Life & Soul Life and Soul

Christians who reject the empty tomb are the real myth-makers

Noli me tangere, by Sarto

As the Masses of Easter Octave come to an end, so do the daily Gospel proclamations of Jesus’s post-Resurrection appearances. For some reason this year I was struck as though for the first time by an apparent incongruity. Why does the first Gospel announcement of Resurrection centre on the empty tomb? Why on Easter Sunday morning do we have just the account of an empty sepulchre?

Pursuing this thought further, I read what Benedict XVI wrote in Jesus of Nazareth. He says the Resurrection appearances are not the Resurrection; they are its “reflection”. This seems an apt description. Reflection is an image of something real. It captures light from something which makes it visible, but retains the appearance of a reality still greater than itself on which it depends. In other words, Jesus’s appearances to the disciples do not exhaust the meaning of the Resurrection.

There is more to Jesus’s life on the other side of the grave than a few meetings with his disciples. The Jesus who appears is the same person whom they knew (how else could they recognise him?) but living in a different way; not less real than the appearance, but more real. The disciples conclude Jesus is truly risen, but what being “raised from the dead” means is outside our cognisance.

And it struck me that if the women going to the tomb had instead first seen the risen Jesus and gone to tell the disciples, they would be even less likely to be believed. After all, in my line of work it is not that unusual for people to tell me that they have “seen” people who have died. It is a very common reaction, particularly to sudden or traumatic deaths. To confront a tomb which still housed the body of the beloved would provide a cold blast of reality to such fantasies.

We should continue to focus on the empty tomb, because those who reject it – the so-called demythologisers who say that their faith wouldn’t be affected by finding the bones of Jesus – perpetuate the most preposterous of myths, namely that one can be risen while one’s body lies corrupting, and that the psyche, not the flesh, is the hinge of salvation: Jesus is risen because I believe him to be so, even though the tomb still holds him.

No, if the tomb isn’t empty then Jesus is the subject of history not its object. We marked the Paschal candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil to signify that it represents the risen body of Jesus, tracing the Cross on it and inserting incense grains to represent his wounds. As we did so we affirmed that he is the Alpha and the Omega, and by his wounds we are preserved and freed from death. In what sense could we possibly claim, as St Peter does, that we are healed by these wounds if they annihilated his bodily existence?

But if the body remained in the tomb, as revisionists assert, then it is easy to claim that teachings which come from Jesus are similarly the subject of historical necessity, reflections of a finite cultural, religious milieu, inevitably destined to give way to new truths about the human person and particularly about the dignity and telos
of the human body in areas like marriage and sexuality.

If the body of Jesus is buried and corrupted then his teachings can similarly be buried, albeit with great reverence and respect. To call today’s Church his Body is a sham if I assume that her dogmas likewise corrupt with time, and only the foolish believe them literally.