Last year, on what was Easter Sunday according to the eastern liturgical calendar followed by many in Egypt, I visited the pyramids of Giza.
Standing under the watchful gaze of the Sphinx, I was reminded that the pyramids are tombs — tombs on a grand scale, to be sure, but tombs nevertheless.
The pyramids rightfully rank among the wonders of the ancient world, and it's not hard to see why. Their scale is immense, their architecture precise. Within, amid walls painted with intricate hieroglyphs, in rooms filled with provisions for the afterlife, the pharaohs lied in state for centuries, well preserved.
Dynastic Egypt was one of the most successful civilizations in history, and these tombs — monuments to the ancients’ aspirations to immortality — are its most enduring artifacts.
The ancient Egyptians are not alone in such aspirations. The desire to live forever lies deep in the human heart and every culture needs to give answer to it.
The Christian hope for eternal life also looks to a tomb — a rough burial place hewn out of the rock in a garden outside Jerusalem's old city wall, the borrowed grave of a Galilean carpenter who did not even own the shroud in which he was wrapped. In marked contrast to the pyramid tombs of Egypt, the most important fact about the carpenter's tomb is that it is empty.
Some historians believe that the ancient Egyptians killed the workers who built the secret entrances to the pyramids in order to guard the tombs against thieves. For millennia grave-robbers and archaeologists have sought out the Egyptian tombs to raid what was inside.
The Christian message is quite the opposite: There is nothing here to steal. All four Gospel accounts insist on that one historical fact — that the tomb was empty. Matthew and Mark even have the angels indicating that the place where the corpse lay is now vacant.
“The empty tomb of Jesus Christ is the promise given in history of that day when all the tombs shall be empty,” said Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, commenting upon the scene of Pope John Paul II visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The empty tomb fulfills the desire for immortality.
The empty tomb near Calvary stands as a rebuke to the mammoth tombs that rise up against the horizon across the Sinai peninsula. It is not a long way from the Nile River delta to the hills overlooking the Jordan River valley, but the empty tomb is the definitive rejection of all that is represented by the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
The journey from Giza to Golgotha is the path from self-assertion to salvation, from reliance on reason alone to trust in revelation, from the cult of the cosmic gods to the worship of the God of the cosmos.
The God Above Gods
Professor Leon Kass, a University of Chicago scholar who reads the Scripturesas a believing Jew, has argued that the Torah is in part an anti-Egyptian polemic. All that ancient Egypt represented is rejected in the creation of the people Israel, and their very identity is partly constituted by being anti-Egyptian. “The firstborn of the Egyptians he smote, for his love endures forever,” sings the psalmist in Psalm 136, a hymn to the Lord's twin wonders — creation of the world and destruction of Pharaoh.
As Christians, we are heirs to this same history of salvation. The Exsultet of the Easter Vigil refers to the passage through the Red Sea. And later, after that account is read, the congregation joins in the hymn of the Israelites: “The Lord is a warrior! The Lord is his name. The chariots of Pharaoh he hurled into the sea … Let us sing to the Lord, for he has covered himself in glory” (Exodus 15). On the night Christ rose from his tomb, the Christian people now sing exultantly of the burial in the Red Sea of pharaoh's charioteers.
Why the ferocity of the attacks on the civilization of the pharaohs? The Chosen People are referred to dozens of times in the Old Testament as having come “out of Egypt.”
The Exodus defines who the Chosen People are; the common experience of having come “out of Egypt” is almost a synonym for Israel. And this even predates slavery in Egypt, for Jacob — the father of the 12 tribes, Israel himself — dies in Egypt, but not before making his son Joseph promise that his body will be taken back to the promised land. “Do not bury me in Egypt. … carry me out of Egypt” (Genesis 47:29–30). As Joseph did for his father, so he made his descendants promise that his bones, too, would be carried away, “out of Egypt” (Genesis 50:25).
Biblical Egypt is not a land of pure wickedness or oppression — it is not Babylon. Indeed, it was a land of refuge for Jacob and his sons; later it would serve the same purpose for the Holy Family. Matthew speaks of the flight into Egypt, but at the same time refers to prophecy that the Messiah would come out of Egypt (Matthew 2:15). Egypt is a land to leave behind.
Ancient Egypt was a land to leave behind precisely because it was such a prosperous and thriving civilization. Or rather, because it achieved its greatness through a mastery of — and a faith in — the natural world. Man needed to break out of Egypt, for all that Egypt offered was the best that man could do through reliance on his own reason. And that is not only not good enough for salvation, but a hindrance to it.
Salvation begins with the realization that man is not capable of saving himself, not capable of mastering his world, not capable of living forever.
The enormous energies of ancient Egypt were poured into precisely those tasks. If pride was the original sin in Eden, Egypt was sin run amok — not in debauchery, but worse, in delusions of divinity.
The pantheon of Egyptian gods was populated by the forces of nature, which the scholars of ancient Egypt were extraordinarily adept at understanding. But cosmic gods — like river gods and crocodile gods and fertility gods — are not really gods at all, but the names given to phenomena that are subject to man's knowledge and even manipulation. They were not so much gods as they were testaments to the Egyptians’ own knowledge.
“Non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum,” said St. Ambrose: Not by the ways of logic did it please God to save his people. Not by the ways of ancient Egypt would God save his people, where men achieved scientific and engineering feats that even today defy explanation, but by the ways of the ragtag farmers and shepherds whom the Egyptians kept for slaves.
Salvation that comes by way of the empty tomb begins with the realization that, by himself, the best man can aspire to is being buried in a fancy tomb.
Ancient Egypt represents the best man can do on his own, under gods of his own creation, to save himself. And because it was the best attempt, it needed to be drowned in the Red Sea, as a warning to all those who would seek salvation through man's self-assertion. Israel is the people saved for no other reason than God's having chosen to save them (Deuteronomy 7:7).
The polemic against Egypt is a warning against the ultimate emptiness of all that man does without God.
Christians look at Easter to a different kind of emptiness: The emptiness of the tomb that testifies that there is another way, a way that depends only on allowing oneself to be chosen. Man chose for himself in Eden and ended up building tombs in Egypt.
The folly of the pharaohs was to build tombs as eternal homes. The empty tombin the garden is God's definitive word that a tomb is no place for man to live.
Raymond de Souza is the Register's Rome correspondent.