What does Jesus in the tomb mean?
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ produces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for Holy Saturday, April 11th: Job 14:1-14; Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16; Matthew 27:57-66; and 1 Peter 4:1-8. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today is the final day of Lent. Jesus has died and has been buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. After the somber tones of Good Friday, I know that many a Christian on Holy Saturday is already anticipating the joys of Easter. It’s hard not to. But for as much as we want to celebrate the empty tomb, we really need to pause and consider that on Holy Saturday the dead body of Jesus is still inside the sepulcher. Death is not a mask here worn in some sort of Greek tragedy. Jesus is not “acting” dead. Jesus has died and on Holy Saturday Jesus is dead.
I emphasize this message because scholars have batted around the implications of what Jesus’ being really dead may mean theologically. In the life of Jesus, God has experienced the joys and sorrows, the hopes and limitations of human nature. In Jesus, on Good Friday, God has experienced suffering and death. Scholars push this further. They wonder out loud if on Holy Saturday, if while Jesus lies dead in the tomb, if God experiences the loss and separation that all of us mortals know all too well.
In other words, is the reality of Jesus’ death the divinely accepted experience of non-being? Does the God who revealed Himself to Moses as I AM accept in Jesus’ death the reality of I-am-not? Let me go back to the oldest, extant piece of Christian literature we have, 1 Thessalonians, to help with this discussion.
The translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, in my humble opinion, have done us no favours by translating “fallen asleep” as “died.” Paul writes with intention when he uses two different words. Let me share with you the translation without their change to the same word: “For since we believe that Jesus died (άποθήσκω) and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (κοιμάω).” (4:14) You don’t have to read Greek to see that these two words are not the same.
Paul is telling those earliest Christians that Jesus faced the harsh reality of death: “Jesus died.” Because “Jesus died,” faith now allows Christians to face mortality differently. Christians may look upon death as having “fallen asleep.” The contrast is intentional. Jesus faced the full, brute force of death so that we would not have to. What does this mean for God? We can only wonder. Is it possible that in that tomb of Joseph of Arimathea while the dead body of Jesus lay there that God, in Jesus, experienced the reality of non-being? Did God experience the reality of separation that uncaring-death forces upon all of us mortals? Is there a profound mystery in Jesus experiencing dying and in Jesus experiencing death?
The earliest testimony to Easter is not that Jesus resurrected, but that God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus was acted upon. Does this imply the reality of Jesus’ death and God’s conquest of death? These question marks are where Lent ends and where Easter begins. The reality of Jesus’ dying and death are outmatched by the reality of the empty tomb and new life. This is why we great the dawn of the year’s most holy of days with shouts of Alleluia – God be praised! And I invite you to join us as we celebrate the joyous and wondrous mystery that is Easter.
Faith, love and chitchat.
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