This post was first published on Easter Sunday 2013. It follows on from my Holy Saturday meditation here.
So much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.
* * * * *
Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God.
I could not say what path I wandered during those hours; all I know is that it was late in the evening when I finally arrived back at my lodgings, sodden and exhausted. Though I had not slept for two days, it was not a lack of sleep that fuelled the utter desolation I carried in my soul. It was as though the very life had been ripped out of me, leaving a raw and bloody mess of fear, recrimination and shame. Needless to say, sleep would not come, and I spent most of the night crouched on the ground outside; I could not face the prospect of finding the others, yet I was afraid to be alone inside with my own thoughts. At least outside the occasional distant shout or sound of passing footsteps offered some fleeting distraction.
Night dragged into day, and my wretchedness only increased as the city came to life and hurried about its business. I retreated inside and stayed there as the hours wore on, afraid to leave the house in case anyone looked me in the eye; afraid that, now that my cocky, self-assured shell had been shattered, the pitiful coward that remained might be exposed for all to see.
* * * * *
After another night of solitude, I finally mustered up the courage to venture out in search of the others; perhaps I just could not bear to be alone with myself any longer, so that even this, in a way, was an act of cowardice. I had an idea that a few of the group might already have gathered, but I couldn’t face the thought of arriving there alone, having to knock and stand in the doorway as an outsider and see my own fear and confusion reflected back in their eyes. So instead I first went in search of John, hoping he might have gone for an early morning walk outside the gate, as was his custom. I found him sat by the roadside, lost in thought. We exchanged a subdued greeting, each of us careful not to look too directly at the other. After sitting in silence for a while, I finally suggested we go and find the others.
We were still some way from our customary meeting place when Mary came haring round a corner and almost ran into us. Without waiting for us to greet her or asking where we had been, she exclaimed “He’s gone!”. Between gulping breaths, she told us she had been to the tomb to embalm the body with spices, but could see on entering the garden that the stone had been moved. As far as I could make out, she hadn’t dared go near, and had immediately turned tail and set off running to tell the others; it was on her way to find them that she had bumped into us. John and I glanced at each other – the first time I had dared look anyone in the eye – and exchanged a brief, knowing look, as if to say She’s crazy. But it was clear from her agitation that we were going to have to go back to the garden with her, if only to prove that her mind had deceived her and everything was as it should be, stone included.
As we neared the garden, John finally gave in to Mary’s urgent insistence and ran ahead with her. Moments later, I crested the slight rise at the entrance to the garden. The early morning sun slanted low through the long-leafed trees, and the place was deserted apart from Mary and John. They stood unmoving in front of an opening hewn into the rough face of the bluff that rose above the garden. To the left of this low doorway, a large, circular stone leaned against the rock wall. It was a picture of tranquillity, yet we all knew something was very wrong: sealed tombstones do not just move themselves. My mind immediately began to sift and assess the possibilities: had another – Salome maybe – already been to embalm the body and been unable to find anyone to move the stone back into place? Had thieves broken into the tomb looking for valuables buried there? Or was some conspiracy afoot? Had the Romans waited until the quiet of night and removed the body to some secret location to ensure there was no way this troublesome rabbi could reach back from the grave and continue to stir up trouble in death as he had in life?
Instructing Mary and John to wait in the garden, I ducked down and stepped through the low doorway into the tomb. There was no smell of fragrance or embalming oils – only the kind of stale, musty odour you would expect to find in a damp, dark place. It took my eyes only a moment to adjust to the half-light, and I saw that it was a small space, no longer than six or seven cubits in length and about as wide. To my left, a shelf of stone ran along one wall, empty apart from a small heap of fabric that trailed down to the cold floor, as of a light cloak or winding sheet that had been cast aside without care for folding. I stepped over to the shelf where the body would surely have lain and reached out a hand to touch the fabric; but as I did so, I was suddenly struck by an otherworldly chill of unease, an inexplicable feeling that I should not be in that place. I turned, stepped back into the morning sunlight and confirmed with as much confidence as I could muster what Mary had already told us: the body was gone.
John immediately began to speak of a miracle; all I knew was that events had taken yet another strange and unpredictable turn. As I stood there trying to make sense of what I had found, a wave of fatigue washed over me and I felt my grasp on reality begin to slide; the ground seemed to tilt and Mary and John appeared to slowly spin and fade away. I had to put out my hand and lean on the rock wall to steady myself. “What’s the matter?”, asked John, his voice bringing me back to my senses. “Nothing”, I replied tersely. “Let’s go and find the others.” I didn’t know what had happened there, I didn’t want to stay any longer to find out, and I certainly didn’t want to listen to any fanciful nonsense about miracles.
* * * * *
Had I been expecting a warm welcome from the other nine, I would have been disappointed; I saw only fear and disillusionment in their faces. Our story of what we had found in the garden only raised more questions, adding to the general atmosphere of dismay and confusion. No one knew what to do, and no one dared openly voice what they were thinking. At some point in the morning, two or three of the others went off to the garden to see for themselves, vainly hoping to find something we had missed. I spent most of the day sitting in a corner with my back to the wall, trying to keep my head down as I turned over the possibilities in my mind, disturbed only by the occasional muted exchange between others in the room. As I cast my mind back over the previous few weeks, I was forced to recall so many things the rabbi had said that now seemed to make no sense: how he was going to prepare a place for us, how we would know grief that would turn to joy, and how he would overcome the world. As soon as I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that somehow all was not as it seemed – that perhaps he had only come close to death and had been brought down from the cross in time to revive him – I remembered everything I had seen inflicted on him and knew beyond doubt that there was no way any man, however strong or however anointed by God, could survive such an ordeal.
* * * * *
I’ll never know how long I had been sat there, lost in my thoughts, nor how long we would have stayed in that room, nor what any of us would have done next, bereft as we were. All I know is that at some point in the afternoon, I looked up and there he was, standing in front of the closed door. None of us had heard him enter, and it later became clear that none of us had seen him enter. One moment we were alone with our thoughts, and the next he was standing before us; it was as simple and as preposterous as that. He looked the same and yet somehow different, as though his skin were suffused by an almost imperceptible glow. He scanned the room, closed his eyes and nodded slightly, as if in answer to some question he had asked himself, before smiling gently and greeting us: “Friends, it is I”.
I cannot say that all my questions and fears disappeared in an instant. What I do know is that whatever doubts I had about his death melted away the moment he stretched out his hands and I saw the nail-prints. He stayed there in the room with us for a while, and as I closed my eyes and listened to that familiar voice, I could not help but think back to all the other times we had sat attentive as he told us about the ways of the strange kingdom whose coming he claimed to herald. It was barely three days ago that he had broken bread with us in this same room, and now here he was, and here we were. Everything was the same, and yet I knew deep down that everything had changed.
[ Image: Waiting for the Word ]