Early one damp Saturday morning in spring, when I was 6 and my little sister, Christina, was around 3 or 4, the two of us ran into the house and hollered at our father, “Dad! Dad! There’s a dead animal in the backyard!” That’s a pleasant way to be woken up in the morning. And based on our extreme excitement you would have thought that we’d found a beached whale out behind the shed. We hauled Dad out into the backyard and pointed the way. And there, in a pile of pine needles, was a dead little mole or a shrew or something that would have easily fit into the palm of your hand. You wouldn’t’ve thought much about the little thing unless you had the curiosity and gross-seeking instincts of child.
I imagine my father’s first thought was just to throw the thing over the fence so we wouldn’t play with it and then go have breakfast, but instead he had another idea. He took us into the garage, and we got a shovel. And then we dug a little grave together in a small open patch of grass near a birch tree. While we were digging, Dad told Christina and me that the little vole or mole or whatever it was had lived a good long life doing all the things that God had made it to do on the earth. And when it got old and it knew its end was near, it had found a comfortable place to die. And now that it was dead its spirit had joined God with the spirits of all the other little creatures of the fields.
My father carefully lifted the little guy into the grave with his shovel. And he led us in a prayer of thanksgiving for the life of the mole and we commended its spirit to heaven. Then we gently covered him with dirt. And in what have must have seemed like a miracle, my father’s two children stood there still and quiet for at least a minute.
And as my father walked us in silence back to the garage, he must have been thinking to himself, “Not bad, Dave! Not bad at all! You leaned into a teachable moment and gave your kids a valuable lesson about life and death.” That’s when my sister looked up at him and said, “Daddy? How’s he gonna get outta that hole?”
It’s an incredible thing about death that children can’t comprehend it—they have no instincts for it whatsoever. Little children can only think of the grave as temporary. I remember being even younger, when I was about 4-years old, my babysitter was saying to her daughter, Catherine, who was the same age as me something like, “We’re going to Auntie so-and-so’s house this weekend.” And Catherine said, “Oh, is Grandpa going to be there?” And there was this pause from her mother. And then her mother said, “No. Grandpa is dead. You went to his funeral, remember?” “Oooooh. Yeah. I remember now.”
And then we grow up. And, as adults, what happens? It’s like all the doors of possibility that were open when we were children—the doors that allow people to slip from life to death and back to life again, or to think of death as a long rest that Grandpa will inevitably wake up from—close or mostly close. And there’s good reason for that, right? Kids aren’t good at understanding the reality of death, and there is a reality to it. And consequently, kids are also not great at keeping themselves alive. They need a lot of supervision from adults who understand reality. One of my favorite tweets of all time came from a frustrated mother: “2yr old for sale. Been crying for 10 mins cuz he cant get in the oven with the cornbread. Entertaining all offers.”
We adults have learned the reality of death. And we’ve learned it the hard way—by losing people we love, by trying to keep our kids from running out into the street, by getting sick or by getting old. If God expects us grownups to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, in resurrection in general, man, that’s a big ask. Maybe it’s the biggest ask of all. And on Easter morning what sort of evidence are we offered to help us get there? Jesus marching down Broadway with trumpeting angels showing off his resurrection bod? No. Nothing like that. The resurrection of the body is this big miracle, but it’s also a shy one. Just like spring, it’s subtle at first. It takes its time. This greatest of all miracles, this greatest of all hopes, isn’t going to jump out at you from behind a bush. It would rather just brush past you on the street one day and wink and disappear back into the crowd.
So, on Easter morning there’s no parade. There’s no Emergency Room scene where the doctors run tests on Jesus and listen to his resurrected heart beating strong.
Jesus can’t even be bothered to hang out by the tomb. We’re not sure where he’s gotten off to. Or why he couldn’t have waited. The only explanation offered is that he’s so alive, he wasn’t going to hang out among the dead one minute longer. And on this Easter morning we’re left, for proof, with an empty tomb and some “idle talk.”
That phrase, “idle talk” is translated from the Greek lēros, which could also be translated something like, “trash, nonsense, crapola.” You want us to believe in the bodily resurrection and you’ve got no body? What are we to make of the nonsense of the empty tomb?
There’s an ancient and venerable tradition in Buddhism that was sanctioned by the Buddha himself called corpse meditation. Corpse meditation is still popular among monks in Thailand. And it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: The seeker of truth meditates in the presence of a decaying corpse. The idea is that their meditations will help them to overcome any remaining naiveté about the reality and universality of death.
And if you participated in any Holy Week observances this year, or if you’ve ever been to a Good Friday service, or if you’ve watched the movie “The Passion of the Christ,” or maybe if you even just watched the steeple of Notre Dame cathedral burn and collapse over and over again on television or online, you know that there is also a take on this tradition of corpse meditation in Christianity. Christ, on the cross, is on display for everyone to see, to meditate on. And it’s difficult to look at a crucifix for this reason and it’s also difficult to look away from a crucifix for this reason.
Later in the Easter season, we’ll get the opportunity to meditate on the resurrection body. We’ll watch it appear and disappear. We’ll watch it breathe. We’ll watch it eat a fish. We’ll watch Thomas put his finger intimately into the open wounds. We’ll watch the resurrection body cook us breakfast. We’ll watch it transform in front of our eyes. We’ll witness it take off from earth and fly to heaven. But today, this Easter morning, we get something else—an empty tomb. Why?
