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A Tale of Two Tombs

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

Easter Sunday 2019

Luke 24: 1-12

In 1977, a brutal military junta controlled the South American nation of Argentina. They would do so for seven years. During that time, the junta engaged in what they later called an “internal war” against their own people.

An empty tomb near the site of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

In broad daylight or in the middle of the night dissidents were swept from their homes, and across the nation those who spoke out suddenly “disappeared,” either to prison with torture or the grave. It became dangerous to socialize with those who spoke out against the military. Even the lawyers who dared to defend them were disappeared.

The junta not only silenced those who came to be called “the disappeared,” they also silenced the news about the disappeared.

But there was one force they did not reckon with—the mothers of the disappeared. These brave women refused to accede to the junta’s policy of silence. They gathered in the Plaza de Mayo, across from the government palace, and demanded answers. It started as a handful of brave women but soon grew into hundreds. They wrote editorials with which they enclosed their identity cards, willingly putting themselves at risk. Eventually they became so powerful that other Argentinian nonviolent resistance movements aligned with them. The pushback from these brave mothers and grandmothers, coupled with the regime’s ill-advised war with Great Britain, led to its collapse in 1983.

Since then numerous regimes, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations, in Africa, Mexico, and other places have engaged in the same tactic of “disappearing” those they consider a threat; and inspired by those Argentinian Mothers of the Disappeared, women have demanded truth when those in authority preferred silence.  Many of them are Catholic Christians who have found comfort and strength in Mary the Mother of Jesus. One of the Argentinian mothers’ tactics was ‘carrying carpenter’s nails to identify with Mother Mary whose son [Jesus] was also tortured and executed by the state.’[1]

In our Gospel lesson today, Mary Magdalene and several other women arrive at the tomb of Jesus only to discover that he has disappeared. They find the stone rolled back and the tomb empty. In a moment, “two men in dazzling white” will appear and tell them good news. But in that brief moment, that moment after discovering that Jesus has disappeared and before the arrival of the angelic figures, Luke describes the women as “perplexed.” My guess is they were far more than perplexed. Other gospels say they were fearful. In the Gospel of John, Mary is convinced that someone—probably the authorities—has taken Jesus’ body away—just like “the disappeared” in Argentina. And just like the women in Argentina, Mary finds someone in she thinks is in authority and demands that he return the body to her.

Our gospel today tells us that the women run back and tell the male disciples what has happened, but that “their words seemed to [the men] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” But apparently Mary Magdalene and the other women were like The Mothers of the Disappeared and refused to stay silent—otherwise we would not be here today, celebrating Easter. We are here because those women refused to be quiet.

We today in many ways stand with Mary Magdalene and the other women, in that moment between moments, after we have found the empty tomb but before the angels tell us the Good News. There is a moment when all of stand outside the Empty Tomb, wondering where the Lord of love has disappeared to.

If you go to Jerusalem, you can literally stand outside of the Empty Tomb. The Holy City has many holy sites that are, to say the least, highly questionable, but when it comes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, most scholars think they have it right. A church has stood there in some form, and with some interruptions, since the Fourth century; and before that locals venerated it as the site of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified. At the foot of the hill is a gravesite that is believed to be the tomb in which Jesus was placed. Having the hill of crucifixion near a graveyard was probably meant as a labor-saving device for those who had to bury the dead after they were crucified.

There’s no longer any sense that this place was ever outdoors, that the hill was ever a hill, or that there was once a graveyard there. It is filled with often beautiful, but sometimes gaudy and kitschy objects commemorating the events that are believed to have happened there. The gaudiness can be overwhelming, but a lot of what you and I might consider kitsch in the Holy Land is actually an expression of the heartfelt faith of everyday people, of people like the Mothers of the Disappeared.

Below the former hill is a recently renovated and quite lavish church within the church. It’s called the aedicule. Crowds snake around the aedicule; this is the site of the tomb of Jesus.

One thing I love about this location is that from below you can look up to see a beautiful Greek-style face of Jesus with a halo, expressive eyes and an amazing head of hair, wearing red and blue and holding a book, surrounded by pictures of the apostles. It is as if the resurrected Jesus is looking down from heaven on the site of his crucifixion and resurrection, and also on us; as if he is the sun shining down on everyone there to venerate him; as if our Risen Lord is the light shining in the darkness.

This transcendent Jesus is one of the faces of the Jesus whom the Mothers of the Disappeared worship. This is Christ who is now seated at the right hand of God. He is high and powerful, cloaked in glory. He is King of kings and Lord of lords. This Jesus is the Son of Man who rewards the least of these, those who speak out for justice and are ground under the heel of authority. He sits in judgment over all the powerful people of the earth, kings and queens and presidents and dictators and military juntas. They will not escape the transcendent Christ’s justice.

