Matthew says there was an earthquake when the angel of the Lord came down, rolled away the stone of an empty tomb and sat on it. Both the earthquake and the empty tomb give us apt images for the way we experience Easter this year.
An earthquake turns the world turned topsy-turvy in a short time and that is exactly what the COVID-19 pandemic has done. Suddenly everything is out of place. Church, the place of refuge in hard times has become a place of danger. Schools are empty. Community is suddenly located on the Internet where social critics have said it is conspicuously absent.
The earthquake has Eastertide, like the tomb, feeling empty this year. The boisterous celebrations with trumpets and choirs aren’t happening. Here at the abbey, we celebrate the Easter Vigil the way we usually do except for simplifying the lighting of the Easter fire and the procession. But we usually have a lot of people join us for the liturgy and this year nobody can come. The church will feel empty. We usually have a party after the Easter Vigil. This year we will not because there is nobody to have a party with.
At Easter, we usually skip the empty tomb and jump to celebrate Jesus’ being raised to life, which is quite a lot to be excited about. The empty tomb is mentioned in all four Gospels but it seems beside the point when Jesus is walking around, still bearing the wounds of his crucifixion yet very much alive.
The earthquake and the empty tomb go together. An earthquake shakes everything up, leaving us with a lot of empty space. And that’s what the empty tomb is: an empty space where the body of Jesus was supposed to be. Since, in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel wastes no time in telling the women that Jesus is risen and the women run into Jesus himself almost immediately on their way to tell the disciples, we are not given time to reflect on the empty tomb. The other evangelists, especially John, give us more time for this.
But let’s linger at the empty tomb just a bit in this time of loss and fear of more loss. The empty tomb is a hole in the Resurrection. How can the Resurrection have a hole in it? Isn’t the Resurrection about the fullness of life? But emptiness and fullness go together when it comes to the spiritual life. We go through life with gnawing desires that can’t be filled and sometimes shouldn’t be. Usually we don’t even realize it. If we stop and reflect, the emptiness stares us in the face. That is why many prefer not to stop and reflect.
When an earthquake like the pandemic strikes, we are so shaken up that it is very hard to avoid thinking about what really matters in life and what doesn’t. Things important yesterday aren’t so important today. The disciples thought they knew Jesus pretty well but when Jesus allowed himself to be handed over to the Jewish and Roman authorities and be crucified by them, they weren’t so sure they knew Jesus after all. Wasn’t he the one who was going to redeem Israel? Doesn’t look like he’s done that.
The earthquake and the empty tomb give us the space to empty out our preconceptions about Jesus, and what it means for Jesus to reveal God to us. One of the preconceptions is the need to organize society around who is “in” and who is “out.” Jesus was cast out of the city and crucified so that society could come together in his absence. But Jesus’ absence, the empty tomb, becomes the center. And in this empty center, Jesus comes to greet us and to tell us not to be afraid. Strange words to hear in the midst of a frightening earthquake and in an empty tomb. Can we hear these words? Can we empty ourselves enough to let the greeting of Jesus fill us with a new life that is beyond our understanding, a new life that will transform the crisis of today and the crises we will face in the future?