Show Me The Place

The Empyt Tomb

 Fr. Raymond Lafontaine  April 16, 2017

Last year, the world of music and poetry lost an iconic figure: Montreal’s very own Leonard Cohen. Without ever renouncing his Jewish identity and traditions, Leonard was also strongly influenced by Buddhist teaching and practice.  There are also many explicitly Christian images in his songs.  This was recently brought to my attention by my good friend, Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, in a public lecture with his friend Rabbi Claudio, entitled “A Holy and a Broken Hallelujah: A Rabbi and a Bishop Say Farewell to Leonard Cohen”.  Consider these lyrics from Cohen’s 2012 song “Show Me The Place”:  

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone;
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone;
Show me the place where the Word became a man;
Show me the place where the suffering began.

 

In the Gospels, the initial Easter experience is not the encounter with the Risen Christ.  It is the discovery of the empty tomb.  The same is true for us: to celebrate Easter, to properly appreciate the full impact of the Resurrection, we must first go through the drama of our own passion, the grief and emptiness of our tombs. 

This is what we have done, as we have walked with the Lord through Holy Week.  There is no other way around it; we have to go through it.  When we dare to do this, we begin to see that this pattern of death and resurrection, which lies at the base of all reality, has been implanted there by God. It isn’t enough to just see it happen in Jesus.  We have to see it it happening in us as well. Monk and mystic Thomas Merton expresses it well: “In the school of life, we graduate by rising from the dead. Learning to be myself means learning to die in order to live.” 

This pattern of death and resurrection, etched into creation and into the human condition, is revealed in its fullness in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus.  It is also the pattern of our own lives.  We live and breathe, we work and love, we struggle and suffer, we die and rise again.  But we don’t do this alone.  As Cohen suggests, we “can’t roll away the stone” by ourselves.  We needed someone to show us the way. 

The first disciples of Jesus learned this lesson the hard way.  As they witnessed his passion and death on the cross, the darkness of cruelty was spiralling out of control: betrayals, denials, conspiracies, condemnations, mockery, violence, and ultimately, the silence of death.  All this imposed on their Lord and Master, their Friend, whose entire existence spoke of life and love.  Their hopes were shattered, as Jesus’ promise of God's kingdom of mercy and love seemed to come to a brutal and meaningless end.  It was the triumph of suffering, death and despair.

Yet it is from the heart of death, from a tomb which marked the end to the disciples’ hope, that the light of the Resurrection bursts forth, a light even greater than the first light of creation. When the Risen Lord appears to Mary Magdalene and calls her name, joy rings forth. When the Lord comes to where the apostles have gathered and says ‘peace be with you,’ hope resounds where hope itself had been extinguished.  The stone was rolled away, and the tomb was empty. 

The Resurrection is very hard to depict.  It is not an “event” to which we have any eyewitness accounts.  We can’t say exactly “what” happened, or “how”?  What we do know is this: that the encounter with the Risen Christ changed everything for Jesus’ disciples. They who had been afraid, who had abandoned him and denied even knowing him, were transformed by this encounter.  They found themselves speaking with confidence and courage of the startling events which they had witnessed. The number of disciples grew by leaps and bounds, and the refrain ‘Christ has risen’ began to rise up from the far-reaching corners of the earth.  

In spite of disbelief, ridicule, opposition and even persecution, that belief and that refrain continue to echo throughout the world.  Think of our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, gathered this weekend to celebrate the Resurrection, after burying those killed as their churches were bombed this past Palm Sunday.  For them, Easter has to mean more than brunch, chocolate bunnies, and retailers promising to “cross out” the GST and PST on your purchases in “the first long weekend of spring”. They know that Easter is about a love that triumphs over hatred, that forgives even before there is repentance, that bears the marks of its wounds even in its risen glory. 

It’s always tempting to reduce the import of Easter by turning it into a story with a conventional happy ending: the cowboy story of the good guys in the white hats defeating the bad guys in the black hats, the fairy tale of the princess who marries her Prince Charming, or in this reality-TV world, the Survivor who manages not to get voted off the island or the Bachelorette who finds her handsome and wealthy Bachelor (or vice-versa) and they all live happily ever after. But what we celebrate at Easter is something far more radical and far more challenging than this.

