It is around eleven p.m. on the Saturday night of Holy Pascha: “Easter” in Orthodox tradition. The faithful gather quietly in the darkened church, while a reader chants passages from the Book of Acts. Shortly before midnight the priest pronounces the blessing to begin the brief office of Nocturnes. At the prescribed moment, he exits the altar for the center of the nave and lifts up the epitaphios, the image of Christ asleep in the tomb, placed there for the people’s veneration at the vesperal service of Holy Friday. Returning with it to the altar, the priest concludes Nocturnes while the faithful extinguish every lamp and every candle in the church.
In the darkness, the priest emerges once again, bearing a single lighted taper. Its flame is passed from person to person, until the entire edifice, like the cosmos at its creation, is filled with new light. Then he and the choir begin to intone the majestic hymn: “Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing….” A procession follows, during which the people, led by priest and choir, circle the church three times, proclaiming the resurrection to the world. As the crowd gathers before the closed church doors, the priest reads the account of Christ’s resurrection from among the dead, taken from the Gospel of St Mark.
The focus in this passage (Mk 16:1-8) is on the Empty Tomb and the angel’s declaration to the women, “He is risen, he is not here!” In the experience of these women, the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, this is the epitome of “Good News.” For nearly three years they journeyed with Jesus and his small band of disciples. They welcomed him into their homes, prepared meals for him, and in various ways ministered to him and to those who accompanied him. When he was finally arrested, they stood by at a distance, witnessing the abuse heaped upon him, cringing at Peter’s outspoken denial of him, and lamenting the injustice done to this man they knew to be righteous and holy: the son of Mary, but also the Son of God.
Once his sentence was passed, these women looked on as he was brutally beaten, then bound and led out of the city to be crucified. They had seen other men tortured and killed in this way—a typical Roman execution, whose torment was reserved for political prisoners, murderers and others condemned as traitors or dangerous rabble. They had heard the screams and watched, fascinated and horrified, while crucified men writhed on the makeshift crosses, trying desperately to breathe as their strength gradually ebbed away. They, like so many onlookers in the days of Roman occupation, had seen what it is to die a slow and agonizing death on a cross: death brought on by asphyxiation, as the victim lost the strength to hold himself upright. Finally, his head fell forward, cutting off his airway, and he gave up his last breath. Crucifixion was an unimaginably cruel means of execution. These women knew that from their own experience, because so many condemned men had been killed that way outside the walls of Jerusalem. Now it was Jesus’ turn to undergo the same torture and endure the same unspeakable suffering.
As Jesus hung on the cross, attempting desperately to lift his head and draw air into his aching lungs, the women watched and waited. His disciples, except for the youngest, had scattered, afraid his fate would become their own. The women nevertheless remained faithful. They kept vigil throughout the afternoon, weeping in despair over the cruelty and injustice this innocent man was forced to endure. Once the end finally came, they and others pulled the nails from his wasted flesh and took his corpse down from the cross. Joseph of Arimathea, and perhaps the disciple John, carried Jesus’ lifeless body to Joseph’s new tomb, hewn out of the rock. Because the Sabbath was drawing near, they had to leave the body before they could complete the burial rite. A great stone was rolled in front of the entrance to the tomb, and the men returned to their homes. The women, though, saw just where he was buried, and, although obliged to return home as well, they continued to keep vigil.
Very early on the day following the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and other women returned to the tomb, bearing spices in order to prepare the body according to Jewish practice. They carried with them myrrh, a fitting fulfillment of the prophetic gesture made by the Magi at Jesus’ birth. Surprised that the stone at the mouth of the tomb had been rolled away, they entered, only to find the empty shroud and the “young man,” the angelic witness.
“He is risen,” the young man announced, “He is not here.”
Can angels be mistaken? If there is one truth that stands out above every other in the gospel message, it is this: that in the darkness of that tomb, and of every tomb, Christ the Giver of Life is present. “You seek Jesus of Nazareth,” the angel declared. Then he added the qualification so often obscured by our translations: “the Crucified One. He is not here….” Crucified and risen; risen yet forever crucified, bearing in his body the condemnation and death of all those who, like the women, remain faithful to him and seek his face, his abiding presence.
As the Risen One, we declare with the angel, Jesus was “not there.” As the Crucified One, however, he is and remains in the darkness of the tomb, in the abyss of Sheol, reaching out his hands to seize, to embrace, and to raise up with himself both the living and the dead. Although risen and glorified, Jesus is nonetheless present in that tomb. And he will remain there, so long as we are there ourselves.