"The Mystery of the Empty Tomb." Sounds like the title of a Nancy Drew book, doesn't it? Actually we're talking about something far deeper. Everything that will happen to us now as we stay with the Risen Christ in Galilee WILL be a mystery. It will all be true, but it will require us to look beyond what we can see and hear and taste and smell and feel with our fingertips. It will require us to believe what common sense tells us not to, and certainly what the world will tell us we are foolish to embrace.
But what else can we do? We deserted Jesus in his hour of need, just as he told us we would. We watched from afar as he died a wretched, humiliating death on a cross, even while looking down at the clueless people below and asking God to forgive them. Forgive us.
The scene was so like the sacrificing of a lamb for slaughter at Passover it was uncanny. And yet it didn't seem to us that there was any cause for celebration.
Joseph of Arimathea, a friend of Jesus', provided a tomb for his body but we haven't been able to anoint him with spices for a proper burial yet because yesterday was the Jewish sabbath.
So, yeah, we're devastated. The hope we felt when we took our road trip with him to Jerusalem has all but evaporated. It seemed so real then, all of it. Now -- it has become almost like a dream that is quickly fading.
But still we get the spices and oils together and head for the tomb while it's still dark on Sunday, the first day of the week. We're going to anoint his body for burial, and on the way we can't help commenting to each other how this is so like the woman who bathed his head with expensive perfume that night. He did predict this, didn't he?
As we make our way through the almost-dawn, looking nervously behind us for Roman soldiers who might be on the look-out for Jesus-followers even now, our other concern is how we'll roll away the large boulder that was rolled in front of the tomb to seal it. That was done by the authorities so nobody could steal Jesus' body and then claim he'd risen from the dead. Even after he's gone, they're still trying to make him look like a fraud.
So some of us are angry. Some afraid. Some still wrestling with whether any of it was for real.
When we arrive at the tomb, we all stop, stunned. The stone has been removed.
"All right," someone says, "we need to tell the others."
The "others" are those who have chosen to stay inside, fearful of being arrested and even put to death themselves, just for knowing Jesus. We can't really blame them (you?) but we're all in this together, right?
So we run, en masse, like one person, to the room where the others are staying. One of us rousts them out of bed -- although nobody's been doing much sleeping since Thursday night -- and says, "They've stolen Jesus! The tomb is open. We don't know where his body is!"
This time we ALL tear back to the tomb. A few get there first and actually go into the tomb. And ... okay, what's going on? Not only is Jesus' body gone, but the linen wrappings Joseph put around him after he died are lying there. Why wouldn't whoever took him keep the linens around his decaying flesh? Jews aren't allowed to touch a dead person's skin, so why not leave him wrapped?
And then one of us sees something even stranger. The piece of linen that was around Jesus' head is folded in half, and then folded in half once again, and left on the stone floor apart from the others. What does that mean? Or does it mean anything?
"It could," one of us says.
We gather around her.
"Jesus was trained as a carpenter, right?"
"It's a tradition with carpenters. When a project's done, the carpenter takes water from a bowl to wash the sawdust off of himself, and then dries himself and folds the towel that same way and leaves it as a message."
"What message?" somebody says. Enough with the mysterious clues, already.
"It means: my job has been completed."
Some of us feel worse than ever. "So that's it? He's just gone? We're alone now?"
"Wait!' one of us says. "Didn't he say he was going to rise from the dead on the third day? This is the third day, right?"
"Right," someone else says. And then she looks around. "But where is he?"
Some of us decide to go back to the place we're staying and try to figure out what to do next. Some of us stay ... because we're just too grief-stricken to leave this empty tomb.
All of us wait. Just as we have learned to do with Jesus. We talk among ourselves in tearful whispers about whether we can go on believing in all the truth Jesus taught us without him there. If we can't see him, smell him, hear him, reach out and touch him, and taste the bread he fed us, can we keep trusting? Can we?
(Today's post is based on John 20:1-10 and a short passage from Sigmund Brouwer's awesome book The Weeping Chamber, pp. 309-310.