The Lenten and Easter season are upon us. It is a time of great reflection and self-examination. For as Christians, we are called to not only make sacrifices but to pray upon and consider the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. It is after all, the basic foundation upon which our faith is built. That Christ sacrificed for us upon the cross, so that we might have eternal life and forgiveness of sins. Then, and for the generations to come.
During His lifetime and ministry, Christ accomplished many miracles that served as testament to His divinity. Still, upon His death there were more skeptics than not that doubted Jesus was the Son of God.
Scripture did predict, specifically the prophet Isaiah and nearly 700 years before Jesus was born; that the Messiah would be rejected, stand silent before his accusers and ultimately be killed. Isaiah would refer to Him as a “suffering servant”. But fear and disbelief in the hearts and minds of religious Jewish leaders at the time, denounced Jesus as the Messiah. Even to the point that Jesus himself throws a gauntlet down to them, “You study the scriptures diligently, because in your seeking you think you earn eternal life. But these are the very scriptures which testify of Me.” (John 5:39)
But as many wrestled with the idea, most dismissively, that Jesus Christ as indeed of God; Jesus accomplished His final miracle while He was alive on earth- to rise from the dead! In fulfillment of scripture and in fulfillment of God’s promise to His people; in God’s love for them and to put to rest the debate, Christ was indeed the Son of God.
Upon the crucifixion of Christ, all four Gospels agree that a learned noble man of the Jewish Council; with prestige and influence, “went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43) We know this man to be Saint Joseph of Arimathea. He owned a new grave honed in stone, which he gave for the body of Christ to be reposed. It is even extrapolated in the Book of Isaiah as well, that one of rich means would come to assist in the death of the Messiah.
There is some agreement in the Gospels as well, that Jewish leaders were concerned of the prophecy that claimed the Messiah would return from the dead. Even Christ predicted, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, but on the third day he will be raised to life.” (Matthew 17:22-23) So these Jewish leaders petitioned Pilate for a guard to stand at the tomb of Jesus, to insure that his body was not removed. Removal of the body they thought, could serve to perpetuate a rumor that Jesus did rise from the dead and thereby spread consequence unchecked among the masses. There is to this point, some debate; whether the guards placed were actually Roman guards or guards under the employ of the Jewish temple leaders. Pilate merely states “You have your guard. Go and make it secure as you know how.” (Matthew 27:65) In either case, it would be to the benefit of the Jewish leaders that the body of Jesus remain in the tomb.
Again all the Gospels agree, that early in the morning just after dawn on the day after the Sabbath; being the first day of the week, women went to the tomb. Whether they were going to complete traditional burial rites to anoint Jesus with spices and oils or merely to pray and grieve, Mary Magdalene went and perhaps with the other Mary and Salome as well. In fact, on the way to the tomb “… they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’” (Mark 16:3)
“But when they arrived, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.” (Mark 16:4) The Gospel of Matthew tells of “a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning and his clothes as white as snow. There guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:3-4)
In any case, we know when the women arrived- the heavy stone had been rolled away. The manner of which remains a mystery, or more so- a miracle, for the tomb was empty. In his book, The Case for Christ, investigative journalist and Christian author Lee Strobel said such tombs used a manner in which a “large disk shaped stone was rolled down a slanted groove and lodged into the place across the door. A smaller stone was then wedged into place to secure the disk. Although it was easy to roll the big disk down, it would take several men to roll the stone back up to reopen the tomb. In this case, a tomb was quite secure.” (p.211) Albeit, an angel tells the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.” (Matthew 28:5-6)
What we learn from all of this, though there exists some minor differences in Gospel accounts, is that the tomb was indeed empty. Christ had risen! For had his body been stolen away, it would have taken many men many laborious hours in darkness to do this, and to what end? Certainly not for the Jews, as in their interest it was the body to remain to dispel the story of His resurrection. Indeed, there are multiple accounts of Jesus being seen and encountered following Easter morning.
I am moved by a line toward the end of the movie, The Greatest Story Ever Told, where the religious Jewish leaders are gathered at the news of the disappearance of Jesus’ body. They are discussing how the guards must have fallen asleep not to notice who removed it. To which one of them states, “No matter, this will all be forgotten in a week.” Another ponders, “I wonder.”
In these fictionalized words, the foundation of a faith lasting more than two thousand years is laid. The events of Christ crucifixion, death and resurrection have never been forgot. Jesus command at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) has become the cornerstone of our Eucharistic celebrations.
Indeed, each day as Christians we are to make our own spiritual journey into the Garden. In the heart of our heart and in our faith, let us approach the tomb of our Savior. Christ died and sacrificed for us upon the Cross. Arms outstretched still, He calls for us to come forward and to love Him; to embrace Him, just as He loves and embraces us. When we make this journey into the Garden, our conscious effort to approach Christ; the question ultimately becomes our own personal miracle of faith. Will you roll the stone away? Will you find the tomb empty?
Father Wolf is a retired police officer in New Jersey, the pastor of St. Aelred’s Parish, and an Assisting Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in the Old Catholic Churches International.