journey post 28–At the Door of the Tomb
I’ve been to the door of the tomb twice in my life: literally, while we were in Israel in July, 2011, and figuratively, forty years earlier, when I recognized that Jesus had, in fact, risen from the dead.
No one is certain (with one exception) where the actual tomb of Jesus is located. The hunt for it could make a great Indiana Jones movie. Present-day tourists visit two possible spots. Each location has sparked contention. Catholics have built a church over the spot where they believe his body was laid. Protestants focus on a spot typically devoid of ornamentation and quietly, naturally beautiful.
At the Catholic site, there was a busy but hushed awe as we visited the shrine. People were lined up to receive a blessing from a priest as they went through. I’m not Catholic and not one for the trappings of liturgy, so I much preferred the protestant place. Some historical data, plus the fact that I am an evangelical, led me to think the non-Catholic site likely more authentic. It was plain, unadorned—much like the cup Indiana Jones selected as the genuine “holy grail,” the cup of Christ, in “The Last Crusade.”
As I approached the tomb through a garden of plants and trees, I felt expectant—in a way much different, I’m sure, from Mary Magdalene, the first visitor on that first Easter morning. In the biblical account, she and other women had come to anoint Jesus’ body, a duty filled with bitter disappointment: she undoubtedly reflected on the promise this young rabbi had once held out, that he was more than just a loving, caring teacher with wisdom and abilities far beyond those of ordinary men, that in fact he was Messiah, Immanuel—“God with us”—himself. That was the hope … then. But, now….
We westerners lose sight of the very mundane purpose of the women’s visit because of our religious tradition and because our western way of dealing with death is so sanitized. Our culture no longer deals personally with dead bodies, the washing, especially of such brutalized bodies as Jesus had, and the routine preparation for burial. We call Forrest Lawn for mortuary services. We watch televised death, body bags, doctors wearing masks or something under the nose to hide the “bad smell.” Anyone familiar with rotting flesh—animal or human—will have some idea of that hideous stench of death that is routine in other lands, a reminder of what will one day foil all our efforts to keep The Reaper at bay.
“The Three Marys” by Henry Osawa Tanner, 1910
Those raised in Christian traditions instead imagine some cool, idyllic, and quiet Easter morning. We think we hear hushed tones as the women speak of how to get into the tomb. We forget their confusion and distress, for we know what they will find….
On the day of our visit, we await entry and prepare ourselves. I walk around outside, considering the paving, the grounds, the quiet garden, the sacredness of the spot, the natural beauty. I’m thinking: this is the place where all of history changed, where death was left behind.
Now ready, I have a fleeting sense of entering something so sacred that angels or some kind of spirits are hovering about in guard mode, ready to bring holy horror upon any who dare to trespass this holy ground. I dismiss that: movie stuff. But perchance I will encounter some private revelation or appearance by the angel who spoke to Mary…. The historical sense is wrestling the spiritual….
Once inside, there is stillness: silent shadow on cool stone, soft light revealing the entry area. To the right and down a step, two recessed flat rock surfaces, very worn, each large enough for a body are side by side. I stand there, noticing every nook and cranny, eager to drink it all in, mindful that others wait without. There could be five visitors inside at one time, so it’s not crowded in any way, and people hardly speak. The sense of excitement and awe is palpable. My heart is full. He was here!
I turn back toward the door at one point, contemplating the fact that we still don’t know if this is really the place. But it doesn’t matter. And, as if I needed the reminder, a painted wooden sign on the wall states what is obvious: the angel who spoke to Mary indeed still speaks: “He is not here for he is risen.”