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  • Peter Ball

Journey Through Holy Week - The Empty Tomb

Reading. John 20: 1-18

The Gospel writer uses about two hundred and thirty words to tell us that the Tomb was empty. Quite a lot of words to tell us that there was nothing there. Why does John go into so much detail? Jesus Christ had risen from the dead so, of course, the tomb was empty. Our trouble is that we know the Resurrection took place; the whole New Testament does, every verse of it was composed after the first Easter. This means the story was written with a backward glance. It’s rather like watching a television recording of a big football match when you already know the result, a situation which robs the game of much of it’s excitement and suspense. If it was possible to eliminate from the memory the result of the match then the recording would have real drama.

This is the sort of thing we must aim for when reading the closing Chapters of the Gospels. We know why the tomb was empty, but Mary Magdalene, Peter and John did not. They were still living with the awful memory of Good Friday. For them it was the end of life as they had known it. They were in a state of deep shock, numbed by the loss of their leader. They were certain that they would never see his face or hear his voice again. If we can in some way enter into their lives and experience then we shall catch something of their sense of bewilderment, surprise and fear when they looked into the tomb and found it empty. St. John goes to a great deal of trouble to describe how the grave clothes were found in the tomb, undisturbed, not left in a heap. Jesus must have got out of them without disarranging them. This would certainly rule out any suggestion of grave robbery or even vandalism. We don’t know what happened to the body of Jesus as nobody was present to see it. The event took time to understand. Peter and John looked into the tomb, saw the grave clothes neatly folded and began to see the significance of them.

On the other hand, Mary was too grief-stricken and confused to think clearly. As far as she was concerned Jesus was a dead man and now his body was missing. “They have taken away my Lord”, was her grief-stricken cry on finding the tomb empty. The body she had come to embalm was missing. The bottom had fallen out of her world and she was trying very painfully to adjust to the death of her Lord. Standing, wondering what to do, she was questioned by the two angels in the tomb to whom she repeated what she had said earlier, that the body of her Lord had been taken away. Such was her grief that she failed to notice a third person standing nearby and when he spoke it was his voice rather than his face that gave him away. Jesus had a special way of speaking with Mary. So she was reunited and nobody had taken away her Lord. Mary tried to grab hold of Jesus hoping that she would be able to resume their normal relationship and that the events of Good Friday had only been an unfortunate interruption and that they could return to the good old days.

How often we want to do that. Jesus had to redirect Mary’s devotion away from himself. The Easter story is not about going back, but going on to new relationship with Christ. No watching repeated action replays, but taking part in a fresh game. The truth that Jesus had risen transformed Mary’s life and the lives of the disciples and it can do the same for us. We must think of Jesus as somebody who not only lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, but is alive now.

This Eastertide Jesus calls us to something genuinely new and alive. But, at the same time he rebukes us for the challenges we refuse to accept, for the barriers we erect to preserve our security, for our nostalgia for what we call ‘the good old days’. He rebukes us because he is alive and wants to call us on to something new, even painful.

When our religion becomes the servant of nostalgia, when the Church becomes so set in her ways that she cannot hear the call of Jesus to new visions, then she becomes irrelevant.

We are not meant to be a memorial society commemorating the past deeds and words of Jesus, but a community in which he lives and acts. A community prepared to be renewed again and again.

By faith we can say we have seen the Lord and know him. That is the difference between a Good Friday Christian and an Easter Day Christian. Which are you?


Ever-living God,

help us to celebrate our joy

in the resurrection of the Lord

and to express in our lives

the love we celebrate.

Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever.


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