The End of the Journey?
Throughout Lent we've been using the metaphor of the pilgrimage to help us spend the forty days fruitfully and faithfully with one another. I hope your Lent has been as profitable as mine. But as Easter arrives each of us is faced with the same question that faces every pilgrim: "Now that I've arrived at my destination and the pilgrimage is over, what do I do next?" The answer is as old as the question itself: the pilgrimage has changed you interiorly, perhaps permanently, even if you don't realize that yet. So now you can continue on your inner journey, with a different way of being in and seeing the world.
The Holy Sepulcher
Our Lenten pilgrimage brings us finally to Jerusalem and the most ancient site of Christian pilgrimage: the empty tomb. The gospels tell us that on Easter morning the holy women and then the apostles began making the journey to see the place where Jesus had lain. The ancient historian Eusebius tells us that the Church in Jerusalem held worship services at the site until the year 66. Egeria, that intrepid pilgrim to the Holy Land, describes her visit to the tomb in the early 380's. The traditional site, located today in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, is well attested to by archeologists today as being the actual tomb. Click here to visit the church and read some of the archeologists' opinions.
The Role of the Empty Tomb
But now let us take a look at the message and meaning of this most ancient Christian belief, the tradition of "the empty tomb." First, we should make one thing very clear: the fact that the tomb was empty "proves" nothing about Jesus' resurrection -- there are lots of alternative explanations of how the tomb came to be empty. We see this demonstrated in John's account of the first Easter morning: "On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, 'They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don't know where they put him'" (Jn 20:1-2).
But the empty tomb soon became for believers a demonstration that Jesus had risen. More importantly, it provided a focus for their faith, a place to which believers could come and give some human dimension to the infinite mystery of the resurrection.
"It all Begins"
So our Lenten pilgrimage ends rather inconclusively, with all of us standing together and staring at nothing but an empty tomb. The tomb, you see, is not an ending at all, but just the opposite. In Franco Zeffirelli's long movie "Jesus of Nazareth" (1977) the Sadducee Zerah, who has masterminded the plot to have Jesus crucified, warns the Romans "this Jesus could be much more dangerous now that he is dead" and convinces them to send soldiers to guard the tomb. On Easter morning, having heard the news, the furious Zerah hastens to the empty tomb, and slowly enters into burial vault to stare at the white linen winding sheet that lies where the body had been. Then as the camera slowly pulls in for a close-up of his staring eyes he whispers to himself in a voice that mingles wonder and warning "Now it begins. It all begins."
Zerah has it exactly right: the empty tomb is not an ending but a beginning, the starting point of the whole Christian movement. It served then -- and still serves -- as an eloquent invitation to humans to believe. It is a challenge to each of us to move forward on our journey of faith and embrace the mystery of God's saving presence even in the midst of suffering and death. And so the "end" of our Lenten journey turns out to be the perfect starting point.
"Song at the Empty Tomb"
Marty Haugen wrote this beautiful song (the melody is beautiful, too) based on Mark 16:1-8. It captures the optimistic, future-oriented spirituality of the theology of the empty tomb.
Once you brought the dead into life,
your hands were healing and peace,
your words were fire and light,
your life was promise and feast.
Now you leave us trembling and weak,
no more the sureness of death,
no more the world that I knew,
life that is new with each breath.
Where now is the body you wore?
What is this dark empty hole?
Where is the one that I loved?
Where is the fire of my soul?
You who were the truth of my life,
you now my fear and my hope,
who shatters death and the grave
who goes before me alone.
You who shake the earth and the stars
who opens tombs in my soul,
who knows my weakness and pain,
you tear and rend and make whole.
Here beyond the shadow of death,
here where the day breaks anew,
there is no future but faith,
there is no promise but you.
Here in the midst of death,
we shall see the birth of life,
now in the darkest hour,
we shall know the face of God.
Here in the midst of life,
here within each fearful heart;
now in each human form,
you shall be the Risen One.
Grant to us this day your life,
when all your people shall see,
when death itself shall have died,
when we your Kingdom shall be.
The Next Stage on the Pilgrim Road: Toward A Spirituality for Troubled Times
And so we move on now, changed, we hope, by the experience of walking the Pilgrim Road through Lent and encouraged by our meditating at the empty tomb and by recognizing the Risen Lord all around us in our daily lives. In the upcoming weeks I invite you to continue on the next stage of the Pilgrim Road and explore with me some elements of what I call "Spirituality for Troubled Times." I hope you'll join me in this timely effort and perhaps be moved to add your own contributions as well. Meanwhile, have a blessed Easter Week!