April 2009

What Kind of Empty?

In my business, you end up standing over a lot of graves. Sometimes the grief of those around me is overpowering; other times the loss is permeated by a sense of gratitude and appreciation. The age at which the person’s death came, and the kind of life he or she lived makes a significant difference. Over the years, I have come to affirm the message of the Easter angels as we take leave of the gravesite: “Why do you look for the living among the dead; behold, he is not here, he is risen!” To the bereaved, I want to say over the grave of their loved one: “She is not here, she lives in the arms of God.”

This business of our Easter faith is a mystery. What happened? What did the disciples experience? In what way was the tomb, the grave, empty? What do we make of the story, and what difference does it make for us? We have so many questions. The oldest of the four gospels, the one attributed to Mark, ends with such questions. In Mark, the women who go to the tomb to embalm the body of Jesus find the tomb empty, and an angel delivers the message that he is risen. But there are no appearances of the risen Christ, no upper room entrances, no invitations to touch the nail prints in his hands, no breakfast on the beach. We read only of the angels’ message, and of how those who first heard it fled in fear and astonishment, telling no one!

This ending of Mark has puzzled Christians for two millennia. Early in the history of the church, “better” endings to the Gospel of Mark were written and added, but they are not a part of the original text so far as we can discover. Why did Mark choose to end the story in this way. The best guess is that it more truly reflects the depth of the mystery that surrounds the Easter event and the invitation to faith.

So what might Easter mean for us? What does it mean for you? For me, it means many things and continues to unfold as I grow older. At the heart of it is the conviction that the love of God and the life of God that dwells within me cannot be destroyed by the trials and tribulations of life or even the seeming finality of death. Death has no power to rob me of the meaning of my life. The risk of death need not deter me from sacrificial service to others. All does not end in despair. Because the tomb was empty, life is not! The world, for me, need not end “in a whimper” (T.S. Eliot) but in defiant and joyous celebration.

The Hallelujah Chorus rings in my heart as each Easter we stand together and with heart and mind and all the breath within us, we sing the words:

Hallelujah!
For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,
King of kings, and Lord of lords,
forever and ever,
Hallelujah!

Immediately following this mighty chorus, a solo voice sings: “I know that my redeemeth liveth”. Can you say the same?