In John’s account of the resurrection, Simon Peter and “the other disciple” race to the tomb after being told that Jesus’ body is gone. The other disciple hesitates at the entrance, but Peter goes in to see for himself. The Empty Tomb, a painting by Presbyterian minister and artist John Stuart, offers an image of what Peter might have seen as he stood puzzling at this strange thing that had occurred. The picture is from inside the tomb, looking out past the stone shelf and the draped linens toward the warm light of new day. The predominant colours of the picture are grey and black – light does not penetrate far into the cavern – but the tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away, and colour and light stream in through the entrance. We are drawn out of the darkness of the tomb into the light of the resurrection.
A few years ago, I entered a period in my life that felt very much like the darkness of the tomb. I experienced a series of health crises in a short period of time, which took me to the edge of my ability to cope. Ironically, as I progressed in my physical recovery, I found myself increasingly debilitated by depression. The world literally felt and looked endlessly dark and heavy, an oppressive place in which I could find no joy and no hope for any kind of future. My dreams were of death and destruction. I entered an extended period in which life was simply “killing time” until death came, and I was convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that death would come sooner rather than later.
And yet, as I reached the depth of darkness, I found that God was there with me. When I was unable to hope for myself, I knew beyond doubt that God was hoping for me. However far I fell, however alienated from the world I felt, I was never truly alone.
Easter does not happen without the cross, without the extreme suffering that our Lord experienced for our sake. Nor, I would say, does it happen without the tomb. Our familiarity with the Easter story and its triumphal ending can lead us to slide quickly over the time between Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection. Holy Saturday is the day we celebrate the Easter vigil, and we move quickly to the new fire and the alleluia’s.
But imagine it from the perspective of Jesus’ followers on that first terrible day. Imagine the oppressiveness of grief, the darkness of lost hope. Imagine them reliving the horror they had seen, and the fear that, with their teacher so brutally killed, death could not be far away for them. Their lives, their hopes, their futures, had all gone down to the grave with their Lord.
Now, with that in mind, think of Peter running to the tomb on Sunday morning, entering it and finding it empty just as he’d been told. Certainly, neither he nor the rest of the disciples would have understood all that had happened in a moment or in a day. But what joy and amazement they would have experienced as the reports of Jesus, alive and well, began to trickle in.
One could spend a lifetime meditating on Jesus’ resurrection and, in the end, still be left with mystery and wonder. It speaks to us with a different voice in the various ages and stages of our life and has something particular to say to us in times of suffering. Our Lord was a man, a human being who suffered. He knows what it means to suffer, to have death looming close, and what it means to die. When we experience our own times of deep sorrow and suffering, he is a sure companion and a faithful guide. He has been there before us and will not leave us alone, even when we despair.
Yet because of the resurrection, Jesus is also more than this. He is our sure and certain hope that, whatever the outcome in our lives, death will never have the last word. He will be our companion and guide in the dark, oppressive times in the tomb, but, ultimately, he will lead us into the warm light of his new day. At times, this may seem remote and far off, and yet the promise remains. I have lived in the darkness, and the journey out has been a long one. For some, I know, it is a journey of an entire lifetime. But Jesus has gone before us. He has provided us with the way through and victory at the end. Thanks be to God.
Shelagh Balfour is the Administrative Assistant and an active member of St. Peter’s, Winnipeg.