“He saw and he believed” (John 20.8)
Today is the festival of the empty tomb – though emptiness might sound like an odd foundation for a faith system two millennia old, that encompasses earth and heaven, time and eternity, and wins us a bank holiday weekend.
This sense of oddness reminds me of the mildly disgruntled American pilgrim (more tourist than pilgrim, perhaps) who said to a companion after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, “You know what, we queued for 45 minutes to see inside that tomb, and when we did get in, there was nothing there.” Well, oddly, that’s what you might call getting value for money.
The oddness of the empty tomb in John’s gospel confounds expectations twice over; John and Peter see grave clothes but no corpse; Mary Magdalen, distracted by angels, mistakes the risen Lord for a gardener. God is playing with our expectations. We are out of our depth. Human reason is beaten at its own game; wisdom is more complex than we imagined. That is why maintaining our focus on the bare space in which the dead body of Jesus was laid is uncomfortable and disconcerting. But it is also the necessary prelude to recognition, encounter and transformation.
What does the empty space tell us?
We have to remember that John’s gospel is all about transition from empty to full, from flesh to glory. That is the stated theme right at the opening of the story, which we hear read every Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Jesus the word made flesh: “he have seen his glory” (Jn 1.14); “from his fullness we have all received” (Jn 1.16).
And the clue to the significance of the empty tomb is given to us at the moment when Jesus reveals his glory for the first time; at the wedding in Cana.
The wine has run out. Jesus gives instructions. 6 empty jars (representing the days of creation, and so the whole material order of matter, time and space) are brought and filled to the brim. And from water, the wine of a new covenant, a new creation, a marriage between earth and heaven, is made.
The message is very simple. Glory, as Jesus reveals it to us, is about having “life more abundantly” (Jn 10.10). Whenever I read that phrase now, I think vividly of the font in Salisbury cathedral. It is better than any Easter garden as a description of what we are doing when we celebrate this festival of the empty tomb.
The water in the font in Salisbury cathedral fills constantly to the very brim and then runs over out of the four openings to its cruciform shape, suggestive of open, but glorious wounds in the Lord’s hands and feet. The living, running water is the sign of the glory of the risen life of Jesus Christ.
Today, as we celebrate the empty tomb, it is something other than a vacuum that is at the heart of this rejoicing. From this space we derive a realisation that death has not had the final word in the story of Jesus Christ.
The space of the empty tomb, like the empty jars at Cana, like the font, is filled with the potential for glory. It is no longer a sepulchre encasing the chill and silence of death. The absence from the tomb of the body of Jesus, points us to his risen body, no longer bound by time and space, though still marked by the scars of nails and spear as the hallmark of continuity through death to risen life.
All the evangelists place angels in or at the empty tomb. That would have been understood by their readers as a blindingly obvious statement about detecting the glory of God. It’s a convention that runs throughout the Old Testament and relates very directly to the sacred space of the Temple where God’s glory was known to be. Here, the emphasis is not on God being represented symbolically by any single object; God is revealed in the shining forth of glory that fills an empty space in a remarkable way.
When Solomon dedicated the first Temple in Jerusalem, we are told that the glory of the Lord so filled the space that the priests could not stand to minister (2 Chron 6.22). This shining glory fills the temple to the brim, as it were, like the water filling the Salisbury font.
And this is where the oddity of today’s celebration touches our lives in challenging ways. If I may speak personally, I find it increasingly difficult to resist the onslaught of information that is directed at me or required from me. My life feels as though it is regulated to the point of near extinction, by Government, by economic responsibility, by social and cultural suspicion, by commercial bureaucracy. And this is before I start on the day job! My space as a human being sometimes feels so thoroughly invaded and occupied that I just want to switch off, cut the wifi, abandon the mobile, stop the emails, and regain some quality of human and spiritual equilibrium.
It is no wonder that so high a percentage of young people in Britain today register anxiety as a dominant emotion. The tank of our potential for human flourishing is cluttered up with too much stuff. It’s as though we’ve filled the empty tomb so full with an unhappy blend of debt, regulation, kitsch memorabilia, and a craving for novelty, that there is no longer any expectation of room for glory, space for mystery, allowance for the confounding of limited expectation.
This is a situation that was recently described by Jonathan Sacks, in his masterly book, Not in God’s name, where he observes that we have attained “unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence….[and] the result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning”.
Which is why the symbol of the empty tomb is so powerful and haunting. Here is the sign of our mortality and death. One day the frame of this body will come to resemble that tomb, when the breath stops and the agency of control and demand is lifted from us. Then, as now when we celebrate the dawn of Easter glory and the glory of life, the very breath of God will be able to fill the space within us, to satisfy our deepest longing, to give freedom to our best and greatest loves, to perfect our every thought and deed that has already expanded the meaning of goodness, truth and justice.
As Easter celebrations begin, those of you who gave up alcohol, sweets, cakes and biscuits, can look forward to your Easter gin and tonic, the glass of remarkable claret, and unbridled pleasure as you accept the offer of a chocolate after lunch. This is your enactment of the reception of divine love in the glory of resurrection; you have made an empty space in your appetites and desires, in order to rehearse what it will be like to receive, all over again, a perfect and eternal gift in the new creation that evokes something you have already known so well. The full to overflowing font is the symbol of that perfect gift and what resurrection means. It is the recovery of our total capacity to expand into the divine life of God, as in baptism we are united with Jesus Christ: “In him the whole fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, and you have come to fullness in him” – is how St Paul describes it (Col. 2.9) So, happy Easter. Savour the gin, raise a toast to the CofE with the claret, enjoy the chocolate, and expand into the freedom of a bank holiday. But more than these transient celebrations, attend to the eternal fulfilment they betoken. Don’t run away from the empty tomb; it is your destiny. Let its haunting beauty inspire you. Make space for the glory of God to begin its transformative effect in your life now.