Have you ever thought much about the empty tomb? About what it means? About what God is up to by bringing us here first—to this quiet, empty place of—what? Of possibility? Of nonsense? This place that’s somewhere halfway between total despair and total joy but is an emotion all its own—a turmoil, an amazement.
And maybe there’s something to this. Maybe there’s a reason to see the empty tomb and sit with it and meditate on it for a little while. After all, after any ending, but before the new beginning has taken hold, there’s this space, right? the inbetween or the transition. When change comes, even when it’s positive change, there’s always a space of readjustment between the end of the old and the beginning of the new. On Friday we had death. On Saturday we had despair. Soon, we’ll have Jesus’ very real, very alive, very resurrected and miraculous body in our hands. But on Easter morning we haven’t gotten all the way to touch. We’re in the space between the last touch and the first touch. It’s a space of expectation, and hope, and turmoil, and amazement.
Beloved, I am sure that all of you, at some point in your lives, have visited the empty tomb. It’s terrifying! “Where’s the body? That was the only thing I had left!” And it’s exhilarating! “Where’s the body? Maybe something new is about to happen.” Maybe you had a bad breakup and you carried the loss of your relationship around like a body hung around your neck. And then one day, someone attractive makes eye contact and smiles at you when you walk by. That’s all. You don’t get married or anything. You never even see them again. They weren’t even really your type! It’ll be months before you go on another first date. But for the rest of the walk home you feel lighter than you’ve felt in months and when you get home you reactivate that old dating app profile of yours and start scrolling through the possibilities and thinking to yourself, “I wonder…. I wonder…”
Or maybe you’ve experienced something like my mother. She gave her firstborn child up for adoption when she was quite young. And then one day, 30 years later, she called the adoption agency to tell them she was ready to release her contact information to her son if he ever wanted it. The woman on the other end of the phone said, “Oh, well, he’s already released his information to you. His name is Josh. I can just go ahead and give you his phone number, if you like. Do you have a pen?”
And so then, just like that, my mom had a name and phone number. But she didn’t call right away! Would you have? Could you have? She needed to wait a minute. To meditate in the darkest tomb of her life which had suddenly and miraculously just opened up, full of morning light and fresh air and not a body in sight. What could it mean? What could happen? It could be bad. It could be great.
The empty tomb is a good sign. It’s good news. But it’s good news that’s hard too—really hard. It can be confusing. Imagine if you were one of the faithful female disciples. You stood by the cross and didn’t run like the men because even though you were heartbroken you knew what Jesus needed. And first thing on Sunday morning you got up early with oil and spices because even though you were heartbroken you knew what needed to be done for the body. And when you arrive, the stone you were going to have to contend with has already been pushed aside. And the tomb is empty. The body you knew what to do for is gone. How would that feel? I think you probably know.
But if you’re brave enough to face that empty tomb, to be still for a little bit, to meditate on it, the angels might begin whispering to you. “Don’t be afraid!” they say. And they remind you—"Don’t you already know? Didn’t he already tell you? This is good news—tell the others!”
And just look at the way the male disciples take it. They hear the tomb is open, Jesus’ body is gone, and that angels met the women to tell them the good news—He is risen! And they can’t believe. They can’t. And, yes, I wish that the men had held the word of those faithful female disciples in higher regard. They were wrong not to listen. But I think in this case they were also human not to be able to hear.
Notice that text doesn’t say something like, “But Peter believed the good news and so he went to the tomb to see for himself.” No, Peter was just like the other men. He didn’t believe. Couldn’t believe. But something in Peter was just a little more ready than the other men. And so, even though he didn’t believe, maybe because he didn’t believe, he went down to the empty tomb to see for himself. That’s the first step, I guess—to make our way to the empty tomb. Peter looked around. He still wasn’t ready to say, “He is risen!” He still wasn’t ready for that. But he was ready to be amazed. He was ready to wonder, “What if? What if?”
Between “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!” and “He is Risen! Truly, indeed, He is Risen!” there is a small, quiet, hard, and hopeful place. It’s a tomb, really, but an open one. You go there to wonder, “What if? What if!” You go there to remember what God has promised to accomplish.
The Good News of the resurrection didn’t roll over the disciples like a bulldozer. It didn’t blow a trumpet in their ears to wake them up. It snuck up on them like a warm breeze. It whispered of possibility. It asked them to conspire with Easter. It asked them to believe. It asked them to lean into tale even before anyone could believe it. It asked them to preach the good news when the good news was nothing more than “idle talk.” And it asked them to trust that what God was doing was what God had promised she would do, and that Jesus would see it through in his own mysterious, embodied way.
So, Beloved, let’s not be afraid of the empty tomb. Let’s not be afraid of the empty tombs in our lives, the changes and the transitions. When one of our tombs cracks open and the corpses and secrets and pain inside disappear for a moment, I think that’s God’s way of saying, “Prepare to be amazed! Like it or not, something new is about to happen: You are alive! And it’s almost time to leave this tomb behind!”