The Stone and the Empty Tomb

byMsgr. Thomas McDonnell

Nikos Kazantzakis enjoyed a certain popularity in the late 60s and 70s--Zorba the Greek, Report to Greco, etc. In one of his works, he mentions a phenomenon he encountered in some of the outlying villages of his native Greece: the Easter greeting was phrased in the plural. In other words, instead of Christ is Risen, they would greet each other with the phrase Christ are Risen. What they were trying to express through such syntax was that the very concept of the Resurrection bursts apart all categories, even linguistic ones. Its depth is so profound that it cannot be comprehended.

On the other hand, our artistic tradition has tried to imaginatively depict the events of that first Easter morning. Generally, there is a scene of blinding light surrounding a glorified and triumphant Christ. Variations may occur but this is the most popular portrayal -- found in Easter cards and holy cards.

Because of our encounters with the risen Christ, sometimes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and most often through the Eucharist, we do not need proof of his Resurrection.

It is interesting, however, to note that the Gospels do not provide details about the Resurrection. The actual event and its dynamics are passed over. The closest we have is Matthews account, which is really not about the Resurrection itself.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of Lord descended from heaven, approached, rolled back the stone and sat upon it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothing as white as snow. The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men. Then the angel said to the women in reply: Do not be afraid! I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, He has been raised from the dead.

In this account, it is the presence and activity of the angel which is central and highlighted. Perhaps the Gospel writers themselves were conscious of the fact that even under the inspiration of the Spirit, words would never be able to capture the depth of the mystery of the Resurrection.

A careful reading of the four Gospels, however, emphasizes certain truths through two symbols--the stone and the empty tomb. In Marks account, for example, when the women were rushing to the tomb to anoint Him, they were saying to one another, Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?

(Parenthetically, a whole meditation could be centered about why the women wanted to anoint the Body of Jesus--to preserve it. Instinctively did they realize that even in its seemingly lifeless form, it remained the hope of the world?)

At any rate, a reading of the Gospels indicates that the stone is central to the Resurrection account--the obstacle that separates us from the Lord. With the Resurrection, this stone has been removed. The meaning is clear: nothing can now separate us from the Lord Jesus. All obstacles are removed. Because of the Resurrection, he is accessible to all--at all times and in all places.

The second symbol highlighted in the Gospel accounts is the empty tomb. Again we are dealing with something of redemptive significance. The writers are pointing out that the usual categories of space no long apply. Christ is now able to be touched and contacted at any place. Such, of course, should remind us of the availability of the Lord in our prayer life.

I cannot leave the first Easter without reflecting upon why the Lord chose to reveal himself first to Mary Magdalene. Admittedly we are in the realm of speculation. But could it be that he came to save sinners of which Mary was one. And even now, he is reminding us through her that he still desires the same.

Msgr. McDonnell is a senior priest of the archdiocese and is in residence at St. Mary, Dedham.