Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26)
He is not here; he has risen! (Luke 24:6-7)
One of the most popular places for Christian pilgrims to visit in Jerusalem is the Garden Tomb. Located just outside the walls of the old city and cut into the side of a hill, the tomb lies beneath a rocky escarpment that has been proposed by some scholars since the mid19th century to be Golgotha. Historically and archeologically it is almost certain that the true location of the place where the body of Jesus was laid is under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but the Garden Tomb is a much more evocative site, conveying the awesome beauty we would expect. It is a wonderful place for prayer and reflection. As tourists line up to peer into the empty tomb, I often wonder what they expect to see. Some years ago the words, “He is not here; he is risen” were inscribed on the stone wall just above the slab where bodies were laid. It always causes me to smile when I see it!
The events of that first Easter morning stretch our imagination. There are humorous moments mixed with the recognition that something of enormous cosmic import has just occurred. The image of an angel perched on a stone that has just been rolled back from the tomb, and Mary mistaking the resurrected Jesus for the gardener—these are almost playful scenes in our minds, yet the world-shaking significance of the Resurrection should bring us to our knees in awe. It must be stressed that the historic Christian teaching has always been that we believe that Jesus experienced a bodily resurrection, not merely the resuscitation of a corpse or a spiritual transformation.
This bodily resurrection was witnessed by Jesus’ disciples in various settings. My favorite is the breakfast on the beach described in John’s Gospel. (21:1-17) It captures the confusion and despair of the disciples as they decide to go back to fishing. They work all night and catch nothing, and then this stranger on the beach offers them fishing advice – a risky thing to do to frustrated professional fishermen! Of course, you know how it turns out – the advice is good, the haul is enormous, and when they finally get to shore Jesus has already cooked breakfast for them all. This is not behavior usually associated with shadowy ghosts or spiritual apparitions! On another occasion, Jesus appeared to more than 500 eyewitnesses, many of whom were still alive when the letter to the Corinthian church was being written. (1 Corinthians 15:3-9)
The bodily resurrection shatters all of our categories. Jesus overcame death – he didn’t just survive it – he beat it. With all of the remarkable medical advances that have taken place in the intervening millennia, no one has even come close to doing what Jesus did on that first Easter morning. Even more astounding, is that he has promised that those of us who put our trust in him will beat death also. This is not just Good News … it is an astonishing claim that goes beyond the greatest events of world history. That is one reason the Western world reset the calendar to reflect the pivotal moment that the resurrection of Jesus is for all humanity. In this age of scientific curiosity, it also invites the question, “How on earth did he do it?” There is no simple answer because God operates beyond all earthly categories that we can imagine. However, I have found a useful resource that has helped me begin to wrap my mind around this question.
It is called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions and is a satirical novella by an English schoolmaster, Edwin A. Abbott, first published in1884. The book uses a fictional two-dimensional world to comment on the hierarchy of Victorian culture – but for me its greatest contribution is its examination of dimensions. It is particularly helpful in stretching our minds to imagine how life might appear if we took seriously the idea that we live in a multi-dimensional world. Once we have begun to grasp this concept, then we go one step further and acknowledge that God is of infinite dimension and desires to make himself known to us, even with all of our human limitations.
The Scripture uses language such as “born from above” (John 3:3) and “taken up from you into heaven” (Acts 1:11), because there is no other way of describing that which is beyond what we know and experience. But that is precisely what the Resurrection signals – there is life beyond this life, a world beyond this world, another dimension to our existence. And Jesus has now opened the door.
Madeline L’Engle (1918-2007) was a dear friend and a member of All Angels Church in New York where I served as rector. She is perhaps best known for her children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, the winner of the 1963 Newberry Medal. In it she explores the idea of dimensionality and other disturbing ideas – her book has the distinction of being one of the most frequently banned novels of all time! She was a woman of deep faith and a vivid imagination who helped many wrestle with important questions of faith. She was never afraid to ask challenging questions but had a quiet confidence that the God that she loved and served was beyond anything that we could ever imagine and closer than we could ever dare dream.
Perhaps that is a good way to describe the wonder of Easter – because of the Resurrection, Jesus is now set free beyond all finite limits and sits at the right hand of God the Father, but he is closer than the closest friend and will be our personal advocate and comforter forever.
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne;
Alleluia! His the triumph, His the victory alone.
Hark! The songs of peaceful Zion, Thunder like a mighty flood.
Jesus, out of every nation, Has redeemed us by his blood.
Alleluia! Not as orphans, Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! He is near us; Faith believes nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him, When the forty days were o'er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise, "I am with you evermore"