The Empty Tomb
Some weeks ago, a group of pilgrims from the United States contacted me to offer the Holy Mass for them at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre here in Jerusalem. I agreed, provided, I informed them, that they made the proper arrangements. Now, inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are a couple of chapels and altars. I wondered then where I would be offering the Holy Mass. To my great suprise and joy, the pilgrims were able to arrange the Holy Mass at the Tomb of the Risen Christ itself!
The Tomb of the Risen Christ is housed in an edicule (from the Latin aedicula, meaning “small room”). It has recently been renovated, and it is located at a rotunda of the church covered by a dome. The edicule has two chambers. When one enters the edicule, one first enters a chamber that houses a fragment of the stone that used to close the entrance to the Tomb. This chamber is called the “Chapel of the Angel,” for according to the Gospel of St. Matthew, an angel of the Lord rolled away the stone and sat on it as he spoke to Mary Magdalene and the other women who came that early Easter morning to visit the Tomb. From this chamber, one enters, bending through a small entrance, the second chamber that contains the Tomb of the Risen Christ. The actual stone-bed on which the body of Jesus was laid is covered with a marble slab that serves as an altar. Last October, in the course of the renovation of the Tomb, the original stone-bed was uncovered, perhaps after 700 years of being hidden under a couple of slabs placed upon it through the centuries.
At the time of Jesus, the Tomb was located in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem. There were also other Jewish tombs there, for it was a custom of the Jews to bury their dead outside the city. This Tomb was owned by Joseph of Arimathea, according to the Gospels, and no one was ever laid there before. How did a Jewish tomb look like at that time? It was a cave hewn from a rock of limestone. Inside, on a stone-bed was laid the body of the dead that was wrapped in a linen cloth. A hewn stone was rolled to open and close the entrance.
Just a few meters from the Tomb was a protruding rocky area. This is Calvary, where Jesus and the two thieves were crucified, for at that time, the place was also used for execution. The Gospels narrate that on that Friday afternoon after the death of Jesus on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea and the other disciples of Jesus took down Jesus’ body from the cross and buried it in the nearby Tomb. All these had to be done hurriedly before sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath rest according to Jewish tradition. Since the fourth century, Calvary and the Tomb have been enclosed in one structure, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Where is the body of Jesus? I once asked this question to my students to test and tease them. I was surprised when one of them answered, perhaps naively, “It decayed like the rest (of the dead).” A Christian believer should rather say, “The body rose from the dead,” or more precisely, “Christ rose from the dead!”
Faith in the resurrection of Christ is not only a spiritual conviction; it entails a physical aspect, that is, believing that the dead body came back to life. It is not a matter of resuscitating a person, that is, reviving a person after being unconscious or apparently dead.
Resurrection is also different from the miracles of Jesus of raising the dead to life, like the case of Lazarus at Bethany. He truly died, but Jesus, four days later, raised him to life. After some years, Lazarus certainly died again, perhaps from sickness or old age.
The resurrection of Jesus entailed a transformation of His body. His body will never die again and decay; it is now a glorified body that lives eternally! This was prefigured in the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus in the mountain where He and three of His apostles stopped by on their way to Jerusalem. In the Gospels, we also have stories of the apparition of the Risen Christ, like the well-known story of the “doubting” Thomas who was told to touch the once wounded but now glorified body of Jesus. Thus, the Tomb is empty, because “Christ is risen from the dead!”
Certainly the resurrection of Christ is a matter of faith. The Gospels do not relate anyone of the disciples seeing Jesus actually rising from the dead. The Gospels simply relate a reality – beyond human experience – to be believed or not. This is the enigma concerning the empty Tomb. Does one believe in the resurrection of Christ or not? The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of Christianity! Consequently, this faith has a powerful, positive influence in one's life. One is certain that evil in all its forms in this world, apparently triumphant, has already been conquered by the Risen Christ. One then never despairs or loses hope in life’ struggles. Good will ultimately triumph, for God can make all things new!
At around seven in the morning on the scheduled day, the pilgrim group and I offered the Holy Mass at the empty Tomb of the Risen Christ. Indeed, it was a rare experience! I noticed how each one in the group was so touched by the occasion. They wrote their intentions on pieces of paper and laid them upon the altar where I offered the Eucharist. On my part, I prayed for a lot of people, believing in the Risen Christ who will heal and renew them. Happy Easter!