It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
There are two striking and unfamiliar elements in the story of the empty tomb, which we hear anew each Easter Sunday morning. The first has to do with who is there. And the second has to do with who is NOT there.
Who is there, that early morning, in the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid, just a few days earlier? Who are the ones who see, and hear, and experience for themselves, the jarring reality of that early morning encounter?
In a society so dominated by males—male priests, male scribes, male teachers of the Law, male heads of each household—is it not striking and jarring that the great news of Easter is entrusted, first of all, and in all its fullness, to a group of women?
Women—who come to perform their traditional female role, of anointing the freshly-interred body.
Women—who come in subservience and devotion, to enact the ritual which has been set aside for them to undertake, as befits their allocated role in society.
Women—who, if the traditional pattern is to be followed, will come, unwind the covering on the body, anoint the body with spices, reroll the covering and replace the body, and reverently leave the tomb.
But these women are unable to carry out the male-determined ritual for the body of the recently deceased. The familiar pattern is interrupted; the servant role is removed; and it is these women to whom the striking news of Easter is given.
It is to these women that the responsibility is given, for declaring that the body of Jesus is no longer gripped by death. It is to these women that the role of being the first, the primary, witnesses, to the interrupting action of God: the one who was dead, Jesus, our Master, is no longer here. The tomb is empty. He is not here. He is risen.
God is now working in ways that challenge, disturb, and overturn the well-worn, familiar, traditional patterns of society. The women cannot carry out the duties and responsibilities that they have long been given. The women, now, are to be witnesses to what God has done. They are to return and tell the men—the apostles, the pillars, the chosen ones—what God has been doing. He is not here. He is risen.
It is the women, and not the men, as expected, who are the ones to break the news: He is not here. He is risen. It is the women who become the first evangelists, the first to proclaim the good news of God. It is the women who become apostles, even to the apostles, the men waiting in the city, unaware of what has occurred at the tomb, and unacquainted with what God has been doing through Jesus. He is not here. He is risen.
If the first striking feature of this story is, who IS there; then the second arresting aspect, is who is NOT there. This is a story about Jesus, in which Jesus does not appear. This is an account of the most dramatic and significant moment in the whole narrative about Jesus—but there is no Jesus to be seen!
No Jesus to be touched! No Jesus with whom to talk! No Jesus to stand, centre-stage, as demonstration of the realities of how God is now at work.
So here is the conundrum: this is the precise moment in the story when God acts in a new and surprising way. This is the pivot point upon which the whole of the narrative turns.
And yet, at the heart of the story, there is—nothing! No central character. No resurrected Jesus, shining forth God’s glory for all to see. No dramatic, booming voice from the heavens, declaring the risen Jesus as the Lord of all.
All that we have, are the words of the young men: He is not here. He is risen.
There is nothing, but a startling absence, precisely at the moment when we expect a dramatic presence.
In my mind, this paradoxical turnaround is highly significant, hugely important. At the centre of our faith, there is an enticing invitation—to explore, to ponder, to imagine, to wonder. There is no clear, black-and white, unequivocal proof. There is no definitive dogmatic assertion, no unquestionable, unambiguous deed, no unarguable proclamation—no resurrected Jesus standing in the tomb. There are simply the women, stunned; and the two men, explaining: He is not here. He is risen.