Escape From the Tomb (Jn. 20:1-18)
by Barbara Brown Taylor
Barbara Brown Taylor teaches at Piedmont College in Demorest, Ga. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 1, 1998, page 339; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
When I was a girl, I spent a lot of time in the woods, which were full of treasures for me. At night I lined them up on my bed: fat flakes of mica, buckeyes bigger than shooter marbles, blue jay feathers, bird bones and -- if I was lucky -- a cicada shell, one of those dry brown bug bodies you can find on tree trunks when the 17-year locusts come out of the ground. I liked them for at least two reasons.
First, because they were horrible looking, with their huge empty eye sockets and their six sharp little claws. By hanging them on my sweater or -- better yet -- in my hair, I could usually get the prettier, more popular girls at school to run screaming away from me, which somehow evened the score.
I also liked them because they were evidence that a miracle had occurred. They looked dead, but they weren’t. They were just shells. Every one of them had a neat slit down its back, where the living creature inside of it had escaped, pulling new legs, new eyes, new wings out of that dry brown body and taking flight. At night I could hear them singing their high song in the trees. If you had asked them, I’ll bet none of them could have told you where they left their old clothes.
That is all the disciples saw when they got to the tomb on that first morning -- two piles of old clothes. Mary didn’t even see that much. She was too distraught. The moment she saw the door to the tomb standing wide open, she ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciples that Jesus’ body had been stolen. They beat her back to the tomb and found that she was right, at least about his body being gone.
Only why would grave robbers have bothered to undress him first? Without even going inside, the beloved disciple could see the linen wrappings all lying in a heap. When Peter went inside, he saw more. The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head was rolled up in a place by itself. Odd, that someone should go to all the trouble of rolling it up.
None of it was making any sense to them, John says, because no one who was there that morning understood the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead. Still, when the beloved disciple followed Peter inside the tomb and saw the clothes lying there, he believed. Believed what? John does not say. He simply believed, and without another word to each other he and Peter returned to their homes.
The rest of the story belongs to Mary. She is the one who saw the angels. She is the one who saw the risen Lord, who had gotten himself some new clothes, incidentally. Someone recently pointed out to me that there is a naked gardener in this story somewhere. Either that or Jesus found the extra set of work clothes down by the fertilizer and the rakes. Peter and the beloved disciple saw none of this. They saw nothing but a vacant tomb with two piles of clothes in it. They saw nothing but emptiness and absence, in other words, and on that basis at least one of them believed, although neither of them understood.
Any way you look at it, that is a mighty fragile beginning for a religion that has lasted almost 2000 years now, and yet that is where so many of us continue to focus our energy: on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to anyone who does not happen to believe it too. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen it happen, which is why it helps me to remember that no one saw it happen on Easter morning either.
The resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God. There were no witnesses whatsoever. No one on earth can say what happened inside that tomb, because no one was there. They all arrived after the fact. Two of them saw clothes. One of them saw angels. Most of them saw nothing at all because they were still in bed that morning, but as it turned out that did not matter because the empty tomb was not the point.
The tomb was just the cicada shell with the neat slit down its back. The living being that had once been inside of it was gone. The singing was going on somewhere else, which may be why Peter and the other disciple did not stay very long. Clearly, Jesus was not there. He could have stayed put, I guess, sitting there all pink and healthy between the two piles of clothes so that everyone could come in and see him, but that is not what he did.
He had outgrown his tomb, which was too small a focus for the resurrection. The risen one had people to see and things to do. The living one’s business was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the Gospel of John. Every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. Every time he came to them, they became more like him.
Those appearances cinch the resurrection for me, not what happened in the tomb. What happened in the tomb was entirely between Jesus and God. For the rest of us, Easter began the moment the gardener said, "Mary!" and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening -- not in the tomb but in the encounter with the living Lord.
In the end, that is the only evidence we have to offer those who ask us how we can possibly believe. Because we live, that is why. Because we have found, to our surprise, that we are not alone. Because we never know where he will turn up next. Here is one thing that helps: never get so focused on the empty tomb that you forget to speak to the gardener.
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