Wondrous Absence

Isaiah 25:6-9John 20:1-18

Something out of nothing.

Most of you know that prior to coming to Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, Elizabeth and I worked as Presbyterian missionaries in the northern West Bank. We worked ecumenically with the indigenous Christian community: Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic. Of the many treasured moments of our time there, the one that stands out most was Easter, 2003.

It was that Holy Saturday, when the Orthodox Patriarch enters the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre with the extinguished candles and emerges with the Holy Fire.

Something out of nothing.

In Palestine and Israel, many Christians normally head from their villages and towns down to Jerusalem for the celebration. Prior to our arrival in Zababdeh, the village where we lived, several busses would have gone down to Jerusalem to bring the light back. Because of travel restrictions on Palestinians in the Territories, Zababdeh had not celebrated Holy Saturday while we were there. In 2003, on Holy Saturday, we borrowed the Catholic priest’s car and the Orthodox priest’s lanterns. And just to round out the ecumenical experience, the Melkite priest loaned me a robe that belonged to his brother, the Anglican priest.

We were there when that ancient Jerusalem church carried out that ancient liturgy of the Holy Fire, when the lights went out, the flame appeared and filled the building, the bells rang, and the chants of “Christ is risen” began in as many languages as there were people. We walked gingerly through the streets of the Old City and back to our car, the candle protected by those old lanterns. As we sped up the Jordan Valley Road, from the Dead Sea towards the Galilee, we sang every hymn we could think of that mentioned light. As the drive got longer and longer, "This Little Light of Mine" and "I Saw the Light" soon gave way to less-sacred fare like "Candle in the Wind" and "You Light up My Life." It was a long day. We had to stop several times along the way to replace the candles, one from the other, hands shaking. It was a long way back to Jerusalem if they went out!

Cellphones rang the whole way back, everyone in Zababdeh anxious to know where we were and when we would arrive. "We've just left Jerusalem." "We're at the Dead Sea." "We're at Jericho." "We'll call you when we get through the checkpoint."

When we finally made it back to Zababdeh, having made our way through checkpoints, military closures, and at least one moment of panic when one of the candles had gone out (that’s why you carry two, we learned), we were met in the village by a triumphal procession of clergy and laity. We joined the procession, stopping to share the light and say a prayer at the Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic churches. We joked that a new tradition was now firmly established, that the Presbyterians always brought the Holy Fire to Zababdeh. Everyone agreed that that year’s arrival of the Holy Fire paled in comparison to the celebrations of brighter days, but it was the biggest celebration in years. The days were still dark in a land known for too much death. But for a brief moment, the Christians of the northern West Bank were reconnected with the miraculous light of resurrection.

Something out of nothing.

Now, I am enough of a skeptic to wonder exactly what it is that happens in that tomb when the Patriarch enters with two extinguished candles and emerges with a blazing fire. For the Orthodox faithful, it is nothing short of a miracle. Like at the moment of creation, there is nothing, and then suddenly there is light. Something out of nothing.

The Orthodox tell stories of the time that the Crusaders usurped the Orthodox Patriarch’s place in the tomb on Holy Saturday, forcing him and the rest of the Orthodox contingent to stand at the door of the church, waiting by the columns, while they went inside. When the time came for the miraculous appearance of the Holy Fire, nothing happened. Hours past, and no light emerged from the tomb. Then the Orthodox Patriarch took off his vestments, down to that simple white robe, kneeled down, and prayed. At that moment, so the story goes, a flame split one of the entrance columns in two, lighting the Orthodox Patriarch’s candles rather than those of the Crusaders.

And yet, I remain a skeptic. Like Thomas, I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the column split in two. And when I was there on Holy Saturday, in 2003, I wasn’t inside the tomb. I couldn’t check the folds of the Patriarch’s robe for the bic lighter or look under his hat to find the box of matches.

Something out of nothing? I wonder.

Since last Sunday, we have been following the rhythms of Holy Week. We welcomed Christ to Jerusalem, waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna.” On Thursday, we joined him in the Upper Room as he washed our feet and broke bread with us. On Friday, we witnessed his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial. And today, we pick up the story on Sunday. Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

But I can’t help but notice that there is an oddly important detail missing from the story: there is no mention of the moment of resurrection itself. There is, to my mind, a significant gap in the narrative between the burial of Christ and the empty tomb. And there is no one in the story to be our witness to that moment of resurrection.

We have plenty of witnesses to the crucifixion, the death, and the burial. The centurions and the beloved disciple and Mary his mother stood at the foot of the cross. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee bore the body to the tomb. And we have many, many stories of Christ’s presence after the resurrection: the garden appearance from our morning’s reading, the sealed room where Thomas touched his hands and side, the road to Emmaeus where he walked and opened the Scriptures. But in that moment of resurrection, when the buried Jesus was raised and put aside the grave clothes, there is no one to tell us how it all happened. Was there light? A chorus of angels? A clap of thunder? A miraculous appearance of prophets long gone? A whirlwind of fire? Columns splitting in two?

For the gospel writers, it is as though the question holds no importance. John’s gospel dedicates two chapters to the trial through the burial of Christ. He gives another two chapters to the post-resurrection appearances. But that moment for which we seek, where Christ is risen, risen indeed, we have no reference.

What makes this all the more bizarre is the fact that this absent moment of the story lies at the heart of our faith. This morning, we gathered for an ecumenical sunrise service with the churches of Brookhaven. And while there are points of doctrine and theology on which the various churches disagree, and even though we differ on matters of practice and liturgy, of history and interpretation, we all hold this moment of resurrection at the heart of our faith. We shape our lives and ministries around it. And yet, it is as though there is nothing there.

Something out of nothing? I wonder.

And the deeper we dig, we don’t discover more information, but are faced with less and less. On this Easter morning, we have the cross, but it is empty. Nothing. And on this Resurrection Sunday, we have the tomb, but it stands bare. Nothing. The very essence of who we are as a community of faith, as brothers and sisters in Christ, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, they hold a quiet emptiness.

Something out of nothing?

Friends, this morning, we stand with Mary Magdalene at the door to the tomb. We peer in, uncertain, perhaps afraid, wondering how that massive stone at the entrance has been rolled away. We look, expecting to see the body of our Lord lying there, wrapped in burial clothes, but we do not find him. But let us not panic. As the angels always say, “Do not be afraid.” Let us linger here just a little bit longer. Let us perhaps even dare to enter, taking in ever detail of this holy nothingness, this mysterious emptiness, this wondrous absence of this divine moment.

And as we are there, our eyes may be blurred with tears of grief and our ears may ring with questions of doubt. But soon, we hear his voice and recognize that it is he who stands before us. And in this moment, in this strange, dark garden known for too much death, our eyes are filled with light and we suddenly see that Christ is alive. And in this paradox, where something seems to come out of nothing, we welcome this odd mystery that stands before us and lives at the center of our lives. The temptation is strong. We want to grab hold, to dissect, to take this moment and turn it over and over and examine it to death. But on this morning, we have an invitation simply to celebrate and rejoice that this a moment of pure grace and eternal life.

It is not important for us to know how he rose. Instead, we celebrate the fact that he is risen. We do not concern ourselves with the events that followed Friday’s burial. Rather, we rejoice in the knowledge of Sunday’s resurrection. And there is no need to check God’s robes for the bic lighter. It is enough to know that there is light.

And so, as we gather here this morning, we proclaim the truth of our faith in all its wondrous absence:

The cross is empty, because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

The tomb is bare, because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

And we are an Easter people, because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!

Alleluia, Alleluia, Amen.

sermonsMarthame Sanders