Easter.22 Luke 24:1-12
The tomb is still empty. I know. I’ve been there, myself. On the first day of the week, at early dawn I went, following in the footsteps of the women, Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary James’s mom, (and after them, so, so many others). They found the stone rolled away from the tomb as you heard, but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. But they did find two men in dazzling apparel, who frightened them, adding to their perplexity. The men asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? [which is a great question for all who make this trip!] The two continued, “He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee how he’d be crucified and on the third day, rise?”
They did remember. And they raced out of the tomb, because they were scared and amazed and perplexed and well, just all riled up. The women told these things to the apostles, but you know how men are! We have a tough time listening to the women in our lives. Sometimes, (like this time) their words seem to us like an idea tale (probably because we’re just bad listeners!) so we do not believe them. We go rushing out with Peter, John, racing to the tomb, to see for ourselves, stooping to crawl in, poking around, finding the tomb still empty, like the women said. Huh. We trudge back home, marveling, confused. Which is to say, for men, “ah, situation normal.”
It was 6 am on a Sunday in July 2018 that I went to the tomb. Bonnie and I went together. The streets were completely empty. We weren’t sure we were going the right way, thought there’d be a lot more people to see such a famous sight (but of course, I never considered asking directions because 1) I’m a guy and 2) there was no one around to ask, anyway.
Nothing about Jerusalem looked like I thought it would (actually, it was far more impressive than I expected) but Google maps turned out to be right, and after winding through maze-like, deserted streets, all downhill, suddenly, there it was: an old, beat-up church the Crusaders had rehabbed in the 12th century, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, called that because it contains the Holy Sepulchre of Jesus Christ (and his crucifixion site, which is only about 30 yards away from the tomb).
It’s not a large church. It’s not impressive the way St. Peter’s or Notre Dame is… was? It impresses in a whole different way than that. Honestly, it looks like the roof could fall in, any minute, and repairs are always proceeding haphazardly—though it’s in better shape than Notre Dame these days. (Some people just can’t have nice things!) Anywho, you go through a dark, stone archway. Golgotha is immediately to your right, as you enter, up a winding little set of stone steps, smaller and more cramped than the spiral stairway that led up to the bell tower in the church where I grew up. A lot of candles and icons (Old, Orthodox dudes built it, still run it. What did you expect?). It’s dark. There’s an altar where you can crawl under and touch the limestone of Golgotha where the cross once stood.
You exit down another little windy set of rounded-out stone steps into a small, rather dark narthex. There’s a marble slab, a flower-strewn water trough above it, that people dip cloths in and rub on the worn-away old slab. That’s where Joseph and Nicodemus laid the body of Jesus to clean the blood away and anoint him for burial. It’s a place that’ll make you stop and think…
Then, you wander (downhill again) through a winding, dark hallway into a pretty impressive rotunda, the only bright and light place, with large windows, in the church. The lower levels of the rotunda were built by Helena the Emperor Constantine’s mother around 327 AD. That’s about the only part of her basilica that still stands—Muslim and Christian armies destroyed it centuries later. The Crusaders rebuilt on the ruins of Helena’s church in the 12th century and that church of theirs is mostly the one we see today.
In the center of the rotunda is a 30 or 40 foot high edicule of ornate marble. After sitting through a Roman mass in front of the tomb—competing with a Syrian orthodox service on the opposite side, a real Tower of Babel experience—the monks move the gate away and you go in, 4 at a time, into a little baptistry where there is what looks like a small, stone igloo. You have to crawl inside (it’s very cramped) more icons and candles (of course!) and a stone bench, covered with marble worn away by centuries of pilgrim hands—the place where Jesus lay those 3 days he spent in the tomb.
Kneeling there was overwhelming for me. I’m not a sentimental guy. I’m certainly no mystic. I studied philosophy for 7 years in college and grad school, bub. I’m as skeptical, hard-headed (and hearted) as they come! Just ask my wife.
But kneeling in the Holy Sepulchre, for the precisely one minute they give you, shook me to the core, in a good way. I could hear, sounding in my head, a huge chorus of voices: angels, men, women, saying: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen!” “Indeed,” I thought. Something I knew and have always known…
But, whose voice was that, exactly?
Someone asked my old teacher Paul Holmer how he knew, why he believed that Jesus really is God, that He really died and rose to take away our sins? Holmer said: “My mother told me.” For a long time I thought he meant his sweet, Swedish-Lutheran mother who read him bedtime bible stories like my mother. And yes, but no. I realized, years later, Holmer was quoting Luther: “The Church is the mother that bears and begets us all.”
It is her Voice I heard that Sunday morning in Jerusalem, all those Sunday mornings before, and since. A lovely voice, the Voice of Jesus sounding now, asking that old, good question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Well… because we are slow learners, aren’t we?—the men among us, especially.
It’s Helena’s voice, heard though the stones of that old Crusader church, which, as it happens, became the model for all traditional Christian churches ever since, including our own, here. And, even if we fall silent, those very stones will cry out that “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again,” soon—at the altar where he still puts his crucified, risen, glorified body (and blood) down for us to eat and drink, to become one Body with Him…
The Church isn’t an institution. It’s not just old buildings made with human hands. It’s a Voice; speaking of the Rock, of Christ the Incarnate Word—it’s the voices of all built on Jesus by faith, echoing His Word down through the ages.
The Church is a way-station, not a stopping place, a little crumbly—a place for Travelers. It is, as a questioning catholic put it, a Bridge, from this world to the next.
“It’s not made of iron, nor steel, nor stone/ yet it spans the rising waters/ we are but bags of blood and bone/ yet we carry the weight of our sons and our daughters…/ Though some will claim to be inclined/ “It’s a figment or a ghost!”/ The Bridge is deep inside the mind/ Invisible to most/ And now the city’s all but drowned/ And here up on the ridge/ Some will seek the higher ground/ Some of us, the Bridge…”
It’s right here—this altar, the Bridge. Rest here a while; eat, drink, and cross over; for Christ is Risen…