The holiest site in Christendom is a small hole, an empty space, in which you can fit just three or four people. The hole is the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem the site of Christ’s burial, best seen shortly after the church opens at 4am. Later it throngs with pilgrim groups and in five weeks time it will be a place of pandemonium as Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter and the church is packed for the ceremony of the Holy Fire, when the Greek Orthodox patriarch accompanied by an Armenian priest go into Christ’s tomb and emerges with blazing torches, miraculously lit. The fire is passed around to light bunches of candles brandished by the thousands of worshippers packed into the church. Health and Safety is not a priority in that church. The Easter fire is then sent by plane to Greece and other Orthodox countries.
That same hole, the empty tomb, is at the centre of our celebrations tonight at this Easter Vigil. An empty tomb is what is announced in the gospel reading from Luke. There is no account of the resurrection itself anywhere, the moment of resurrection is not recorded, we do not know precisely when it happened, it was some time between the nightfall of the Sabbath and the dawn of the following day. There were no human witnesses, but perhaps a beetle, a spider or a fly were there at the time.
When the women got to the tomb, they find no body, just the stone rolled away and the burial cloths left behind.The words of Jesus come back to them through the two mysterious messengers, these angels, whose presence frightens the women, as angels do, just as they frightened Mary and the shepherds at the beginning of Luke’s gospel
This experience is unsettling, the death of Jesus was traumatic enough, but to go and find his body missing is extremely distressing. Just imagine if you were to go to the funeral directors for a viewing only to be told that your departed loved one is not there, the body has gone!
The disciples consider the report of the women to be pure nonsense. The Greek word that Luke uses ‘leros’, is the word from which we derive ‘delirious.’ The disciples thought the women were delirious, raving mad, and might we not have thought the same?
These first reports of the empty tomb vary in their details, and it is interesting to compare the four accounts in the gospels. The fact that they vary does not make the resurrection any less true. If there are four witnesses to one dramatic event, they may well give four accounts of what happened, they might notice different things and not agree on all on the details. Though these initial reports of the resurrection differ, all agree on one essential point: the tomb was empty.
The empty tomb is not reason enough to believe in the risen Christ, but it is the starting point. After he saw the empty tomb and the burial cloths, St Luke says Peter went away amazed, wondering what had happened.
Yesterday after the Liturgy of Good Friday, the church was empty. You may have felt the same.Now as Holy Week comes to its dramatic culmination in our Easter celebrations, let our minds be filled with wonder and amazement at what has happened. Let our hearts be filled with hope and the joy of the Risen Lord.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!