In the Old City of Jerusalem there is a large church called the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site of both Jesus’ Crucifixion and his Resurrection. I used to think that where Jesus died on the Cross and where he was buried were not close to each other. But actually, they were really only perhaps a couple hundred feet apart. In this church, there is a something like a chapel built over the site of Jesus’ tomb. You go through a doorway into a small antechamber, and then have to duck through a very low door to enter the tomb itself where Jesus was laid to rest. Only a few people can fit inside the tomb at once, and usually you can only stay in there for a few seconds because there are other people waiting to go in. However, it is possible to spend the night inside the Church of Holy Sepulcher, which only a handful of people do each night, and if you do this, you can spend as long as you like inside Jesus’ tomb.
As part of my seminary studies, my class and I were blessed to spend a few weeks studying in the Holy Land, and during this time we had the opportunity to spend the night in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, if you choose to spend the night there, you are not allowed to sleep. If you fall asleep, some attendant will come along and wake you up. Knowing that I would never be able to keep awake the whole night, I did not try to spend the night there, but a number of my classmates did. I asked one of them what it was like and if he was able to pray alone in Jesus’ tomb. No, he said there were a couple other people in there – one being a fellow classmate, the other one being an American man who was well known throughout Jerusalem because he would go around dressed like Jesus, barefoot, long hair, and so on. My friend said it was pretty strange being in the tomb with a Jesus look-alike.
And of course that would be strange, because that’s not where Jesus is anymore. Jesus was laid in the tomb, but he did not remain in the tomb: He rose from the dead. He left the tomb empty with nothing in it but his burial cloths – a sign that the burial cloths had served their purpose but were no longer of any use. The empty tomb – along with the Cross, it is the symbol of our faith. The two go together – first the Cross, the sign of God’s love for us in the ultimate sacrifice of his life which he made for us – but then also the empty tomb, the sign of Jesus’ Resurrection, his triumph over death.
The empty tomb is what we celebrate tonight and throughout Easter. Why do we celebrate an empty tomb? Because it is a sign of the promise Jesus Christ makes to us of our own destiny: that if we believe in Him, and live and die with Him, that He will raise us also from the dead, that we too will be able to leave behind our burial cloths and leave our tombs empty. And this belief in our own resurrection is the source of our hope which our Christian faith gives us. Even though we are all subject to the Cross – even though we all experience the Cross and suffering in our lives – and even though we are all subject to death, Jesus gives all of us the hope that the crosses of this life and our death to this life will be followed by our own resurrection.
And what exactly is this resurrection that we hope for going to be like? Of course, none of us really know, because it is beyond our personal human experience and understanding. We only have little hints and glimpses of what it will be like. Pope Benedict XVI said in his book Jesus of Nazareth that all those witnesses who encountered the Risen Lord “were confronted with what for them was an entirely new reality, far beyond the limits of their experience.” He also says that the Resurrection was “about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence.” Jesus’ resurrection was something entirely different even from the raising of Lazarus from the dead for example, because Lazarus who had been dead and was brought back to life, was still subject to death, and later died again. Jesus on the other hand after rising from the dead began an entirely new existence no longer bound by death and the physical laws of this world.
This is the hope that we are given in Jesus’ Resurrection: that Jesus will one day raise us from the dead, and that we too will begin an entirely new human existence, one that is no longer subject to the physical laws of this world with its change and its death. And if we truly believe this, it should change our perspective on everything. It should help us to see our lives in a completely different way. The sufferings and uncertainties of this life are only temporary. The things that we can get so worked up about – drama at work, in school, in our families – these things are only temporary. Disappointments and tragedies – they too will pass; they will not dominate us forever. The things that we spend so much time and energy chasing after – they too will pass away. And even death can be put into perspective, because if we believe in the resurrection, we also believe that death is not the end of our existence. And so, death is not even the worst thing that can happen to us.
This belief in Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of our own resurrection should give us hope, and joy, and peace, and even a sense of freedom. We are not bound to this life. We are not bound to this world. We are not bound by the cross.
And we’re all familiar with the cross; we know it all too well, because we are still on this side of the tomb, and so we all experience it on a regular basis. We are more familiar with the cross than with the resurrection, but Jesus gives us the hope that one day we will leave the cross behind forever. We will come out of our tombs and leave them behind forever, and enter into a new and eternal life not subject to sin and death. This is what we celebrate. This is why rejoice, not just today, but throughout this season of Easter which begins today and lasts for fifty days, all the way to Pentecost Sunday.
Jesus’ Resurrection was an event which broke into human history. His resurrected, glorified body appeared to his disciples. So even though we too await and hope for our own resurrection, we know that Jesus has already risen from the dead, and for this reason we already have reason to rejoice, even in this life. Jesus Christ is risen; indeed he has truly risen, alleluia, alleluia!