In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Tomb of Christ is marked by a shrine called the “edicule,” the successor to a series of such structures built over the tomb—and rebuilt—since the Emperor Constantine first constructed a huge basilica church and sheltered the tomb under a rotunda.
The strong memory, and the tradition of Christians from the earliest times, gives us assurance that this spot was the garden tomb described in our Gospels.
Inside the edicule are two rooms—one, the outer area where the message was delivered to the women by the young man robed in white. A second room covers the rock shelf believed to be the place where Jesus’ body was placed. It is (except for the church decorations) primarily and empty space!
This empty space is nevertheless powerful as a sacred spot.
This past weekend, thousands of visitors packed the space around the edicule for the Greek Orthodox ceremony of the Holy Fire, which fills that great space with light from thousands of candles. Other liturgies followed, as the Easter celebrations continued.
I was privileged to concelebrate Mass there during my pilgrimage in January, with Fr. Jeremy Harrington, O.F.M., and several other friars, and it was a very moving, very spiritual moment.
Aside from the clustering of Greek, Latin, Armenian and Coptic art (some of it not that inspiring to me!) and the clutter of candles and carvings, there is something that draws our attention to the awesome mystery we celebrate today.
What is not contained here is the meaning. The story is simple—the absence of a body; the message of the young man seated there: “He is risen, he is not here, he goes before you to Galilee.” The young man encourages the women to check out the place: It is indeed empty! Jesus has gone on ahead to Galilee, and his disciples will see him there.
If you were to join pilgrims to the Holy Land and visit this sacred place, you would perhaps also find yourself moved. For many, it is the climax of their pilgrimage.
Mark’s Gospel ends with the passage we’ve just heard—except for the final line: The women, “said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” The readers of the Gospel are left with the empty tomb, and the message of the young men.
It’s hardly much different than you would see today in the edicule—stone walls, a slab of marble covering a rock. An empty tomb.
But isn’t so much of our day-to-day religious experience an “empty tomb”? Few of us have visions, experience a blinding light, are struck dumb by an angelic visitation, thunder or earthquake, like so many of the Bible’s scenes. We come to church, pray privately, have concerns we bring to God…but often there is silence, an “empty tomb.”
And yet, part of our Easter faith is founded on that sacred spot. Christians in the very first years venerated it; they celebrated Eucharist there. Even when a Roman emperor covered it with tons of rubble and built a temple over it—they maintained the memory. Years later, they excavated there, built a church on the spot, even when it would have been easier to build elsewhere in the city of Jerusalem. Somehow, this spot was sacred.
Like the places of silence in our lives, the places where we at first expect only death, failure, sin, inadequacy, rejection, the experience of our own selfishness—there we find that something else has happened: God has intervened. Maybe not in a dramatic way, but when we weren’t looking. Where there was death, there is now a message of resurrection.
The message calls us to get up, to leave the empty tomb and go to meet Jesus. We are not to linger here. No one remains a pilgrim camping out at that empty tomb Jerusalem. The message is to go to Galilee, where the Gospel began, and where it will continue.
For “Galilee,” read anywhere. We who have met the human and divine face of the covenant, our Risen Lord, over the days of Lent (even if those days were mostly empty!), or who come to meet him at the Eucharist, must now go seek him further.
He goes before us into the world. There, in the Galilees of the rest of our lives, we are to join him, and there embrace life, and then become his face for others.
Photos by Dan Medinger. Featured photo shows Fr. Jeremy Harrington presiding at Mass in front the edicule over Christ’s tomb.