Years ago, when I was a student of theology, I took a course on the resurrection. The entire semester was devoted to looking at the theological, scriptural and spiritual understanding of Jesus’ being raised from the dead. One day, about a week before the Easter break, a joke was circulating in class among the students: “Did you hear about the banner hung from one of the bridges in Rome? The writing on it says, ‘Easter is cancelled; they found the body.’ ”
Our professor, a rather fearsome intellectual and an expert in Christology, came striding into the room, heard the murmuring and demanded to know what we were talking about. He listened in silence as one brave soul related the joke and then he turned an eagle eye on us. “It’s a good point,” he said. “What about it? Would it make a difference to your faith if indeed, someone could show, with irrefutable evidence, that they had found Jesus’ body in a tomb?”
Dead silence reigned in the classroom as 20 seminarians and lay students avoided his eye. We knew it was a trick question. If we said no, that it wouldn’t make a difference if they found Jesus’ body, we would still have faith, were we saying that Jesus’ bodily resurrection was only an optional item of faith? We could argue that one shouldn’t read Scripture literally and then try to make a case for Jesus’ “spiritual resurrection.” In that case, finding Christ’s body wouldn’t make a difference, but what then of centuries of Christian belief precisely in a bodily resurrection?
On the other hand, if we said yes, finding Jesus’ corpse would make a difference to our faith, did that mean we were set on a literal interpretation of Scripture? Were we then caught up in materialism and a physicality that is not necessarily there? Our trouble was that we knew enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be faithful.
Our professor glared at us for a few moments, sensing our confusion. “It better make a difference!” he finally roared, and then he quoted St. Paul to us: “If Christ has not been raised from the dead then our faith is in vain and we are the most pitiful of creatures!” (1 Cor 15 ff). The empty tomb, he pointed out, is part of the essential witness to the resurrection and far from being optional, it is necessary. We can’t have a corpse and a resurrection at the same time; they don’t compute. By the end of the course, he went on to say, he hoped we would have grasped that central belief.
It’s a belief we cling to. My favourite Easter parable comes from Rev. Jim Dinning, one of the pioneers of the Catechumenate movement in North America. An excellent preacher and storyteller, he once told this story:
“One springtime,” he said, “a Sunday school teacher gave each of her young students an empty ‘L’Eggs’ container. These were six-inch plastic eggs that separated into two halves; they were the marketing gimmick for a pantyhose brand, but they were also boon to kindergarten and pre-school teachers everywhere as handy craft materials! The teacher instructed her students to fan out into the churchyard and the adjacent park and bring back signs of spring. It was the week before Easter and they had been discussing the Easter story and its connection to new life. Their task was to find signs of this new life.
After about 20 minutes, the children came back with their treasures carefully nestled in their L’Eggs containers. In some, there were clumps of soil with tiny crocuses and violets poking through; others held twigs with buds beginning to unfurl; several held gently captured ladybugs and spiders, cradled in grass beds. But Philip, who had Down syndrome, held up his L’Eggs container and there was nothing in it. “Philip did it wrong,” the children pointed out. “No I didn’t,” Philip protested, “It’s Easter and the tomb is empty!”
A few months later, the story gets taken up again. Philip had become seriously ill and after several weeks of being sick, he died. At his funeral, a solemn procession of children came forward, each carrying an empty L’Eggs container, to lay on Philip’s tomb. Their hope: what God has done for Christ, God would do for Philip.
It is our hope too. After living 40 days of Lent and wandering in the desert, we are now living 50 days of Easter where we walk in the garden . . . and the tomb is empty. Happy Easter everyone!
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.