Deconstructing the Empty Tomb

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Creative Commons Jesus’s Tomb” by upyernoz is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (original cropped)

After reading yesterday’s post, a friend emailed me. She understands about the inner experience of the risen Jesus, but said that she was “still not sure how to justify the empty tomb.” While I replied directly to her, I thought that a few comments on the topic might be a good follow-up to yesterday’s post.

John Caputo suggests that it is more productive to pay attention to the event – that is, what happens in the name of God – rather that the being of God. Theological inquiry tends to conclude that metaphysical and ontological questions about God tend to speculate about that which is beyond human comprehension. The so-called “proofs” for God’s existence don’t really prove anything. Instead, you end up where you began. If you begin with the assumption that God exists, your reasoning “proves” that God exists. On the other hand, if you begin with the assertion that God does not exist, you gather evidence which “proves” your case. As soon as you make a declarative statement about what God is, you have to qualify that statement by saying, “But not quite so!”

It is far more productive to talk about that which happens in the name of God. This phenomenological approach, Caputo suggests, focuses on the event of God. In a like manner, rather than focusing on the tomb’s “being” (its historicity), I might ask about the tomb as an event in the life of a faithful person. When resurrection was bubbling up in the life of the life of those who had followed Jesus, what role might the empty tomb have played? More to the point, what role might the empty tomb play in the life of faith today.

I am aware that all the earliest Easter stories seem to have their origin in the latter part of the 1st century. They, like the Christmas stable, are metaphors that need to be interpreted, not facts to be “believed.” I see the empty tomb as a poetic image of the empty place / the hollow gap that we face as we move from second-hand faith (believing what we have been told) to first-hand faith (trusting what we are experiencing).

Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, writes, “The time period between Good Friday and Easter is a poignant time for me.  As a Muslim, it has meaning beyond its meaning as Christian creed. … I ponder on the poignant time between Good Friday and Easter, which is where I see most of us human beings.  
As Jesus is believed to have been in the tomb for three days, most of us humans spend our lives in the metaphorical tomb of existence.  We stand between a womb and a tomb.    
Most of us are in this in-between stage, the cosmic “three days” that all of us find ourselves in:  not dead, and not yet resurrected.” [See the full article here. I recommend it. It is good Easter reading.]

The empty tomb is, for us, an in-between time, a gap, a transitional space. Perhaps the Celtic concept of “thin places” comes close to the metaphoric meaning of the empty tomb – caught between birth and death, and yet on the cusp of resurrection.

This is why my preferred Easter story is the original ending of Mark’s gospel (Mark 16:1-8). The focus is on the empty tomb and its effect on the women, who flee in terror. ..  End of story. Aposiopesis — asking each of us to finish the story in our own way… to finish the story with us as participants along with the women. It is our empty tomb… my empty tomb.

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