Go to the emptiness to be raised up

By  Mary Marrocco
  • April 16, 2007
Did He, or didn’t He? What difference does it make? During Lent, we’re being prepared for the question that will be put to us next: Did He, or didn’t He, rise from the dead? 
Whatever may be said about, for or against Christianity, the response will always be demanded of it, and always should be. 

I don’t know if the claim that Christ’s tomb has been found, with His bones in it, shook your faith in the Resurrection, or if the Shroud of Turin strengthened it. I respect human ingenuity’s ability to solve great puzzles. Someone may yet discover a way to decipher what happened in that tomb. Must we wait until technology can solve an ancient mystery? 

One year, I put it to God directly; make that, insistently and demandingly, like a child:  “Well, did you or didn’t you? Before I go around telling people you did, I want proof!” 

Proof in the form of lost tombs, obscure Roman records or a new way to analyse dust did not arrive. Something else happened:  I was nailed to the cross. Pinned, immobile, I couldn’t run around collecting evidence, but had to look somewhere else entirely — within. 

When I let go of my old ways and took this new way, everything changed. A response came to a second question I didn’t realize I was asking. Not just “were you raised from the dead or not?” but also, equally urgently, “and what difference does it make?”

If Christ is raised, then I can be raised. If I can be raised, then Christ is raised. The questions are completely practical, since they’re part of our own lives. Not future and distant, but in this moment. Now I see that these questions are everywhere, and many people are asking them with their lives. Our death-avoiding society may have difficulty in hearing, because resurrection comes out of death.

Years later, I was sitting in prison. In the prison chapel, a young man named Ben met an older man named Joe, and they showed me the gift of Easter.

I was “Just Visiting,” as the Monopoly board says, assisting a program for inmates. Nobody had come to collect an inmate who’d been in a preceding program, so he stayed and chatted. I think he’d spent most of the day that way. An older man with a wiry body and scarred face, he listened to a 20-year-old tell of being in jail for the first time, awaiting trial. Joe wanted to tell his own story for the benefit of this young man. We all listened.

In and out of prison for 30 years, since he was younger than Ben. Short stays, long stays. Anger, violence, betrayal, confusion, fear and anguish. Friends disappearing, family broken-hearted. Attempts to change, vows to never again end up inside. A terrible moment with his hands around the neck of someone he believed had wronged him, futile running and the final clang of that prison door on him once again. For three days, lying on the floor of his cell, he did not move, even to eat or drink. Nothing was left.

And at the end of the third day, there was God. Joe said to us: “When there was nothing, there was God.” 

Joe was raised up out of death into new life. Externally, nothing was different; he was still in prison, still facing the same trial and consequences. Did he, or didn’t he, rise from death that day?

He knew the answer. He’d received a new life not of his own making. He knew that part of this new life was witnessing it to others; it was the presence of young Ben which had prompted him to tell his story. It was a story of pain, but far more, a story of joy. 

I think of Joe sometimes on Good Friday as I stand in the emptiness into which the church invites us on that day. Emptiness may be the last place we want to go, though we may not find as dramatic ways to avoid it as Joe did. Joe stands beside Mary Magdalene, in the early dawn, up against the empty tomb.  Nothing, not even a body left. The ultimate emptiness. 

Joe, like Mary, had the courage to proclaim the unbelievable good news, from deep within.

Mary Magdalene is called “equal to the apostles,” because she witnessed to the Resurrection. Apostles are eyewitnesses to the Resurrection. Until technology unlocks the secrets of that tomb, how will any of us become apostles? We must go to the emptiness, as Mary did for one reason and Joe for another, and find out whether we are raised from the dead.

Then the Easter Alleluia will not be an awkward duty but a cry of joy springing from within. We may be surprised at how many voices are singing it together.  We may find we’ve been given a gift to be shared, the gift for which others are longing.