empty tombs, pt. 1

I’ve recently begun to reread the various gospel accounts of the resurrection, which just so happens to be around the time of Easter. Despite the familiarity of this story and all the cringeworthy “Christianese” cliches, often overdone Easter bunny and Easter egg decorations, and sometimes cheesy church services that accompany it, there has suddenly entered into it a new dimension of reality – divine and practical. In the past, I’ve failed to see how much the narrative and characters of the resurrection relate to our human condition.

(Mikhail Nesterov, The Empty Tomb, 1889)

John 20: empty tombs

“[John] saw and believed…” 

…when he saw the empty tomb, and Jesus was absent. Thomas said, “I will not believe…” when he was told of Jesus’ appearance, but did not see for himself. For one man, Jesus’ absence caused him to believe; for another, his absence at Jesus’ appearance caused him to not believe.

“Unless I see His hands and the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

Many of us are as Thomas: “Unless I see, I will not believe.” Few of us are as John the disciple, who recognized the implications and outcomes of such a sign – of Jesus’ presence without actually seeing him – in this case, an empty tomb.

Thomas had the witness of eleven disciples, eagerly describing the visitation of Christ, their rabbi and friend. Maybe he was hesitant to believe something seemingly “too good to be true.” Maybe he was jealous or disappointed that he was not present when Jesus appeared. He couldn’t be blamed for any of these naturally human reactions if any be true. Thomas was ultimately a believer, for when Jesus (re)appeared, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

If we have no such clear visitation or “burning bush,” are we content, as John, to recognize the promise of Jesus’ presence and nearness in his small yet clear and powerful manifestations all around us? The truth was, the tomb was empty. Instead of defaulting to doubt, unbelief, second-guessing, confusion, discouragement, fear, and anxiety, John simply believed. He had seen something that embodied a grand, impossible hope – that death had not the final word, but new life had brought about an eternal beginning. That empty tomb was the fulfillment of his vague hope, and a timeless promise.

Will we recognize our “empty tombs,” in which God is responding to our hopes, declaring his presence and nearness, and fulfilling ancient promises?

“Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” This was for those who had believed in his resurrection before his appearances. For those whose heart’s had been convinced by an empty tomb.

“But Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping…” 

And even to another who didn’t initially believe, Jesus appeared. It was to her he first revealed himself after his resurrection. She was weeping, not with tears of joy, but of sorrow, for she believed the body of her Rabbi, her friend, had been taken. Even to the unbelieving and defeated, Jesus appears; he is near to the broken hearted and those who have lost hope. He did not scold Mary for her unbelief. He only had to speak her name and look her in the eyes, and suddenly she knew him; she believed.

Jesus did not distance Mary or Thomas in their weak moments of unbelief. Nor does he distance us in ours. It is only that we distance ourselves, and Jesus meets us even then. This he did with the disciples, who were cowering in fear behind locked doors, even after Mary had told them of her visit with Jesus.

Luke 23-24: remembering is believing 

“And they remembered His words…and their eyes were opened and they recognized Him…’Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us…?’”

There’s something to be said about the act of remembering. Sometimes we need to be reminded to remember. After being reminded by the angels, the women at the tomb remembered Jesus’s words before seeing him face to face. Often we have to be reminded of, remember and believe the promise before we see its fulfillment. And in this process of wrestling to believe, in this conversation, Jesus enters into it with us, even when we don’t recognize his presence.

When we are faced with an empty tomb, we are left within a tension of choices. Does it lead to a hope beyond hope, that truly it is the fulfillment of a promise; or does it lead to hopelessness, being not enough for us to believe. Do we believe, even when God himself is hidden from us, even when we do not recognize the presence of Jesus?

Even when we do see, at times we still can’t bring ourselves to believe. “It must be an illusion, an emotional trick, a psychological mind game. I do not trust what my heart tells me or what my eyes see.” But Jesus was so faithful that he physically revealed himself to the troubled, doubting, and unbelieving; even when, as he stood directly in front of them, they still could not immediately register in their hearts what their eyes were beholding. The timid, hopeless disciples were not beyond God’s reach. Neither are we.

In the journey, the waiting, the process, the doubt, struggle, and wandering, the hope and hopelessness, Jesus walks with us and reveals himself to us, and we then realize that all the while, our hearts did indeed burn within as he journeyed with us.

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