By Canon Paul Chandler, Lay Canon – Durham Cathedral
THE EMPTY TOMB (John 20: 1-10)
The empty tomb. For us today it’s a symbol of Jesus’s resurrection, evidence that Christ is risen, victorious over death, and a sign that a new era is beginning.
But we know what happens next in the Gospel story. For Mary Magdalene, at the moment of discovering the tomb opened up and empty, it was a very different experience. Bewildered, grieving, frightened about what further persecution might lie ahead, to find the tomb empty was yet another painful twist in the tragedy that was unfolding. Now she could not care for Jesus’s body; someone had deprived her of the chance to say her final farewell to the teacher whom she loved.
Mary’s experience of further desolation and of an absent God, will sadly feel familiar to many today during this pandemic. People are grieving for the passing of loved ones, having not been allowed to be at their bedside in their final hours. Parents, siblings and children are being buried or cremated without the comfort of a church service, or the chance for wider family and friends to offer mutual support as they gather at a funeral.
And yet, in the midst of this further low point in the Easter story, there is a glimmer of light.
For whilst Mary and Simon Peter are convinced that someone has stolen Jesus’s body, the gospel writer himself, John – the disciple whom Jesus loved – records that seeing the discarded grave clothes in the empty tomb was the moment when he first truly believed.
“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.”
John does not tell us exactly what he believed. Indeed he makes the point that until they had the Scriptures explained to them, none of the disciples truly understood the fullness of what had happened. But John is clear that at that moment something changed for him. He became aware that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and that he was no longer dead.
In the midst of these dark times of sadness, frustration, fear and uncertainty we as Christians are called to discern and proclaim a message of hope. Like John, we may not understand how things will happen, but we can be confident that God is still with us; we can have faith that nothing can separate us from God’s love and that good will prevail. And within the darkness, seeds are being sown that are currently invisible but will one day burst out of the soil and blossom.
Will our society come out of this time with new perspectives and priorities? Might we all become more conscious of the shallowness of lives focused on consumption, and place greater value on relationships? Might we have learned to recognise everyone as being of equal worth, having seen how dependent we really are on the efforts of nurses, care workers, supermarket staff, delivery drivers and other low paid but key workers? Might we have seen how Nature can flourish when we reduce our emissions, and so resolve to tackle the climate crisis with more vigour?
We cannot tell. But we can hope. And, like John, even in our darkest moments we can believe that all things are possible through God.