Easter: Tomb as Womb

The Resurrection is not a metaphor for the need to “rise above” life's difficulties or a well-meaning myth about fulfillment. Rather, Christ's resurrected body is a solid thing.

(photo: Source: Unsplash)

As mysteries of the Faith go, even apart from the Easter Bunnification of Easter, the Resurrection is one of the hardest to communicate. It's not that the Resurrection is unknowable or that the Bible and the Creed are vague about it. No, it refers to the raising of Jesus from the dead. The man who said He was God had been tortured, murdered, and buried on a Friday afternoon corresponding to the Jewish Passover.

But by Sunday morning, He was alive, and not just in some spiritualized “meaning-of-Easter-message” way, but bodily. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul asserts, “we are the most pitiable of men” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

Why hard to communicate? First (forget for the moment that the thing is impossible!), we have no analogue in our experience with which to compare a resurrection. We can relate to something or someone being healed or restored, sure. But a revivified dead man?  In the account of the raising of Lazarus in John 11, the actual raising is hidden from sight until the ex-dead man steps outside, quite alive.

Christmas is much easier to relate to because, among other things, we all know what the birth of a baby is like. Christmas celebrates something seen and heard by; (obviously) His Mother; St. Joseph; the magi, and the shepherds. As Jesus' conception was the beginning of His earthly life as our redeemer, His resurrection is the beginning of His heavenly life as our intercessor. Christmas started something visible. The Resurrection started something invisible.

The second reason is: Christmas was public, and began something visible. Easter is private, and began something invisible. The great event behind the Easter Season was directly witnessed by no one. Interestingly, while the gospels give a literal blow-by-blow account of the arrest, the trial(s), the scourging, the via dolorosa, and the passion and death on the cross, there is no New Testament account of the "moment of resurrection," nor can you find a single icon depicting the event.

The empty tomb is a kind of womb, out of which our Lord began His return to “the right hand of the Father” as we say in the Creed. That dark hole in the earth became the secret place where Life permanently neutered the killer bee called Death.

The Father communicates the result through the personal appearances made by Son after His death, first to Mary Magdalene and the women at the tomb, and then to James and the other apostles, to the 500, and, of course, to Saul of Tarsus. So the word of God affirms the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus through the sheer variety and number of eye witnesses.

Let's face it, the episodes involving those who see Jesus with their own eyes until He ascends into heaven in Matthew 28, involve some weirdness. Most of the disciples don't seem to recognize Him at first, particularly in Luke's accounts — not Mary Magdalene, not the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, and certainly not Cleopas and the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus. How could they not recognize the same Lord and Master with whom they spent up to three years together?

Yet they don't. “He appeared to them in a different form” says Mark 16:12. “Their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” says Luke 24:16.

More weirdness: In Matthew 28, we read that an angel of the Lord descends from heaven, and, accompanied by an earthquake, rolls away the stone, reducing the burly Roman guards to trembling statues, “like dead men” (v. 4). This simile is particularly apt since capital punishment was the price for dereliction of duty. Further, the fearsome angel “sat above the stone.” Yes, above it (epano autou) not upon it (ep autou). He ignores the guards and addresses the women, “You need not be afraid; I know well that you have come to look for Jesus of Nazareth, the man who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, as he told you.”

In Luke 24:36 and following, after the Lord revealed himself in Emmaus “in the breaking of the bread,” He appears to the other disciples, and tries a few things to calm them down. He says a few words, he shows them His hands and feet. They're still gape-mouthed, so He asks simply, “Have you anything to eat?” And they hand Him some grilled fish!

So the Resurrection is not a metaphor for the need to “rise above” life's difficulties or a well-meaning myth about fulfillment. Rather, His resurrected body is a solid thing. It's human (He can still munch on tasty fish) and more than human (He can bestow the Holy Spirit and empower the Apostles to forgive sins, per John 20:22).

People will come to different conclusions about the enigmatic Shroud of Turin, but I hold it as persuasive forensic evidence for the Resurrection. The best summary of the latest science of the Shroud I have ever found is a new book Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, titled, God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus.

In a fascinating appendix, Father Spitzer explains that vacuum ultraviolet radiation would have to blast several billion watts of power against the (non-photographically sensitive) cloth of the shroud for one 40 billionth of a second to produce the utterly unique 3D image of the crucified Man.  In its totality and in its details, that image corresponds to the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, to what historians know about the Roman ritual of scourging, and to the Jewish burial customs of first century Palestine. The bloodstain patterns also line up precisely and in several ways with the lesser-known Sudarium (facecloth) of Oviedo, the burial head cloth John mentions in his account (John 20:7).

While it's not binding on Catholics to accept as the actual burial shroud of Christ, I believe it is. It is at least fitting that the Father would leave behind an artifact that is both crime scene evidence and a relic of the Resurrection. For more information on the science of the Shroud, I recommend the authoritative website of the Shroud of Turin, www.shroud.com, run by my friend Barrie Schwortz, who was part of the famous 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project.

This Easter Season, let us have eyes to see the risen Lord “in the breaking of the bread,” in our neighbor, and in our hearts, as we acknowledge the unlikely weirdness of the holy Season.

I heard that the following comes from a small child, so you know it's true: what did Jesus say after leaving the tomb on Easter Sunday? “Ta-dah!”

Happy Easter.