Father Donald Senior, CP

April 21: Easter Sunday

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

“Where are the bones now?”

Acts 10:34, 37-43; Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9

Biblical scholar Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor once told me one of his memorable experiences giving a tour of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Known not only for his erudition but for his quick Irish wit, Murphy-O’Connor was a professor at Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique and an expert on the history of the Holy Land.

In this instance he was asked to give a VIP tour of the Holy Sepulcher to an American couple who had made a very generous donation for the upkeep of this most remarkable church, the very site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus.

In appreciation for their generosity, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Latin Patriarch (i.e., the Roman Catholic archbishop) plus other senior clergy were there to greet the couple at the church. Murphy-O’Connor led the couple into the interior of the tomb and, once outside the small chamber, explained that this was the actual burial site of Jesus, the “empty tomb” mentioned in the Gospels. 

At this point the wife of the donor innocently asked, “And where are the bones now?” Viewing the startled faces of the distinguished clergy, Murphy-O’Connor only skipped one beat before replying, “Madam, you have asked one of the most profound theological questions that could be asked.” It was a response that seemed to satisfy her very much and the tour moved on.

Intended as such or not, it is a profound question — one raised in a certain way by the Gospels themselves. There are two streams of tradition that proclaim The Resurrection in the New Testament: the empty tomb and testimony of witnesses who encountered the Risen Christ.

While the testimony of witnesses must be taken at face value, an empty tomb is ambiguous. Alternate explanations are mentioned in the Gospels themselves: the disciples stole Jesus’ body (proposed by the religious authorities in Matthew); the gardener moved it or somebody else took it (Mary Magdalene’s surmise in today’s selection from John’s Gospel). 

But when the testimony of eyewitnesses is joined to the tradition of the empty tomb, the true and startling meaning of the empty tomb comes to life. Nothing speaks more powerfully about the reality of death than a tomb. It is a place where we can honor the memories of loved ones but a place that also marks their absence.

Not so with the Gospel stories of the “empty tomb” such as we hear on this Easter Sunday from John. John’s account hints at the revelation that is to come. When a grieving Mary Magdalene reports to Peter and the Beloved Disciple that the tomb be empty, they run to the tomb. True to form in John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple respects Peter but is quicker and more alert.

These disciples discover the tomb is empty, as Mary reported, but strangely the burial cloths are carefully folded. (Would grave robbers have bothered to do that?) While Peter remains confused, the faith of the Beloved Disciple begins to stir. Could this tomb be empty because it could not contain the author of life?

That, of course, will be the overwhelming message of a string of witnesses to come. Consider in the following scene when the Risen Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, she is ecstatic with joy. Or when doubting Thomas is invited to examine the wounds of the Risen Jesus. Or when the Risen Jesus meets the women who run from the tomb in Matthew’s Gospel. Or the appearances to the disciples in the upper room or on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel. Or when the Risen Lord serves breakfast to dumbfounded disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The dead bones of Jesus are not to be found. The living presence of the Risen Christ is with us. That is the astounding message of Easter, then and now.  

Death does not have the last word. Unending, beautiful, bountiful life, in body and spirit, does. Christ is Risen!



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