“When the disciples despaired after Jesus was crucified, they didn’t have a script to look at and say “it’s going to be ok.” And when we suffer, or face injustice, or those around us do, neither do we know how it’s going to turn out.  Christian hope isn’t a pair of rose-coloured glasses that makes everything look good.

Christian hope is born when God enters into the darkness of the tomb and brings unimaginable light, when God enters into the despair of the human condition, and embraces us in mercy, when God does for us what we cannot humanly do for ourselves. Hope takes shape in our lives when we come to God in our need, in solidarity with those who suffer in our midst, and ask God to continue to raise the dead to life, to transform hatred into love, to bind our wounds with forgiveness and healing.

But when we do so, let us not be surprised that God asks one thing in return: that we take up the invitation to put our lives at the service of the transforming and redemptive work of the Gospel: bringing light into places of darkness, bearing hope where there is despair, justice where there is greed, peace where there is strife, the balm of God’s mercy where there is suffering.”

One of my spiritual mentors is Etty Hillesum: a young Dutch Jew, who perished in Auschwitz in 1943.  Like Anne Frank, her diaries were published long after the war, under the title: “An Interrupted Life”.  Etty was an intelligent, inquisitive, passionate, modern woman – not conventionally religious, neither typically Jewish nor Christian, but one whose spiritual wisdom and courage shine as a bright light in the darkness of the Holocaust. Listen to these words, written from the hell of her captivity:

“The misery here is quite terrible and yet, late at night, when the day has slunk away into the depths behind me, I often walk with a spring in my step along the barbed wire, and then time and again it soars from my heart – I can’t help it, that’s just the way it is, like some elementary force – the feeling that life is glorious and significant and that one day we shall be building a whole new world.  Against every new outrage and fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness drawing strength from within ourselves.”

I don’t know exactly what Etty believed about Jesus, but one of the books she had with her in the camp was the New Testament.  But her words reflect resurrection faith: a profound conviction that even in the most difficult of circumstances, and in the presence of much evidence to the contrary, that fundamentally life is good, indeed glorious.  That life is rooted in a reality of goodness that is unfailing, a conviction that empowers us and impels us to action, to work ceaselessly in creating a world that mirrors that conviction.

“Against every new outrage and fresh horror we shall put up one more piece of love and goodness.”  Resurrection faith has its source in the amazing reality of what God has done, but it is  expressed in how we live.  We do this by seeking life and love and goodness not just for ourselves or those “like us”, but for all; by letting go of anger and resentment, and working towards forgiveness and healing; by treating the vulnerabilities of others not as opportunities for exploitation, but as calls to compassion and service.  We do this when we strive to leave our children a better world, rather than one damaged by our abuse and carelessness.  There are countless ways in which we are called to live resurrection faith – a faith that is not naïve about the power of human sin and evil but which affirms the reality of something far greater than them – the reality of God’s love.  There is much work to be done is making that love more visible in our world.  This is our task, as witnesses to the Risen Christ. 

Poet Kenneth Boulding expresses it well:

Although hate rises in enfolding flame,
At each renewed oppression, soon it dies;
it sinks as quickly as we saw it rise,
While love’s small constant light burns still the same.
Know this: though love is weak and hate is strong,
Yet hate is short, and love is very long.

 

Sixteen centuries ago, the Church Father St. Augustine wrote: “We are an Easter people. And Alleluia is our song!”  In our time, the prophet Leonard Cohen proclaims in his anthem “Hallelujah”:

”And even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of song,
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”

 

There is much that is still wrong in the world, much work for us to do, many tombs to be faced.  But we are an Easter people.  And if we have met the Risen Christ on the road, if we have been transformed through that encounter, then we know that we are not alone.  The same one we meet “where the suffering began” is the one who will “show us the place where the stone is rolled away”.  So let us embrace the challenge of Resurrection faith, bearers of Christ’s hope, love, and mercy.  Let us live as Easter people, as sharers in Christ’s Paschal Mystery, sharing his life, his death, and his Resurrection.  For Christ is risen, Alleluia! Truly He is risen, Alleluia!