in the world. It corresponded to His extraordinary birth from the most pure Virgin, His almighty works on earth, His heavenly wisdom and mercy, His superhuman patience and dignity in suffering injustice and torture, and His divine forgiveness of His executioners from the cross. Everything is in accord. Everything resembles and corresponds to each other. Just as you can know the nature of a whole sea from one drop of sea water, you can know the entire character of Christ from one incident of His life. His entire character represents one continuous miracle, organically consisting of innumerable miracles. He is your all-powerful Messiah, O Christ-bearers, who blessed you from the cross, from the tomb, and out of the tomb.

(St  Nikolai Velimirovich, The Faith of the Chosen People, pp.45-46)

Resurrection Not Mere Immortality

St. Paul, furthermore, is not concerned with the specifically Greek dichotomy between the soul and the body.  Faithful to the realism of Jewish thought, he always thinks of man as a whole: for him, the body does not imply so much the materiality of human life as opposed to its spirituality, as it does the organic unity of that life, indissolubly material and spiritual.

This is why eternal life, salvation made perfect, is for him in no way a deliverance from the body, but the resurrection of the body.  Is not man’s body called to become a member of Christ, a temple of the Spirit?”

(Louis Bouyer, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers, p. 79)

The Light in the Tunnel

The Lenten Sunday Gospel lessons from St. Mark (Mark 2:1-12, 8:34-9:1, 9:17-31, 10:32-45) help shape our understanding of what it is to be a disciple of Christ.  But also experience them as moving through an ever narrowing tunnel.

Each week of Great Lent, our way of life, our beliefs and perspectives are challenged by our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can properly understand how to follow Him.  Discipleship and discipline are completely interrelated.  Asceticism (i.e., self-denial, self-renunciation, self-control, self-emptying) is the necessary activity of the disciple.  If we are ever going to do the will of the Master, we have to know how to say no to our self, no to our self will.  Each week of Great Lent we are drawn deeper into that ever narrowing tunnel of self-denial.  And as Mark has it, that tunnel gets darker as we go deeper into it.  It gets darker because “the world” as Mark portrays it increasingly rejects Christ and pushes Him toward the crucifixion.  It gets darker because slowly even his family and followers and then even His disciples  abandon Him, betray Him, deny Him and flee from Him.

But also and always, there is a speck of light at the end of the tunnel – and there is an end to the tunnel!  We are drawn toward the Light, who is Christ.  Throughout Lent, we like the catechumens of ancient times continue to move toward Christ.  In fact this is our entire spiritual life even when not in Lent.  But to get to the Light, as we realize liturgically in the Church, we must pass through this painful and most narrow passage – the Gospel.  We end up on our hands and knees in the tomb of Christ.

There is no other way for us on this spiritual sojourn if we are to follow Christ because this is the way He walked, and then was carried.  We all must pass through that narrow and dark passage of the tomb of Christ.  We liturgically and literally in our parish pass into the narrowness of the entrance into the Tomb of Christ.  All of Great Lent and all of Holy Week lead to the darkness of the night – Christ asleep in the tomb, Christ in Hades.   We hope that God will arise and judge the earth.

Then in the middle of the night, in the midst of the darkness, the Light appears, the unfading, everlasting and gladsome Light which overcomes the night.  Christ the Light, risen from the Dead!  We have passed through the cross, through the tomb, through death, through Hades, into the never ending light of God’s Kingdom.  And the tombs which stink of death suddenly become the fount of life, the source of the resurrection, the font of baptism, the means of new birth, of regeneration, of access to God, to the Kingdom, to eternal life.

The tomb of Christ, his death and his burial, all become for every one of us passage into new life.  We enter through this narrow passage way in our own baptism, where we die with Christ and are buried with Him, and then are raised with Him to a new and unending life.  And each Pascha we are reminded of this journey, of our spiritual sojourn through the darkness of this world, through the cross and tomb into the joyful light of God’s Kingdom.  Our walk into the darkness of midnight is a reminder that we are but sojourners on earth, passing through on our way to the Kingdom of God.  And the night does pass away, and the darkness fades before the Light of Pascha and the New Day, the 8th Day, the Lord’s Day.  So too this world and our life on this earth will also pass away, and only that which God establishes will continue on forever.  So we live not for this world but in this world.  We live for the Kingdom of God which stands forever and which is not overcome by the darkness.

We are not blind to the fact that the world in which we live has not changed.  Life seems to go on as if there is no God and no resurrection.  The world is still awash in violence, disease, warfare, sin, lust, greed, disbelief and death.

It is we who believe who have been changed – for we now have light and hope and joy, despite whatever darkness there is in the world.  We by our faith are to be a light to the world.  We don’t shrink before the darkness and its threats, but rather we shine with the Light of Christ rather than curse the darkness.

