How to Empty a Tomb
April 11, 2020 – David R. Weiss
The past thirty-six hours have been a blur. There was anxiety and expectation heavy in the air during the meal on Thursday night. You didn’t want to go to the garden after supper. But he was restless and on edge. So the whole group of you went. Safety in numbers. Except not.
He prayed a lot. But usually by himself in a lonely place. That night he craved company—but seemed lonelier than ever. You doubt that he prayed for the soldiers to come. But come they did. And from then on things have spun more and more out of control.
Whisked away into the night. Hauled before both imperial and Temple authorities. Toyed with. Beaten. Tortured. Likely raped if the rumors were true. And then marched through the city, beyond the gates, and hung naked on a tree to die. Your rabbi—your teacher—your Lord. Your messianic hope now hoisted beneath a mocking sign that called him “King of the Jews,” but left him to writhe in agony until some hours later he breathed his last. (Which was mercy compared to some who lasted days on those damned and damning trees.)
You watched from the shadows as a soldier pierced his side to confirm his death. And next you breathed the sort of sigh of relief that comes after crying your eyes dry, retching your guts out, and then you realize that—at least—someone has taken him off the cross so he’s not left there during the Sabbath. And then you hate yourself for feeling relief of any sort.
Now it’s Saturday. And you’ve never heard of Easter. All you know is that the man you pinned your hopes on, spent yesterday pinned to a tree, and now lies in a tomb. Killed—murdered by an imperial power that might have felt a twinge of threat on account of his social teachings and impassioned followers … but a power that mostly acted out of the perverse joy it took in brutality, humiliation, violation, and public intimidation.
And today he is very much dead. Humiliated, brutalized, and violated. And you’re very much intimidated. Your grief is boxed in by fear. And that tomb harbors a corpse now waiting, like your hope, to give way to rot.
Or maybe that wasn’t you at all.
Maybe you’re the person shouting Black Lives Matter—fueled by holy rage at white supremacy too often dressed in blue, but equally at ease in the more subtle hues of daily life. Or the person marching for disappeared indigenous women. Maybe you’re the one arrested for protesting the way we’ve caged immigrants and refugees. Or the one aghast at how easily and often self-identified “Christian” people hurl hate at our Jewish and Muslim cousins.
Maybe you’re the person whose deep desire is keeping oil as deep as possible in the ground, while the imperial forces on this continent seem committed to rape the land and foul the water until Earth herself is as dead as that man in the tomb. Or the one so moved to empathy and anguish over the planetary collapse coming our way that your own breathing is breathless with grief.
Maybe, in this “greatest country on Earth,” you can’t escape the dawning awareness that this country has YET to be great. That, so far, it’s “greatness” has been so entangled with genocide and slavery and intentional ecological/human exploitation and systemic injustice, that only the most selective (i.e., perverse) sense of “greatness” is apropos.
Or maybe, as we hurtle ourselves unprepared and under-protected into a pandemic that could’ve-should’ve-would’ve been foreseen had our nation not spent the past years and months deliberately unpreparing and unprotecting ourselves—maybe on account of that, you feel more widespread anguish at squandered resources, endangered workers, and lost lives than any one body or psyche was designed to bear.
I don’t know who you are. This one or that one. Or still some other person whose hope seems destined to rot in a tomb on Holy Saturday.
But, even without knowing who you are, I might have some slim knowledge you’ll find useful. See, I’ve spent most of my life here in Holy Saturday. Paused (too many days) between the stench of death and the scent of lilies. Like Charon (Hades’ ferryman), except I seek to ferry folks the other way—back into the land of the living. My temperament seems awkwardly suited to be in this place: not quite fully alive, but convinced—as an article of faith—that life lies this way.
So I will tell you how to empty a tomb.
Find a thin silver thread. Gratitude. Sunshine, springtime, friendship, beauty, music, rainbows. Hell, in my case, rhubarb. Small as a mustard seed. Take that silver thread, no matter how thin, and hold it in your aching, empty, hopeless heart. Just hold it. Nothing more. What good is this? I can’t say for sure, but I think, because it echoes, however weakly, the declaration of goodness that God spoke in the very beginning, that this tiny silver thread ties you, me, each one of us, back to the fabric of creation itself. But I’m just guessing.
Next, don’t run from your grief. Walk toward it. Hold it near. In the company of others, if you can. Sob if you wish. Let it move from sole to soul, from head to heart. East of Eden, the world runs on grief. Every creature knows pain; some handful of creatures know grief. We may not be the only ones to ennoble it by willingly embracing it. But we, at least, can do this. Your grief is the witness your heart offers to what you have loved and hoped and dreamed. Grief marks the reach of our humanity. So reach, dammit. That ache is your lifeline. Grab on.
Now, this is where the miracle happens. Tradition (Matthew 28:1-3) says that at about the crack of dawn, the tomb itself was cracked open. An angel (and an earthquake) get the credit. But read closely. Verse one says the women—the grieving women—were coming to anoint the dead body of the humiliated, brutalized, violated man who was their hope. Their coming precipitated the earthquake, brought down the angel, and emptied the tomb.
You say, but God did these things. I say, sure. But God chooses (or is bound—does it really matter, if it’s true?) to be moved by grief. (In Exodus—3:7, 4:31, 6:5—grief is what leads God to liberate the Hebrews from slavery.) This isn’t magic, as though we might manipulate divine energy and put our grief to self-serving ends. No. The grief that moves God is grief that aches for such sufferings as we hold in common with all persons, and the grief that rages against injustice that brutalizes anyone or anything. That grief—because it senses the oughtness of God’s desire for the cosmos and acts on that sense with compassion (they were bringing spices to anoint the body, for God’s sake!)—that grief-birthed compassion calls forth the miracle we call resurrection.
Chicken or egg? There is no single answer; they’re a matched set. Like holy grief and Holy God. Our lives are entwined more closely to God’s life than we imagine. Which is maybe what that mustard seed he spoke of was all about …
Do you find yourself today—on Holy Saturday—huddled in an upper room (or anywhere else!), gripped by grief and anguish and rage at that which is … but ought not be? Do you know the terror, the taunt, of a tomb that tries to tell you your hope is at an end? Then, standing in this in between place alongside you, I will tell you once again how God chooses to open tombs.
The tiniest sliver of gratitude. The deepest grief and anguish and rage—embraced without reserve. And the intent, the act of compassion. God waits. These mere means: gratitude, grief, compassion. And BANG. This miracle.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.