On the Empty Tomb: an Assemblage of Easter Thoughts

by jdavidcharles

“And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”—the (presumably original) ending of the Gospel of St. Mark

When people die we tend to have some sort of funeral service—some rite of passing into a beyond, other world, the ether, fire, or simply the earth. The funeral service is a radical reminder of our finitude I think—that even at death our bodies belong to this spherical mass floating about some star in some big globular of stars somewhere. This is juxtaposed of course with a sense of importance, about the person, about the human species, rites commemorating the body and such. The funeral is the place of settling, the place of final dwelling we could say, the place at which all things are finally rested, centered, and stabilized. The place we celebrate a singularity’s significance in spite of its ridiculous insignificance.

And I think this is why the empty tomb is such a terrifying thing. Sure, it stresses the beauty of conquering death (whatever that means), redemption, salvation, and what-have-you, but it also completely decenters the significance of death—or, rather, decenters significance. Significance exists in that there is a certain risk involved to the significance. For instance, I really love Walt Whitman precisely because I have invested so much time, interest, and passion into his work. I have invested all this time and interest against the background of other poets and books and things that I have chosen, risked if you will, to not invest so much of my time in. I only really care about Walt Whitman in that I risked my time, my being, my life, etc., to study his work over and above something else. Choosing Whitman (or anything) involves a radical rejection of other things.

This is true of people too—getting to know someone, befriending someone, loving someone, all involves this sort of risk. Risk only exists in that I am ultimately risking my life, my body, my being. There is no adventure, no journey, no hero’s quest (and therefore no hero) without this risk. Without risk I am open to all possibilities as possibilities without consequence, that is, possibilities without significance. Thus the funeral rite—it is a way of acknowledging the risk taken by all involved in the person’s life. A way of affirming the value of the risk—displaying of the body, remembering of the individual—and a way of mourning the ultimate loss the risk involved.

So—what does this really have to do with the Easter season? Well, in short, I have a hard time getting out of Lenten mode and into Easter mode. The resurrection is too ridiculous, too nonsensical, and far too mysterious to be a satisfying answer to the question of Lent (I think this is why there is a whole season of Easter, to allow the mystery to “settle in”). Christ as a singularity, as a finite creature, radically possessed by the creation he created, is obliterated in the resurrection. Resurrection destroys the significance of risk, of possibility, of choosing this to that. Although the empty tomb is hopeful and comforting in its infinitude, it is also terribly stifling and claustrophobic. Infinite possibility is rightly a way of saying no risk or significance to possibility. To take the Whitman example—if I knew I came back from the dead and lived forever, what then is the significance or risk to reading Whitman over and above say Shelley? I’m going to have an infinite amount of time, so, it’s really quite unfair to go around picking favorites. Significance emerges because, or at the very least in part, I face my death. My death is “mine” and in part defines this mineness—without “having” a death, who/what am I? How am I even singular?

Although I’m looking ahead in the church calendar, this is what is frightening about the ascension—this now non-singularity ascends out of the earth that he did not belong to, even in death, and into the non-place of “the right hand of the father.” I mean, come now, what the hell is that supposed to mean? Where is “the right hand”? How can a bodily Christ dwell at the non-bodily “hand” of a person, the father, who is the same nature as himself (especially when that “self” also possesses a human nature as well)? This just makes no sense.

And I don’t think it’s supposed to make sense. The resurrection is ridiculous—this is what is meant by a “mystery.” During the Easter season there is a reminder to Christians that Christ is risen, yes, but also that he is not here, the tomb is empty. No risen thing could be here. This is the land of risk, of significance, of finitude—here death sets the rules. We’ve done the funeral rite, we’ve put Christ in oils and perfumes and wrapped his body and we’ll be damned if he comes back and we have to go through it all over again. But we don’t have to—because he leaves us, he ascends. And although I get that the Church is the body of Christ, that it is the community of believers that is Christ, in one sense all that’s left of Christ is the empty tomb. His body is not here. His singularity is not here. Although his trace may be everywhere, he is not here.

To put it another way—the two Marys have traditionally represented the Church in two different aspects. Mary the mother of god represents our birthing of Christ into the world, the Church as the body of Christ, the Church as mother. Mary Magdalene however represents the Church as the lowliest of sinners, begging Christ for mercy, the Church as lover. In this way one of my favorite poets, Robert Hass, really encapsulates what I’m trying to say about the solemnity of the empty tomb,

“For Magdalene, of course, the resurrection didn’t mean

She’d got him back. It meant she’d lost him in another way.

It was the voice she loved, the body, not the god

Who, she had been told, ascended to his heaven,

There to dispense tenderness and pity on the earth.”

After the Winds