The tomb of Jesus has been in the news recently. Whilst I was in Jerusalem on sabbatical the unheard of thing happened. The tomb was closed to visitors for two days. Not in recent history had this happened and it came after a long period of negotiation between the various denominations that have rights and vested interests in this most sacred place. The tomb itself is located in what is called the Aedicule which is the free standing chapel under the rotunda. I can’t say that it’s my favourite structure. But what made it even more ugly than I think it is was the metalwork cage that seemed to surround it, to keep it together. That was put in place during the period of the British Mandate in order to keep the structure in one piece. But even that, for all its ugliness, was beginning to fail. The Aedicule had been rebuilt in 1809-10 in the style described as Ottomon Baroque but it surrounded the original tomb which had become isolated from the mountain of which it was originally part. The place where the body of Jesus was laid had been clad in marble to protect it from holy souvenir hunters. But when the cladding was removed on 26 October and the material that lay beneath it removed, it was found by nightfall on 28 October that the original limestone burial bed was intact. This suggested to the archaeologists working on the project that the tomb location has not changed through time and confirmed the existence of the original limestone cave walls within the Aedicule.
The tomb was then sealed up and, when I went in as soon as it was open to pilgrims again, all I could see was fresh mortar between the marble panels. But now, all the restoration work has been completed and the Aedicule is in a sound state to welcome millions more across its threshold, into the first chamber and then the burial place itself. It will be from this restored Aedicule that the Holy Fire will emerge for the first time this Easter.
But, to be honest, it still is a mammoth task of the imagination to imagine that this chapel, freestanding, under the dome was part of a cave in a rock into which had been carved a tomb.
Mark tells us all about it.
Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mark 15.46)
Matthew tells us exactly the same thing as does Luke. It’s John who adds a few more details
Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. (John 19.41)
But whether it was in a garden or not it’s clear that the tomb was hewn into the rock but the pilgrim can feel very disconnected with that. But behind the Aedicule in the wall of the rotunda, close to the Coptic altar that clings to the back of the tomb is a little doorway that leads to somewhere more hidden and holy.
If you go through you find a kokhim complex, a series of passages cut into the rock in which are tombs (there is fantastic example alongside the road down the Mount of Olives which is signposted as the Tomb of the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi). Pilgrims clamber through the small opening and with a torch can make out the chambers, cold empty holes cut into the rock. Some say that this was where Joseph of Arimathea, the same Joseph you gave his tomb to Jesus, was buried. We don’t know that. But what this place does help us do is to make a bit of a connection with what the original tomb of Jesus might have been like.
The emptiness of these tombs, the sense of abandonment that surrounds them is, of course, important. The tomb is just the tomb, the place of resurrection, but abandoned, vacated, left behind. The very emptiness is a challenge to death and you get a sense of that in this great poem by John Donne called ‘DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee’, one of his Holy Sonnets.
DEATH, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy picture be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’rt slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
It’s a really, aggressive, almost cheeky, confident response to death, with that final cry of victory ‘Death, thou shalt die’. What could be stronger. So, however good the Aedicule now looks, it has to be an empty experience for the pilgrims who enter it if it is to speak properly of the resurrection to which it testifies. Those who bow and enter through its door must leave almost disappointed – there is nothing in it.
The stark ending to St Mark’s Gospel always has the ring of authenticity about it. The angel says to the women who have entered the tomb
‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16.6-8)
We won’t find Jesus in the tomb – we must always meet him in the ‘Galilee’ of the world.
Alleluia. Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia.