Saturday, April 4, 2015

In the Empty Tomb, we "See"

Easter Sunday 2015

On the first day of the week, the first day that recalls the story of Creation, three figures come to the tomb. All three were equally united by their love for Christ. Though all three saw a similar thing, each, however, had a different experience, a different level of perception. Because the entire narrative is designed to explain just how and when and to what degree faith in the resurrection of Jesus was achieved, the details of the eyewitness are deemed important. What was it that they saw? What conclusions did they draw from what they saw?

The story begins with Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb. She would have been driven by her love for the Lord and also by a feminine impulse to attend to the necessary burial arrangements to be performed on the body that had been hurriedly entombed on Good Friday to avoid the Sabbath ban on work. She arrives early whilst it was still dark. The mention of darkness is not just a story-teller’s contextual footnote. The darkness here is not mere physical darkness, it is also the symbol of the spiritual darkness in which Mary moves, the darkness of humanity without faith in the risen Jesus. It is dark, because Mary cannot “see” that the Light of the World has burst forth from the darkness of the tomb. Although Mary’s visit to the tomb at the first possible opportunity shows her commitment and especially her love for Jesus, she is still in the dark with regard to his true identity and significance.

Mary Magdalene saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. The text does not tell us whether she looked inside, but gives the impression she did not. Her seeing was superficial. In seeing so little, she saw more. Perhaps, the observation of Tertullian was correct, “People who cannot see what really is are the very ones who see what is not.” Without investigating further, she draws a conclusion from her observation. The robbing of graves was a crime sufficiently common. So it is not surprising that the sight of the removed stone prompted Mary Magdalene to draw the conclusion she did, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb!” In distress and in darkness, a setting of unfaith, she ran to report her news to two of the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, to St Peter and the beloved disciple. Later, when Mary returns to the tomb, she sees Jesus but fails to recognise him. Only after a personal prompt from Jesus who had called by name, did she come to see.

Things go no more smoothly for St Peter. Alerted by Mary, he and the Beloved Disciple run to the tomb. Though the Beloved Disciple is the first to reach the tomb, in deference to St Peter, his elder, he does not go in. Nevertheless, Peter enters the tomb first, where he sees Jesus' burial garments. As far as we know, Peter does not yet believe. He may, however, have ruled out Mary’s conclusion that this was a case of grave robbery – robbers would certainly not practice the etiquette of folding up linen in the wake of their crimes.

In the second half of John's Gospel the Beloved Disciple provides the model of faith. He outruns Peter to the tomb but he allows Peter to enter the tomb ahead of him. But when the Beloved Disciple enters the tomb, we are told, “He saw and believed” (20:8). Seeing and believing provides on of the most powerful models of faith in John's Gospel. The Beloved Disciple sees and believes. Mary sees yet needs help believing. Peter sees, but he does not yet believe. Peter will come to faith in time. All three come to faith eventually. Seeing and believing takes its own shape in each instance.

Some scholars have argued that there is an intensification of “seeing” that leads to deeper comprehension. In English, we can only make a conjecture. But the matter is much clearer when we return to the original Greek words used in the text, all of which had been inadequately translated as “saw.” When the Beloved Disciple was the first to arrive at the tomb, he “saw the linen cloths lying on the ground.” The Greek word translated “saw” in this verse is “blepei,” which means “to observe.” This was a mere superficial viewing of the facts from the outside the tomb without, apparently any significant realisation of what had taken place other than the fact that what Mary reported was true. The second word “saw” which is attributed to St Peter is “theorei,” which means, “to behold.” Peter’s seeing was certainly deeper because he went into the tomb and clearly saw additional details to the “crime scene”: the linen cloths and the cloth that had been over the head of the corpse, rolled up neatly. But yet, his seeing did not lead to a full comprehension nor did it lead to faith.

Finally, the Beloved Disciple now enters and “saw and believed.” The Greek word here is “eiden.” It means “to perceive.” His seeing led to understanding. He saw more than the factual scene of a possible crime. He perceived and understood this to be a sign– that Jesus, as he had promised has been resurrected from the dead.  The lesson is this. It is not just enough to “see” (observe) some of the facts about Jesus, as a disinterested party. It is not enough to “see” (behold) the details about Jesus, as a scientist would. We must “see” Jesus in the sense of perceiving or understanding the truth through the lenses of faith and love. Such perception can only come about with authentic love. It is love that reveals to us the implications of what we see. Anne Hildegard, wrote that “Authentic love alone makes us "see." It is not based on wishful thinking or on the unhealthy projection of imaginary virtues onto another person. It is not triggered by hysteria, overheated feelings, or a craving for excitement to shake one out of a state of exhausting boredom. It is an ardent yet calm perception, granted by God, of the beauty he has put into each of us, and it fills us with awe and gratitude.”

One baffling question in human life is why some people claim to see what others cannot see. Just like modern day supernatural phenomena which are inexplicable, there are those who claim its validity and the doubters who view it as a product of a deranged mind. There are those who make seeing a prerequisite of believing – that they would only believe if they can see. And yet after “seeing”, many remain incredulous and unbelieving. It is obvious that one cannot force someone to see what he does not want to see. Here lies the painful truth – most intellectual mistakes are not caused by lack of intelligence; they are the fruits of stubbornness and a rebellious will. But the one who loves, will see!

In times of great loss we often need to see something. When the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 disappeared, now over a year ago, grieving family members continue to demand to see more evidence. The authorities’ decision to unilaterally declare that the entire flight had been lost together with all its crew and passengers did not bring the necessary closure. Somehow seeing the debris promises closure for many people, closure to the cycle of confusion and loss.

Today, we see the empty tomb. We find in it the necessary closure to the cycle of confusion and loss that comes with the darkness of faith, in the face of death and loss. The empty tomb is a statement that the resurrected life is not simply a new beginning. All that Jesus was is caught up in the transforming mystery of grace. The episode of find the tomb empty depicts for us not the ignoble lie that the body of Jesus was stolen by grave robbers or desecrated by his enemies, but the wonderful truth that death is robbed of its prey, that the whole of our human person will be transformed and that the final victory is not with darkness but with light. On the cross Jesus radiantly reveals the beauty of God as a God of unconditional love. The empty tomb is a sign, for those with faith to see, that Jesus’ trust in His Father was not misplaced, that our trust in Him is not misplaced, that God’s love is stronger than death.

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