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The Empty Tomb

The Empty Tomb

    To put it simply and in a single word, what Easter is all about is life.

    And I mean it in its most basic sense.  This life, living it, enjoying it, sharing it.  Where, for instance, is Jesus to be found on a morning after he walked out of the tomb?  At the shore of the lake where many times before he had spent congenial time with his friends, some of whom were fisherman.  If Cecil B. DeMille had written the screenplay, the carpenter returned from the dead would probably have appeared to his friends walking on the water or, at least, bathed in an aura of heavenly light.  In the report in the Gospel according to John, however, Jesus has to yell at them to get their attention and they still do not recognize him until he steers them to a better fishing spot.  When they join Jesus at the shore they all sit down to a barbecued breakfast, fish filet on pita bread. 

    You don't believe me?  You can look it up: John 21:1-14.  The Risen Lord returns to the camaraderie he enjoyed during his peripatetic preaching in Galilee, where he earned a reputation as a friend of sinners and gluttons and, worse, barflies and shady women. (You can look that up too: Luke 15:1, for one place among eight or nine others).

    In retirement, too old to play basketball any more even though my knees have been rejuvenated, I spend an hour or so three times a week in an exercise room.  Gregarious to a fault, I have engaged my fellow exercisers in conversation.  One of them goes at the several machines with such vigor (he aims to burn at least 1000 calories per session) I assumed he was in training for an Iron Man event.  But, no, his aim at the tender age of 62 is to keep fit and rid himself of the caloric input from Bass Ale imbibed on a weekend without exercise.  So I said to him the other day when he was groaning from his rigors, "Remember, Bass Ale is life."  I was only half-kidding.  If the Germans had invented liquid grain a millennium earlier, that might have been the potable in the inns of Galilee. 

    Sacrilegious?  I don't think so.  Jesus is moral to the bone, but he is not a blue-nose.  That facial feature belongs to the Pharisees, against whom the young rabbi has constantly to define himself.  He observes the Sabbath but is not a Sabbatarian.  He is a celibate seeker of righteousness, yet he reaches out to all sorts and conditions of human beings, even touching lepers with compassion.  When the woman pours expensive ointment on his head, others in his company complain it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But Jesus pushes aside their objection and blesses the woman saying that it's a beautiful thing she has done. You can look that up too: Matthew 26:3-13.

    Life, this mortal life, is precious, good, to be cherished, to be enjoyed; its bounty to be shared, its miseries to be shouldered (with a smile), its moments of sheer delight to be savored.  The empty tomb echoes with this benediction upon our common life.

    But, to be sure, there is more, much, much more emanating from that tomb in Joseph's lovely garden: namely, life in its richest and most glorious eternal dimensions.  Easter is finally and most certainly a celebration of a life that death could not hold captive, so strong, so vibrant, so generous in its loving that the last enemy of this mortal flesh was in its taking of him vanquished itself.

    Perhaps the empty tomb should be the backdrop for the familiar observation that you can't keep a good man down.

    For the tomb's escapee is good.  Very, very good.  Not goody-goody.  Not Dudley Do-Right, annoyingly righteous. In his time among us, from the moment he burst on the scene in Galilee until Good Friday at 3:00 PM, he was positive, appealing, charming, warm, considerate, kind, immensely fair, open-minded, and open-armed; like those special people in our individual worlds to whom we are attracted like bees to honey, moths to light, or our bichon to the Shelter Island Reporter. You know he would never put you down, even when he had to tell you something you didn't want to hear.  You know he would always try to find a way to say "Yes" when you ask him in your need for a favor.  For all of his strength and courage, physical and mental (Mel Gibson can tell you), he doesn't have a mean bone in his body.  Go to him with a sure sense of your own stupidity and selfishness, and you just know you will get mercy not guilt. And his vision of God - encapsulated in the most repeated prayer of all time, as "Our Father," the one who rejoices in the return of the prodigal; like the good shepherd endangering himself in search of the one lost sheep; like the resident on the throne of judgment at the end of time who has one basis only for measuring how we've done with our lives, whether we've dealt generously with each other, especially those on the bottom rung of the ladder of success - is a vision he himself incarnates.  Good he is... and you do know, don't you, from whence derives that adjective, good... as in god.

    And faithful: that's who emerges from the empty tomb on Easter morning, a soul faithful to God beyond all prior imagining.  Yes, Jesus is a man of prayer.  Yes, Jesus knows his Scriptures by heart.  Yes, Jesus goes to temple... religiously.  Yes, he fasts and observes the holidays and obeys the rules.  But he does more, the laws of God are, as Jeremiah promised, written on his heart.  He keeps the commandments from the inside out.  Like Leviticus 19:18, the law to love your neighbor as yourself: Jesus drives to its deepest consequence, loving even our enemies and doing good to those who would spitefully use us, praying with his last breath for forgiveness for his tormentors, finding room in his heart, I would guess, even for his friend turned betrayer, Judas.  Faithfulness, putting your body where your mouth is, Jesus has it in eternal measure.

    Nowhere more surely than where he was enthroned the Friday before the Sunday of the empty tomb. The cross is his choice, according to his understanding of the purpose for which he was born.  Oh, I've read the speculations of those with jaundiced eye who simply cannot believe any sane human being would harbor thoughts of saving the world, and doing it by suffering on a crude instrument of torture and death.  They are legitimate appraisals, if shortsighted.  For history is blessed (and blighted) by the examples of those who, on a mission, have offered their bodies as a sacrifice for the cause.  Baghdad erupts daily in unhappy illustration.  The mentality of the Galilean rabbi is  not beyond the realm of human possibility.  It's his method, his strategy, that bewilders... and captivates. For he believes, truly believes that love, not might, makes right; that in the heart of the most abject soul hides a champion; that, come what may, no evil, however horrid, is beyond God's reach to redeem; that at the very center of the universe, the pulsing center of everything, is the heart of a God whose mightiness never detracts from his infinite compassion.  How else could that Galilean prophet, whom some have named the Blessed Meek, go to the cross, lift its fearful burden, and see behind it all the hand of a gracious God?  The only explanation this side of madness is uncommon faithfulness.

    Long ago in a college English class I read and was smitten by the following lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection."  They have stayed with me lo these fifty-four years:

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.

The life lived by Jesus in a distant land two millennia ago was our life; he was like us and by his sharing of this mortal coil blessed our common life.  But by his goodness and faithfulness, incomparable, unlike any other ever, he opened the empty tomb and with it the door to eternal life.  Open that door remains, and this Jack, this Bob, this Tom, Dick, and Harry are, can be, will be immortal diamond.











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