Over the centuries people have tried to domesticate this transcendent Christ, the restless Christ who refuses to stay dead. They’ve made the tomb too much like a roadside attraction and it’s easy to be distracted from him by the glitz and glamour. But nonetheless he looms overhead, transcendent and all powerful and all knowing, unfazed by the centuries of strife and dissension and upheaval that have wracked the Holy City. He is larger than any attempt we make to bend him to our political or religious or territorial or selfish or very human purposes. He is larger than the Holy Sepulcher; he is larger than Jerusalem; he is larger than Christianity or Judaism or Islam. He is Lord of the heavens and the earth. He is not here, he is risen.

Go to the north side of Jerusalem and you’ll see the Garden Tomb. It’s an alternative site that many evangelical protestants believe to be the true tomb of Jesus. This tomb was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century and is considered by most scholars unlikely to be the real tomb. But it has a lot to favor it. There’s a hill nearby that seems to have the face of a skull; Golgotha meant “the place of the skull.” The tomb itself is set in a lovely garden. It has a huge stone in front. You can walk inside and see the place where Jesus, or somebody, probably a lot of somebodies, lay. It’s much older than the Holy Sepulcher site; the tomb dates from the eighth century before Christ.  Over time, a lot of people could have been buried there.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ tomb is located in a garden. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb by herself and she sees the resurrected Lord, but she mistakes him for a gardener. That’s the Jesus you meet at the Garden Tomb. He is the son of the deeply personal God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. It reminds us of the hymn “In the Garden:” “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.”

This is Jesus, our friend and companion on the journey. This Jesus gives The Mothers of the Disappeared the spiritual strength to carry on. He comforts them in their grief. This Jesus is our safe harbor; this tomb is the place where our spirits are renewed.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has been and remains in the middle of the political and religious strife that have wracked Jerusalem for centuries. By contrast, the Garden Tomb has escaped the attention of the fanatics and the power-hungry. This Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavily-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart and in me you will find rest for your souls.”

When you leave, the Jesus of the Garden Tomb goes with you. He dwells in your heart. He is not in the tomb, he is risen.

This Jesus is also the Jesus of the resurrection promise that awaits us all. In the Old Testament, the Kingdom of Heaven is represented as a return to the Garden of Eden. The Jesus of the Garden Tomb promises the Mothers of the Disappeared that their loved ones may have suffered in this world, but now they have found beauty, peace and harmony in the comforting arms of their Lord Jesus Christ in life after death.

We need both Christs, the Christ above us and the Christ inside of us. The Christ above us holds all of history in his hand. The Christ above us will defeat death and evil. He will reward the righteous and hold accountable the unrighteous.

But if that’s all that the resurrected Jesus is, then he’s too Godlike, too distant, too different from us, and more than a little frightening.

We also need the Christ of the Garden Tomb—the Christ who takes us by the hand, who walks with us and talks with us and tells us that we are his own. The inward Christ, the Christ who dwells in our hearts, Jesus who is deeply personal, who loves us as a friend, who knows our burdens and shares them, who knows our joys and celebrates them, who forgives us when we know we have done wrong and challenges us to live more Christlike lives. The Jesus who promises life after death. This Jesus is intimate and loves us with a real, tangible love that is like arms around us or bread fed us or living water renewing us.

We need both of these resurrected Christs. Neither is adequate without the other.

Because there’s a third resurrected Christ that we need and that the world needs.

That resurrected Christ left the tomb a long, long time ago, and immediately hit the streets. He’s out there healing the sick, exorcising society’s demons, and preaching good news, just exactly as he did when he walked the rocky paths of Galilee twenty-one hundred years ago. He is the resurrected Jesus who is at work when the Mothers of the Disappeared stand up against the oppressor.

But he is not always so dramatic. He is also going about his business more quietly. Every time one of you comforts another in her grief; every time a group of folks takes food to Samaritan House; every time we go to a city council meeting to ask that more services be provided for the needy in our community. He is gathering us together at this table right now and mystically uniting us as one body to bear witness to God’s love in the world.

The tomb is far behind him because he is not dead; and the tomb is always ahead of him, because often what he does is fraught with risk. But as the Mothers of the Disappeared have shown time and again, in country after country, the tomb cannot be a threat to this Jesus, and it cannot be a threat to us, because we know that as soon the tomb is filled, it will be empty again. Resurrection always waits on the other side.

Whatever else we can say about those two tombs in Jerusalem, there is one thing they both have in common: both those tombs are empty. He is not there. He is risen. He is risen for us, he is risen above us, and he is risen within us. He is risen, and so are we.

[1] Quotes from “The Mothers of the Disappeared: Challenging the Junta in Argentina (1977-1983),” published by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 2010: