The traditional pattern of the Stations of the Cross end at the tomb, as Jesus is laid to rest. The pilgrims following the Via Dolorosa disperse. Like the women and the disciples, like Joseph and Nicodemus, they leave Jesus in the tomb and get on with other things. The entrance is sealed by a stone and the dead body of Jesus is there, in the dark, buried, alone.
If you are in Jerusalem and you have been following the Stations of the Cross as a group then in fact at this point you will probably join the queue to get into the Sepulchre. The line normally snakes around what appears quite a bizarre structure beneath a small rotunda. It appears strange when you consider that the tomb in which Jesus was laid was probably fashioned out of a cave, in a garden. There is no hint of cave, no hint of mountain, obviously no hint of garden. You can walk all round the Sepulchre, as you often do, looking for the end of the queue and you cannot imagine – or at least I can’t – that this is the place referred to in the Gospels. So it’s no wonder that many pilgrims visit the Garden Tomb, not far away but outside the modern city walls, near the bus station in East Jerusalem. They go there, I suspect, not because they imagine that this is the ancient site of Jesus’ burial (though some suggest it might be) but because it looks as we imagine it to look, a cave, the deep groove in front of the entrance for a rolling stone, a garden and a wine press. It is very beautiful and very evocative.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built under the orders of Emperor Constantine in 325/326 after his mother St Helena had found the True Cross on the site. At first it consisted of two connected basilicas instead of the one church we now see. One basilica contained Golgotha, the other the site of the tomb and was called the Anastasis (Resurrection in Greek). But since the church became one, in the western church we have called the whole place ‘The Holy Sepulchre’ whilst Orthodox Christians still call it the ‘Anastasis’. I think that it is so much better to call it the latter, just as it is good to add a fifteenth Station to the traditional fourteen. After all, the cross only makes sense in the light of the resurrection and we cannot allow ourselves to be trapped in Good Friday and not released into the new life of Easter Day.
To be honest I find it a lot easier to preach a sermon on Good Friday than on Easter Day. I suppose it’s because I feel that I have experienced some of what the cross means – pain, suffering, a sense of failure, abandonment – and if I haven’t then I know people who have. The cross feels like familiar territory to me; in a strange way it feels ‘comfortable’. But what do I know of resurrection?
Resurrection is beyond my experience and beyond the experience I see around me. It feels more divine than human; joy seems more evasive than sorrow; new life a challenge to my understanding locked, as I so often feel, into this life. But at the same time I know that the Church is the ‘community of the resurrection’, that as St Augustine of Hippo so famously described it
We are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.
As Christians it is in Easter that we find our true identity even though the cross may be the symbol by which we are best known. So I look around for metaphors to enable my understanding and that is what we all do at Easter. Hence the cards in the shops! Bunnies, chicks, lambs, daffodils, they all frolic or wave to one another through our Easter greetings as though they in some way help to describe what we mean when we all stand up together and say in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds
On the third day he rose again.
But the images and the metaphors are pathetic alongside what it is that we are talking about and that must be about the complete and ultimate victory of God over sin, death and the Devil – and it is as big as that. And that is precisely what makes it so challenging for us to get our heads around. A bunny is easier to deal with, an egg or a daffodil familiar – but where do you put a victory like this, where do you put a God who can achieve this and what really does it mean for my life now?
For Mary Magdalene it becomes personal.
She had seen where Jesus had been buried but she couldn’t leave it at that, she had to go back to the garden and the tomb as soon as she was able. Some of the men went with her and they found that the tomb was empty (John 20.1-10). Peter and John went back to tell the others but Mary remained and her faithfulness paid off. There in the first light of the day she encountered Jesus even though at first she didn’t know who it was she was talking to. (John 20.11-18)
But the penny dropped, the moment of recognition came when the unknown person, the one she at first assumed was the gardener, called her by name – ‘Mary’. It took no more than that. She heard her name and she recognised Jesus. The fact that Jesus encountered her personally meant that she could recognise him in his risen reality.
The journey to Calvary has been long and hard. But it was worth it, all the struggles and the pain, it was all worth the travelling because Calvary and its companion, death, are behind us and in this garden we find life, our life. And Jesus died to destroy death – your death – and to restore life – your life and he gives it to you as he calls you by name as he called Mary by name. It becomes personal, as it becomes universal.
No wonder Easter is beyond my imagining! But it is not beyond my living.
John Keble wrote a poem that we often sing as a hymn and it expresses the reality of Easter that other images of what we share as Christians simply cannot do.
New every morning is the love
our wakening and uprising prove;
through sleep and darkness safely brought,
restored to life and power and thought.
As night gives way to dawn, as death gives way to life, we are constantly being made new in Christ, raised, ‘restored to life and power and thought.’ Easter is in fact a daily miracle that we do have experience of, but often simply don’t realise that we do. And the daily miracle becomes the life time miracle and life time miracle becomes the miracle of eternity as we are called by name and follow the one who calls us, following where he leads. For the risen Jesus is always ahead of us, he is always bound elsewhere, the journey never ends until it ends where it began, in life, with life, for life. That is the Easter promise, that is the Easter reality that you, and I, are already living.
my resurrection and my life,
fill me with your life,
that I may live
with Easter joy,
the gift you give today.