Hey! I’ll let you in on a little secret. Are you ready? (whispering) Dead people – well, they usually stay dead. We didn’t need the insights and advances of medical science in the past couple hundred years for humans to know that.
The scriptures make it clear that no one who was following Jesus – his disciples or the many women who were travelling with him and stayed with him right through those terrible last hours of the passion, death and burial of Jesus – none of them expected to find anything other than a dead body in the tomb when they went back there early on the first day of the week – Sunday. And Jesus was certainly dead. It was not his disciples, friends or the women who certified that – it was the Roman soldiers who declared him to be dead. And let’s face it – they were the experts in killing people. That was their business and trade.
Hans Holbein – painting of “The body of the dead Christ in the tomb”, 1522 (Kunstmuseum, Basel). Fyodor Dostoyevsky fell into a feint when he saw this painting. This Jesus is so dead – humanly and in every other sense – how could he ever rise again? That is what the women were prepared to see when they went to the tomb that first day of the week.
But Luke wants us to know something else. Indeed a whole lot of other things as we are given in our reading from chapter 24 – the first movement in his magnificent three-part symphony of the story of the resurrection. He first wants to address a number of clues that he gave us last Sunday (Palm Sunday), when we read his passion story – and particularly the final section from chapter 23.
There the centurion who was overseeing the crucifixion declares that Jesus was innocent (he was a victim, not a villain and didn’t deserve to die). The crowds return home after his death shocked and sad. Those who knew Jesus watched from a distance, including the women who had followed him from Galilee.
When his body was taken down from the cross, Joseph of Arimathea came and took the body, wrapped it in a shroud, and placed the body in a new tomb – ‘where no one had been laid.’ The women – who are finally named in the Gospel today – go with Joseph and see the tomb and how the body was laid. All of these details are carefully spelled out, just as Luke promised in the prologue to his Gospel.
Burial practices in the ANE varied widely. Here, the burial was to be in two stages. First the body would be laid on the ledge in a cave (natural or constructed); it would be wrapped up with spices and ointments to cover the smell of the decomposing flesh. Although this was expensive, it was necessary because a given tomb would be used many times, and in the coming months other bodies would more than likely be laid to rest on other shelves in the same tomb. (But again Luke makes clear this one was new – and hadn’t been used before – so there was no risk that the women had mistaken which shelf the body of Jesus was on – it was the only one in the tomb.) When all the flesh had rotted away, the remaining bones would then be reverently collected and transferred into a small bone-box, called an ossuary. The initial burial was always temporary and only the first stage in saying goodbye to a beloved friend or relative (unlike our practice where the burial is the end of the road). So it was always crucial that people knew where the person had been laid; they would not make a mistake about that.
So when the women went to the tomb, very early on the first day of the week (Sunday), they were going to finalise the preparation of the body, to place more spices around the body to mask and cover the smell when the body decomposed. So they knew which tomb to go for, and also knew that the body of Jesus was the only one there. All they had to worry about was that the stone would not be too heavy to roll away from the entrance. When they arrived and the stone had been rolled away and there was no body inside – what were they to think? The only conclusion is that someone had stolen the body. The possibility of resurrection is so removed from their understanding: yes, they knew that it would happen someday – but it was for all the righteous, all together – not for one person ahead of all the rest. No one had even dreamed that this was a possibility. So yes they are utterly surprised, shocked and shaken.
The women, and perhaps even more so, the disciples are full of surprise, shock, astonishment, fear and confusion. But the saving grace of the women is they remembered the words of Jesus and they shared them with the eleven (Judas is now gone) but they don’t get it and dismiss the words of the women as stupid idle talk. At least Peter cares enough to go and have a look for himself – he stoops down and sees the grave clothes (signs that the body at least had not been stolen – why would anyone unwrap a dead body?) – but the best he can come up with is amazement and to be perplexed. Clearly this was well short of the growing faith of the women.
So what about us? What will we make of all this? The evidence is rather clear: that has been demonstrated again and again over the centuries. “Why look for the living among the dead?”
How will we respond?
Do we join the thousands of voices today that dismiss all of this talk about miracles and the resurrection of Jesus as first-century ‘stupid idle talk’? Do we stay perplexed and amazed? Or do we accept the evidence and remember the words of Jesus – and then come to believe and be transformed by the power of the risen Lord, ‘from glory into glory’?
Recorded at St Michael’s, 7pm (8’52”)