"For Sale: one empty tomb, like new, sure to increase in value. Make offer."
Yes, I know the tomb was borrowed to begin with, but I like the idea of a tomb that is not only empty, but no longer needed. I like the notion of an abandoned grave where no visits are made, no flowers laid, not out of apathy, but simply because there is no need. The one they remember is not there, is not even dead.
A couple of years ago, some members of our church undertook a major craft project. Using boards and chicken wire for a frame, they created a papier-mâché facsimile of a tomb. We use it every year during Holy Week dramatically to bring the death and burial of Jesus into our sphere of consciousness. Then Easter morning, we remove the stone covering to celebrate its emptiness. It has been a great addition to our Easter worship experience. Stone cold tombs are not supposed to be pretty, of course, but I think this piece is beautiful. I am grateful for the hard work that went into its creation, and the years of service we will get out of it.
Bringing out the tomb has become a tradition at our church. But there is another tradition that usually goes unnoticed, and that is putting the tomb away into storage. The tomb is no longer needed. As Christians, it is important to "behold the empty tomb," but to me it is just as important to put it behind us and move on to resurrection life.
Too often we hang out at the grave, holding onto the Jesus we know from the gospel stories. This is what Mary Magdalene did, as recalled in the 20th chapter of John. She came to the grave on Easter morning to begin the gruesome task of tending to a corpse that would not only be mutilated, but already showing signs of rigor mortis and decay. The absence of the body was most distressing to her. Three times she complained about it. To the disciples: "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." To the angels: "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." To Jesus himself, whom she supposed to be the caretaker: "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
When Mary finally recognizes the Lord, what does she do? She runs to embrace him of course. Who wouldn't? But Jesus' reply was, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father." We can puzzle over the physics of grasping a ghost. Was he physical or spiritual, or somewhere in between? But perhaps the better lesson here is to realize that the Jesus we want to hold onto is telling us not to. He is changing. At some point we have to walk away from the tomb of our old relationship toward the living Spirit of Jesus, the source of everlasting life.
We know Jesus through the gospel stories. Jesus becomes real to us, and teaches us something new every time we read them. But that is the old Jesus. The new Jesus is with us now, as Holy Spirit. He brings new depth and meaning to the Hebrew Scriptures, which were already rich to begin with. The new Jesus helps us translate ancient stories to relevant application in our modern world. The new Jesus does his work on us, chipping away at our rough edges until we are sculpted more and more into the image of our Creator. The new Jesus advocates for leniency whenever God is ready to pass judgment. This is a lot of work, but none of it is done from the tomb. So just walk away, and leave no flowers. You have better places to be, and more important things to do.
Brian Dale is pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.