Let us arise at the rising of the sun and bring to the Master a hymn instead of myrrh, and we shall see Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who causes life to dawn for all.

Opening Our Eyes to See Christ

Excerpts from Luke 24:13-35 (emphases not in the original text):

4446232309_8850e4887f_nThat very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  . . .   

[One can only wonder why they couldn’t recognize Jesus if they had in fact spent the past 3 years as His disciples, following Him around daily, it would seem they should be able to recognize Him.  Some might think that perhaps God had blinded them for some reason . . . but I would purpose it differently and say that what Luke presents to us is that they cannot see Him with their physical eyes because they are in the presence of the incarnate and resurrected God.  No one sees God with their physical eyes – even in the Liturgy we say God is ineffable, inconceivable and invisible.  God isn’t blinding them but they cannot see what is invisible and ineffable!   Our physical eyes are incapable of seeing God.   They are not recognizing God, that is their problem.  There is nothing wrong with their eyes or their optics, but they need to see with their heart if they are going to see God in Christ.]

Moreover, some women … were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”   

[The empty tomb, the message of the angels, the testimony of the myrrhbearing women, none of these things convince the disciples.  There is evidence which they can see but it still does not help their understanding.  The eyes are not the problem – but using eyes alone is the problem for they need to see with the eyes of their heart.]

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

[Their eyes are closed from recognizing Jesus, and their hearts/minds are also closed to the meaning of the Scriptures!  Jesus opens their eyes and their hearts (or the eyes of their hearts) so that they can see/read/understand the Scriptures and with the eyes of their heart see Christ.  Their physical eyes are of minimal value – God after all is invisible and the words of the scriptural text must be properly interpreted for their meaning to be comprehended.]

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

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[What happens to these two disciples of Christ brings to mind what happens in Numbers 24 with the Prophet Balaam when he proclaims:

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered…”   (Numbers 24:3-4)

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down, but having his eyes uncovered: I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not nigh: a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth.   (Numbers 24:15-17)

[Like Balaam, the disciples needed to have faith – to have the ability to see with the eyes of their hearts.   Their eyes have to be “uncovered” – the veil has to be lifted, but this is an issue of faith not optics.   What happens to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is that they too have their eyes uncovered and they see the vision of the Almighty – they see Jesus as God, and in that instant he vanishes from their eyes, because He can only be apprehended with their hearts.]

But their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.  (2 Corinthians 3:14-18)

[To lift the veil, to have one’s eyes uncovered, one needs to purify one’s heart as we sing in the Paschal hymn:

Let us purify our senses and we shall see Christ, shining in the unapproachable light of the Resurrection, and  we shall clearly hear Him say, “Rejoice!” As we sing the song of victory!

We can read the Gospel lesson of the doubting Thomas (John 20:19-31) with these same “eyes”. ]

10181883175_d8d0e73f7fThen, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

[The disciples see the wounds on Jesus, but they see the Lord.  They have moved beyond physical optics and now see Christ with the eyes of their hearts for this is the only way to see God.]

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

[To me it is not completely clear what Thomas refuses to believe – does He not believe the Lord is risen or is he only saying that he doesn’t believe his brother disciples?  He wants to see for himself or he cannot believe their report.  Perhaps the issue is he cannot understand why would Jesus appear to the other 10 disciples at a moment when he (Thomas) was not with them?  Was Christ singling him out for some reason?]

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

[Thomas’ reaction goes far beyond what his eyes can see – he claims to be seeing God.  He too now sees with the eyes of his heart – he has come to faith in Christ.  He doesn’t see ‘Jesus alone’, rather He sees Jesus as one of the Trinity.]

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.

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What is written in the Gospel is not so that we might “see Jesus” but that we might believe Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, the incarnate God.  The entire Gospel is aimed at our hearts, so that we might see God.

On Death and Resurrection in Christ

“Yesterday I was crucified with Him; today I am glorified with Him.

Yesterday I died with Him; today I am made alive with Him.

Yesterday I was buried with Him; today I am raised up with Him.

Let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us … ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us.

Let us become Divine for His sake, since for us He became Man.

He assumed the worse that He might give us the better.

He became poor that by His poverty we might become rich.

He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom.

He came down that we might be lifted up.

He was tempted that through Him we might conquer.

He was dishonored that He might glorify us.

He died that He might save us.

He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were thrown down through the fall of sin.

Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us.

We needed an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live.

We were put to death together with Him that we might be cleansed.

We rose again with Him because we were put to death with Him.

We were glorified with Him because we rose again with Him.

A few drops of Blood recreate the whole of creation!

(St. Gregory the Theologian, Easter Orations, from The Orthodox Faith Doctrine & Scriptures Vol. 1 by Fr. Thomas Hopko)