A cliff overhanging a skull-shaped outcropping of rock nearby could very well be Golgotha. A small army of us seminarians tramped through a few days before, but I went back this morning hoping to get a few clear shots. To my surprise, a Cockney-accented voice asked if I’d like to step inside the wrought-iron gate that separated the gravesites from the customary weeping chamber. “Would ya like to go inside and shoot a few pictures?” he asked. “I would,” I said, incredulous at my good fortune. “Just don’t tell the Italian film crew that’s coming,” he said. “I’m not going to let them in. Too much equipment.”
The metal groaned as the heavy gate swung open and I stepped inside and sat down on a cold rock ledge between two grave places. On one side of the ledge, the stone floor was still rough. The other side, polished and smooth, was where Jesus’ body is thought to have been laid. Generations of faithful Christians believe that this is the site prophesied in Isaiah 53:9 as a rich man’s tomb that would receive the suffering servant, and referred to in Matthew, Mark and Luke and John as the tomb of a wealthy man, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, who petitioned Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body for burial. Whatever the garden tomb’s provenance (it is maintained now by an independent British charitable trust), it inspires reverence in pilgrims who stroll through the lush gardens around it and ponder the events of two millennia ago.
So there I sat, trying to imagine what took place between Good Friday and the first Easter. Was Nicodemus here? I wondered. Am I sitting where the angels sat? Is my camera battery running low? Sunlight was beginning to stream through the open doorway and the sound of splashing water fell refreshingly on my ears (I’ve always wondered why Mary thought the risen Christ was the gardener!). I could hear the voice of one of my seminary professors outside talking to the guide. I felt suddenly guilty. Here I was sitting in the tomb where our Lord was laid (an opportunity the Italians wouldn’t get!), and I wanted to be outside, enjoying the pretty spring day.
I glanced up at the wooden door that secures the tomb’s opening and read the words carved into it. “He is not here.” it reads. “He is risen.” There it was, simple and eloquent. There was no need to spend more time in that tomb, for it was empty. Life, love, heartbreak, all the richness of the human experience waited outside. I patted the stone pillow where Jesus’ head may have lain, collapsed my tripod, pulled the wrought-iron gate shut behind me, and stepped out into the bright morning sunshine to see what was going on.
The wisdom of our early church parents never ceases to amaze me, especially in their allowing the four gospels to tell the story of our Lord and Savior in their unique perspectives. Where John’s account of the resurrection describes a brief but dramatic encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Luke’s version tells of our risen Lord’s relaxed walk with his disciples to Emmaus. In Mark’s rendering, the action is furtive and the women witnesses are afraid to tell what they had seen. Each writer has heard the voice of the Holy Spirit and recounts the events of that holy week from his own perspective. We might say the same of ourselves, as each of us reads and interprets our Christian narrative through the lens of our own experience.
But it is Matthew’s account of the resurrection that conjures up images of Hollywood and the epic productions of Cecil B. DeMille, who met biblical characters with cinematic boldness. Matthew brings us an earthquake, an angel descending from heaven robed in flashing lightning, terrified guards and nearly hysterical women, and our risen Lord surprising them all with a delightfully understated and cheery, “Greetings.” In the end, Jesus sends his disciples back to Galilee, promising to join them there. And it is no wonder, for spring in Galilee is heaven.
As I stood on the banks of the Sea on a May day, drinking in the beauty of the place, I thought how much our Lord must have enjoyed living and working in that fertile region, and how much he must have wanted to stay longer. The placid lake is ringed with hills terraced in grapes and silvery-green olive trees. The footpath to Capernaum is lined with tropical vegetation so intensely pink and orange that your eyes can barely stand the color. Birdsong is so loud you have to raise your voice in conversation. The dusty, muted palate of the desert middle east has its beauty, but the brilliant colors of a Palestinian spring are a clear reminder that God’s steadfastness in his people is confirmed in the changing of the seasons.
We come again to the season when Christians celebrate Eastertide. We rejoice in the good news of the resurrection that makes us unique among the world’s religions. In Lenten observances, we have reflected on our Lord’s passion and our own complicity in the world’s suffering. We have made sacrifices and tried to walk humbly with our God. Now the time has come to wave graceful palms, strip our sanctuaries in Maundy Thursday gloom, and bedeck them again in fragrant lilies. On Easter morning, trumpets and steeple bells and choirs and children in new clothes tell our familiar story. The world will hear the good news that Jesus Christ has promised us. Death is not the last word. The tomb is empty.
We are Easter people. We will rise.
KRISTINE JANE JENSEN is pastor of Stone Church in Clinton, New York.