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The Shaking of the Foundations by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. This book was published by Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, in 1955 and is out of print. This material was prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.

Chapter 20: Born in a Grave

And when even was come, there came a rich man from Aritnathea, named Joseph, who also himself was lesus' disciple. This man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded it to be given up. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre. Now on the morrow, which is the day after the Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees were gathered together unto Pilate, saying, Sir, we remember that the deceiver said, while he was yet alive, after three days I rise again. Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest haply his disciples come and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead and the last error will be worse than the first. Pilate said unto them, Ye have a guard: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them. Matthew 27:57-66.

In the Nuremburg War Crime Trials a witness appeared who had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish grave-yard, in Wilna, Poland. It was the only place he, and many others, could live, when in hiding after they had escaped the gas chamber. During this time he wrote poetry, and one of the poems was a description of a birth. In a grave nearby a young woman gave birth to a boy. The eighty-year-old gravedigger, wrapped in a linen shroud, assisted. When the newborn child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed: "Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?" But after three days the poet saw the child sucking his mother's tears because she had no milk for him.

This story, which surpasses anything the human imagination could have invented, has not only incomparable emotional value, but also tremendous symbolic power. When I first read it, it occurred to me more forcefully than ever before that our Christian symbols, taken from the gospel stories, have lost a great deal of their power because too often repeated and too superficially used. It has been forgotten that the manger of Christmas was the expression of utter poverty and distress before it became the place where the angels appeared and to which the star pointed. And it has been forgotten that the tomb of Jesus was the end of His life and of His work before it became the place of His final triumph. We have become insensitive to the infinite tension which is implied in the words of the Apostles' Creed: "suffered . . . was crucified, dead, and buried.., rose again from the dead." We already know, when we hear the first words, what the ending will be: "rose again;" and for many people it is no more than the inevitable "happy ending" . The old Jewish grave. digger knew better. For him, the immeasurable tension implicit in the expectation of the Messiah was a reality, appearing in the infinite contrast between the things he saw and the hope he maintained.

The depth of this tension is emphasized by the last part of the story. After three days the child was not elevated to glory; he drank his mother's tears, having nothing else to drink. Probably he died and the hope of the old Jew was frustrated once more, as it had been frustrated innumerable times before. No consolation can be derived from this story; there cannot be a happy ending -- and precisely this is the truth about our lives. In a remarkable passage of his book, Credo, Karl Barth writes about the word "buried" in the Creed1: "By a man's being buried it is evidently confirmed and sealed. -- seemingly in his presence, actually already in his absence -- that he has no longer a present, any more than a future. He has become pure past. He is accessible only to memory, and even that only so long as those who are able and willing to remember him are not themselves buried. And the future toward which all human present is running is just this: to be buried." These words describe exactly the situation in which the pious old Jew prayed: "Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us?"

We often hide the seriousness of the "buried" in the Creed, not only for the Christ, but also for ourselves, by imagining that not we shall be buried, but only a comparatively unimportant part of us, the physical body. That is not what the Creed implies. It is the same subject, Jesus Christ, of Whom it is said that He suffered and that He was buried and that He was resurrected. He was buried, He -- His whole personality -- was removed from the earth. The same is true of us. We shall die, we -- our personality, from which we cannot separate our body as an accidental part -- shall be buried.

Only if we take the "buried" in the gospel stories as seriously as this, can we evaluate the Easter stories and can we evaluate the words of the grave-digger, "Who else than the Messiah can be born in a grave?" His question has two aspects. Only the Messiah can bring birth out of death. It is not a natural event. It does not happen every day, but it happens on the day of the Messiah. It is the most surprising, the most profound, and the most paradoxical mystery of existence. Arguments for the immortality of an assumedly better part of us cannot bring life out of the grave. Eternal life is brought about only with the coming of the "new reality", the eon of the Messiah, which, according to our faith, has already appeared in Jesus as the Christ.

But there is another side to the assertion that nobody other than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave, a side which, perhaps, was less conscious to the pious Jew. The Christ must be buried in order to be the Christ, namely, He Who has conquered death. The gospel story we have heard assures us of the real and irrevocable death and burial of Jesus. The women, the high priests, the soldiers, the sealed stone -- they are all called by the gospel to witness to the reality of the end. We ought to listen more carefully to these witnesses, to the ones who tell us with triumph or cynicism that He has been buried, that He is removed forever from the earth, that no real traces of Him are left in our world. And we ought also to listen to the others who say, in doubt and despair, "But we trusted that it had been He Who should have redeemed Israel." It is not hard to hear both these voices today, in a world where there are so many places like the Jewish cemetery in Wilna. It is even possible to hear them in ourselves, for each of us to hear them in himself.

And, if we hear them, what can we answer? Let us be clear about this. The answer of Easter is not a necessity. In reality, there is no inevitable happy ending as there is in perverted and perverting cinemas. But the answer of Easter has become possible precisely because the Christ has been buried. The new life would not really be new life if it did not come from the complete end of the old life. Otherwise, it would have to be buried again. But if the new life has come out of the grave, then the Messiah Himself has appeared.

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