By. Sr. Elizabeth Ann, SSJD.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Amen.
On my first full day in Jerusalem on tour with my brother in January 2020, we entered a Garden outside the city walls of the Old City. Traditionally the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus has been in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the walls of Old Jerusalem. The church was built in the 4th century when Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, found what was believed to be “the true cross,” and the church was built on the site. In the last few centuries, some scholars have questioned whether the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the actual site of the gospel events. The Garden my brother and I entered that day is an alternative location very close to an outcrop of rock called Skull Hill. We walked the path around the garden stopping first at a lookout towards the cliff face, part of an ancient stone quarry where we could see what looked like the leering eyes of a skull in the rock face. Beneath the cliff is a busy bus depot with constant noise and movement, a testament to how public this place was in those days and still is. As crucifixion was used by the Romans as a deterrent to criminals, the garden site lies along a main road, just outside Damascus Gate, where many people would pass by and see the crucified bodies. Further along in the garden there is an ancient tomb carved into the rock, along with the remains of an ancient garden. In the garden a wine press from the time of Jesus was excavated suggesting both the presence of a vineyard, and that it could have been the garden of a wealthy owner, perhaps Joseph of Arimathea. A channel in the rock beneath the front wall of the tomb might be a track where a large stone would roll to block the entrance to the tomb. These facts and suppositions fit the description from John’s gospel which says, “So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.” And further, “at the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no-one had ever been laid,” (John 19:16b- 20, 41). The tomb had been used again over the years as inside one sees a Byzantine cross painted over the tomb, and a Crusader cross carved outside on the front wall of the tomb. Only 2 or 3 pilgrims could enter the tomb at a time, to spend a short time marvelling at the empty tomb, perhaps echoing the words in their hearts, as I did, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him” (Mark 16.6). I experienced both the reverence of the place and the stark emptiness of that tomb hewn out of rock.
The gospel reading from Mark’s account is short, even abrupt. The ending seemed so sudden or unfinished that later editors of the gospel felt it necessary to add in their own experiences. What I appreciate is that this account was not removed: it validated the experience of resurrection these women had. The women had gone to the Garden wondering who would roll the stone away from the entrance and instead found that the stone had already been moved. Inside the tomb they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right. They were alarmed: the tomb was empty and there was someone inside whose message indicated that he was an angel, a messenger of God. He said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” Then they were sent to tell the other disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. The women “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
There is no appearance of Jesus to the women in this short Easter gospel to either assure them or confirm what they came to believe. Somehow in their hearts, they came to understand that the empty tomb meant that Jesus was alive–and staying silent was not an option. The good news is that eventually the women related their experience to the others, and they continued in Jesus’ teaching, in community, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. They began to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ. They sought to serve Christ in all persons, loving their neighbours as themselves. And they strove for peace and justice among all people, respecting the dignity of each human being. Once the women spoke up and showed how they were continuing to pattern their lives on Christ, then others began to share how they had encountered the Risen Christ. I like this short ending of the gospel of Mark because like the women I haven’t experienced a dramatic appearance of Christ. No, for me an empty tomb gives me space to be with my questions and doubts in the mystery of our faith. That’s where Holy Spirit has room to work within me to transform me into the likeness of Christ so I too can pattern my life on those baptismal promises. In the letter to the Romans we read, ”If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through God’s Spirit that dwells in you.” When I see how people’s lives are transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, then I know that Christ is alive among us.
As noted in a recent blog post by Herbie O’Driscoll called Last Sunday in Jerusalem, when St. Helena was looking for the sites in Jerusalem associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus in the 4th century, she met the local Christian community there who could show her where these things had taken place. They had preserved the memory which was passed down to them. O’Driscoll also noted that Bishop Melito of Sardis had come even earlier in 160 CE, to confirm the places set out in the gospel. He too had consulted with the local Christian community there. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built with the resources of Constantine’s imperial empire, was built over the site where the local Christian community had said that Jesus had been crucified and risen from the tomb. Because of the crowds of pilgrims who flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, our time there was ever so brief and I found it hard to even realize that I was standing at the foot of the cross as I knelt there to pray for a fleeting moment, then touching the pavement where Jesus’ body was anointed for burial, and finally walking around the Edicule which enclosed the site of Jesus’ tomb. As for the Garden Tomb, it was a good experience for me to go into a tomb carved into rock where I could feel the emptiness of the space, the cold radiating from the stone, see the dim darkness, to align it with my own sense of the empty tomb within the garden of my life. Salvation history continues to be written in our hearts. My faith feels closer to the experience of the women at the empty tomb who fled terrified and amazed, and yet who found a way to make the good news spread. Our Easter message remains like theirs: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! Amen.
*Diocese of New Westminster Blog Post, April 1, 2021. https://www.vancouver.anglican.ca/blog/the-last-sunday Herbert O’Driscoll, The Last Sunday: Jerusalem April 1993
* Image from: https://holdingtotruth.com/2014/04/19/how-live-reality-of-resurrection/