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The Empty Tomb
Mark 16:1-8…Easter Sunday
Rev. Deb Mechler
I once went to a visitation for the father of a friend. I rode over with some good friends of mine. As we entered the church where it was being held, one of them saw the casket on the left and went as far to the right as he could. Later, as we said our condolences to the family downstairs, he disappeared as the rest of us lingered with our mutual friend. He made no secret of his difficulty with this ritual, this viewing of the body and talking about death. He doesn’t like to deal with deadly things.
Well, none of us does, do we? Any acquaintance with funeral directors shows you that they have a special knack for helping people deal with death, and we’re glad they do. There’s a lot of avoidance around sickness and death. We don’t like the thought of it, much less the reality.
In a collection of her poems entitled Averno, Louise Gluck has a poem called “October,” in which she contemplates autumn’s falling leaves, the dimming light, and our own inevitable decline. One line reads, “You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.” A stark, foreboding statement to hear. I have the same fearful reaction to it as I do to the old line from John Donne: “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
The title Averno takes its name from a crater lake in southern Italy. In the time of ancient Rome, that crater was thought to be the entrance to the underworld. Sometimes death seems like a yawning chasm that people fall into, never to return.
It’s not just the idea of my own demise that frightens me. I think I can handle that. It’s the part about “nor will what you love be spared.” I don’t want my husband, my kids, my friends to die. The anxiety about it visits us often. We are anxious when those we love are late or engaged in risky adventures, because we don’t want them to be hurt or killed. We are overwhelmed when we learn of a bad diagnosis, because it could lead to that parting we fear in the core of our being. It’s as though they are too close to the edge of the Averno, and we can’t always keep them from falling in.
So, we can put ourselves in the place of the women who approached the tomb that day, and Jesus’ disciples. He had succumbed to the dreadful, inevitable end. Why hadn’t he been able to avoid it? He had raised more than one person from the dead, so surely he had the power to escape it himself. It was all so confusing, so troubling, too sad to bear. And it gets worse. The tomb appears to be empty! Who has vandalized the resting place of their beloved Jesus?
But the story turns. It turns so unexpectedly that we don’t always know if we can believe it. The young man—an angel, we have to assume—that they find in the tomb tells them that the tomb is empty not because someone has taken Jesus’ body. He has been raised. Beyond their wildest hopes, Jesus was truly dead, but now he is alive!
We cannot know the amazement of it. My father who died twenty-eight years ago would shock us if he showed up at our Easter dinner. A reversal of physics, logic, reality—it’s no wonder some of those who witnessed it were terrified. This is beyond our comprehension. Jesus revealed God’s matchless power when he was raised from the dead. The stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty, because its walls could not contain the life God insists on creating, and recreating.
We have the joy of opening this gift of resurrection in a special way every year, on Easter Sunday. We delight in the incredible news once again. How can this be?? No one cheats death, right? But the tomb was empty. Jesus appeared in the flesh to many people, and he is among us still, alive and sharing his life with us. Jesus faced death as we have to, and went through it, and defeated it. This is our greatest gift, then: a release from the dread, a sharing of the burden, a word of hope.
When we get close to that place we dread, that Averno of death, we may be repulsed. We may be frightened. It is hard to say goodbye when we know we won’t be saying hello again. Except we will say hello, won’t we? The graves we fill with our beloved will not hold them forever. They will be opened too. I suppose we could say that God will fill in that huge death crater with the earth that covers our graves. There will be no use for those places of death any more. The tomb is empty. Jesus is risen, and we shall arise! Alleluia!