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)

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.

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)

St. Thomas: Keeping in Touch with Christ

We find the same line of thought in Thomas’ having to touch the risen Christ before he can believe (chap. 20.27). Indeed Jesus says to him afterwards: ‘Because thou hast seen me and thou hast believed; blessed are they which have not seen and yet have believed.’ In these words here at the end of the gospel reference is made, as has already been said, to those who no longer have the opportunity of seeing, and the readers of the Gospel are in this situation. These are then addressed directly two verses later and indeed specifically with reference to their faith: that ye might believe. The Thomas story, therefore, holds, as it were, the key to the Johannine understanding of the whole life of Jesus. But Thomas the apostle himself must see, he must touch. The last words of the risen Christ are not necessarily words of reprimand only, since the other apostles too, mentioned in v. 5.19 ff, had to see Jesus’ hands and side. Besides, Thomas did in fact attain to true faith, he makes the best confession of faith the fourth evangelist knows: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (v. 28).

Here too, however, seeing alone is not sufficient to enable one to come to this faith. The eyewitnesses had to see, but for them also something else had to be added to the seeing.

The Thomas story, chapter 20.24ff may again be mentioned here. Although, as we have asserted, the actual seeing appears there as a necessity for the apostle living in the lifetime of Jesus, the other idea plays an equally important part, the idea that believing, which must be added to seeing, is more important than seeing. That seeing in the flesh alone is in itself of little account is also expressed in the words in chapter 9.39: ‘For judgement I am come into the world, that they which see not might see, and they which see might be made blind.’ To see is here used in its double sense.

(Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship, p. 42-43, 45)

Resurrection to Glory

Bright Thursday

The author of 1 Enoch, for instance, speaks of a future resurrection of the spirits of the righteous. Others believed in a resurrection of the untransfigured body, and still others looked forward to the transformation of the body. They all moved beyond the Old Testament view of a shadowy existence in Sheol, which cannot be described as “life,” and expected much more after death than the teaching about Sheol would allow.

Physical death was not considered by all of them to be an important factor in their concept of resurrection. According to the Wisdom of Solomon, which was written probably by a Hellenistic Jew in the first century B.C., the souls of the righteous do not really die–they are in the hand of God, and only in the “eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died” (3:1-2). The death of the righteous is conceived as of their ascent to the presence of God, who “tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tired them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them” (3:5-6). The unrighteous, the ungodly, go to their punishment.

There is a variety of views among the ancient rabbis with regard to the final destiny of human beings. Their teachings on this subject cannot be reduced to one unified, common teaching. Nevertheless, all their views differed significantly from what the apostles saw and experienced after the resurrection of Jesus. As Joachim Jeremias writes: “Nowhere in Jewish literature do we find a resurrection to glory as an event of history. Rather resurrection to glory–always and without exception means the dawn of God’s creation. Therefore the disciples must have experienced the appearances of the Risen Lord as an eschatological event, as a drawing of a turning point of the world.”

(Veselin Kesich, The First Day of the New Creation, pp. 34-35)

Christ Died that We Would Live

Bright Wednesday

But [the Lord] in his turn vanquished death through his great cry when he had gone up on the cross. Whereas death was binding one person on the cross, all those who had been bound in Sheol were being delivered because of the chains of one person…his hands, which delivered us from the bonds of death, were transfixed by nails, his hands which broke our chains and tied those which were binding us.

It was an amazing thing that the dead were killing the living one, [whereas] the slain one was raising the dead to life. The directed their fury more intensely towards heaven, whereas he humbled his greatness even further down into the depths…

[Death] stole him, took him away and put him in the tomb while he was asleep, but, on awaking and standing up, he stole his stealer. This is the cross which crucifies those who crucified [the Lord], and this is the captive who leads into captivity those who had led him into captivity. The cross, through your death, has become a fountain of life for our mortal life…death used his body to takest and devour the life hidden in mortal bodies What it had hastened to gulp down while famished it was forced to restore very quickly…he commanded the stones and they were split in two. [He commanded] death and it did not prevent the just from going forth at his voice. He trained the lower regions to his voice to prepare them for hearing it on the last day, when this voice will empty [the lower regions].  

(Ephrem the Syrian, from Hilarion Alfeyev’s Christ the Conqueror of Hell, p. 71)