The Earth’s Deepest Wound: the Empty Tomb

In the history of the world, only one tomb has ever had a rock rolled before it, and a soldier guard set to watch it to prevent the dead man within from rising: that was the tomb of Christ on the evening of the Friday called Good. What spectacle could be more ridiculous than armed soldiers keeping their eyes on a corpse? But sentinels were set, lest the Dead walk, the Silent speak, and the Pierced Heart quicken to the throb of life.

They said He was dead; they knew He was dead; they would say He would not rise again; and yet they watched! They openly called Him a deceiver. But, would He still deceive? Would He, Who “deceived” them into believing they won the battle, Himself win the war for life and truth and love?

They remembered that He called His Body the Temple and that in three days after they destroyed It, He would rebuild It; they recalled, too, that He compared Himself to Jonas and said that as Jonas was in the belly of the whale for three days, so would He be in the belly of the earth for three days and then would rise again. After three days Abraham received back his son Isaac, who was offered in sacrifice; for three days Egypt was in a darkness that was not of nature; on the third day God came down on Mount Sinai. Now, once again, there was worry about the third day. . . .

In the dim dawn of Sunday morning several women were seen approaching the tomb. The very fact that the women brought spices proved that they did not expect a Resurrection. It seemed strange that such should have been the case after the many references by Our Lord to His death and His Resurrection. But evidently the disciples as well as the women, whenever He predicted His Passion, seemed to remember more His death than His Resurrection.

It never occurred to them as a possible thing; it was foreign to their thoughts. When the stone was rolled to the door of the sepulcher, not only was Christ buried but also all of their hopes. The only thought the women had was to anoint the body of the dead Christ – an act that was born of despairing and as yet unbelieving love. Two of them, at least, had witnessed the burial; hence their great concern was the practical act:

Who is to roll the stone away for us
From the door of the tomb? (Mk 16:3)

It was the cry of hearts of little faith. Strong men had closed the entrance to the tomb by placing this huge stone against it; their worry was how to remove the barrier in order that they might carry out their errand of mercy. The men would not come to the tomb until they were summoned – so little did they believe. But the women came, only because in their grief they sought consolation in embalming the dead.

Nothing is more anti-historical than to say that the pious women were expecting Christ to rise from the dead. The Resurrection was something they never expected. Their minds were not made up of the kind of material on which such expectations could grow.

The Women at the Sepulchre (The Angel at the Tomb of Christ) by Benjamin West, 1805 [Brooklyn Museum]
The Women at the Sepulchre (The Angel at the Tomb of Christ) by Benjamin West, 1805 [Brooklyn Museum]

But as they approached, they found the stone rolled back. Before their arrival, there had been a great earthquake, and an angel of the Lord, who descended from heaven, rolled back the stone and sat upon it:

His face shone like lightning,
And his garments were white as snow;
So that the guards trembled for fear of him
And were like dead men. (Mt 28:4)

When the women came near they saw that the stone, great as it was, had been rolled away already. But they did not immediately jump to the conclusion that His Body had risen. Their conclusion could be that someone had removed the body.

Instead of the dead Body of their Master, they saw an angel, whose countenance was as lightning and his raiment as snow and who said to them:

No need to be dismayed;
You have come to look for Jesus of Nazareth,
Who was crucified;
He has risen again;
He is not here.
Here is the place where they laid Him
Go and tell Peter and the rest of His disciples
That He is going before you into Galilee.
There you shall have sight of Him
As He promised you. (Mk 16:6–7)

To an angel, the Resurrection would not be a mystery, but His death would be. For man, His death was not a mystery, but His Resurrection would be. What had been natural to the angel, therefore, was now made the subject of the announcement. The angel was one keeper more than the enemies had placed about the Savior’s grave, one soldier more than Pilate had appointed.

The angel’s words were the first Gospel preached after the Resurrection, and it is the one that went back to His Passion, for the angel spoke of Him, as “Jesus of Nazareth Who was crucified.” These words conveyed the name of His humanity, the humility of His dwelling place, and the ignominy of His death; in all three, lowliness, ignominy, and shame are brought in comparison with His rising from the dead.

Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem are all made the identifying marks of His Resurrection. The angel’s words: “Here is the place where they laid Him,” confirmed the reality of His death and the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Tombstones bear the inscription: Hic jacet or “Here lies.” Then follows the name of the dead and perhaps some praise of the one departed. But here in contrast, the angel did not write, but expressed a different epitaph: “He is not here.”

The angel called on the women to behold the place where their Lord’s Body had been laid, as though the vacant tomb was evidence enough of the fact of the Resurrection. They were directed to hasten immediately and give intelligence of the Resurrection. It was to a virgin woman that the birth of the Son of God was announced. It was to a fallen woman that His Resurrection was announced.

Those who saw the empty grave were bidden to go to Peter who had tempted Our Blessed Lord once from the Cross and had three times denied Him. Sin and denial could not choke Divine love. Paradoxical though it was, the greater the sin, the less the belief; and yet the greater the repentance from sin, the greater the belief.

It was to the lost sheep panting in the wilderness that He came; it was the publicans and the harlots, the denying Peters and the persecuting Pauls to whom the most persuasive entreaties of love were sent. To the man who was named a Rock and who would have tempted Christ from a Cross, the angel now sent through the women the message, “Go tell Peter.”

Ven. Fulton John Sheen was born in El Paso, Illinois on May 8, 1895. He attended Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota and was ordained in 1919. After further studies at Catholic University, he earned a doctorate in philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. In 1930, Msgr. Sheen began a Sunday night radio show, “The Catholic Hour," and in 1951 then-Bishop Sheen launched “Life Is Worth Living,” which became one of America’s top-rated TV shows and won him an Emmy in 1952. He was elevated to archbishop by Pope Paul VI in 1969. He died on December 9, 1979. He was declared a Venerable Servant of God by Pope Benedict XVI on July 28, 2012.