Discovering empty tombs

We expect to find the bodies of hopes and dreams to anoint and memorialize in the midst of death, but after Jesus’ resurrection, instead find empty tombs.

By Colin Harris

You’d think Easter would be easy for a Sunday school teacher. After all, everybody knows what it is, most everybody shows up and nobody is likely to argue against it or to push for its repeal. It’s a great day in the life of the church, for we celebrate an experience that lies at the center of our Christian faith, both historically and personally.

But there is a challenge here; because, while in our worship we celebrate Easter and its affirmations about resurrection, in Sunday school we are encouraged to think about Easter, its meaning and its place in our everyday lives. What can we say about it that hasn’t been said and heard dozens of times as we have “done Easter” in the churches of our lives? What is there to discover in its meaning that we haven’t already examined and reflected upon for years?

Why don’t we just join in a rousing shout of “He is risen!” and go about the business of enjoying the celebratory atmosphere of another neat holiday?

At the risk of dampening a festive spirit, let me suggest that we know enough about the faith journey to understand that it is a life-long quest for deeper understandings of the gifts of grace and eternal life. How many times have we been reminded that faith is not just a “ticket on the heaven train,” but an invitation to an eternal partnership in God’s saving work that requires growth, change and ever deepening commitment?

So, what happens when we think about Easter, even as we are celebrating it? Do we find new levels of meaning in the reality of resurrection as we journey to the peaks and through the valleys of our lives? Like most things, I suspect, our experience with Easter and its meaning evolves with us as our lives progress. Don’t we find new levels of meaning to love, friendship, marriage, parenthood and work as the years add experience to our understandings? Might it also be so with Easter?

Those who experienced the first Easter struggled to grasp what had happened. The limited records we have in the New Testament reflect that struggle and their efforts to connect what had happened to what they already understood. Since the first ones to experience what we call Passion Week were Jews, it was natural for them to see the events through the lens of Passover: Jesus’ death was the death of the firstborn of Egypt and of the Passover lamb, and the empty tomb was the new Exodus of God’s liberation from bondage. Add to that their relatively recent belief in the resurrection of the dead, and we have the framework for the “meaning of Easter” as it has been presented through the centuries.

The Gentiles who soon became part of the community of Jesus’ followers brought their celebration of spring’s victory over the darkness of winter with them to their effort to understand and explain what was being claimed for Jesus’ resurrection: what was dead (as in winter) is now alive (as in the brilliance of spring’s new life).

The point to note here is that people of several backgrounds saw Easter through the lens of life as they knew it, and its meaning took on the features of that experience —Jesus as the sacrificial Passover lamb, his resurrection as God’s new work of liberation (from the bondage of sin, as from slavery in Egypt), the new life that breaks forth after the dead of winter.

This is where they started — looking at the meaning of Easter through the lens of life. But this new experience was so compelling, and its presence in the life of their community was so powerful, that it soon began to outgrow the frameworks of meaning that had originally helped them to understand it. The presence of the risen Christ in their lives, which they began to understand and call the Holy Spirit, became so much more than a new Exodus and so much more than spring’s rebirth after the death of winter, that they began to think of it as a disclosure of the very nature of the mystery of God, ever creating, ever restoring, ever maintaining eternal life even in the face of death itself.

And this new way of thinking which grew out of their experience together as “Easter people” gradually became the lens through which they looked at the rest of life. They had been transformed from looking at Easter through the lens of life to looking at life through the lens of Easter, and that made everything about their world not only look different, but also be different.

For us, a much later generation in this “Easter family,” the dawns of the first days of our weeks call us to the tombs of our lives, expecting to find the bodies of hopes and dreams to anoint and memorialize in the midst of death, but finding instead empty tombs and an invitation to embrace life with a God of eternity, with whom all tombs are empty.

“He is risen!” Indeed — and with him so is all of life.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.