38. The Untold Story Of The Empty Tomb

It was still dark when they finished preparing the spices and perfumed oils they would apply to his body. Mary Magdalene was eager to leave the house, and she hurried the others along. Salome preferred to wait until the sun had come up, but Magdalene had an energy that was hard to resist, and it was too early in the morning for arguments.
   Each woman carefully checked her own lamp, to make sure she had enough oil for the journey to the tomb. Salome had a spare one just in case, and she started to inspect the other women’s lamps. Joanna playfully hid hers behind her back.
   “Do I look like a foolish virgin to you?” she said. The others chuckled, appreciating the reference.
   The air was cool, and everything was quiet, apart from the sound of their own breathing, as they began the journey to the tomb. Mary Magdalene led the charge, thrusting her lamp into the darkness ahead, while the others trailed behind.
   Dawn was just breaking out when they reached a slope where they could first make out their destination. To Salome, it looked like the kind of place you wouldn’t want to visit even in the middle of the day, let alone at such an early hour.
   A bird screeched in the distance. More birds joined in. The wind picked up, and then fell silent. Suddenly, as they were gazing into the distance, they saw what looked like a streak of lightning come out of the sky, and strike the area where they thought the tomb was. The earth shook, and it was followed by a strong wind and a burst of light from the direction of the tomb.
   They all froze, trying to process what they had just seen. After a few moments, Joanna whispered, “Do you hear that?”
   They couldn’t be sure if what they heard was just the wind, or an effect of the lightning strike; but they all agreed it sounded a lot like men crying out in terror.
   “Let’s come back when it’s light,” said Salome, who had already begun to edge backwards. But Mary Magdalene couldn’t have agreed. She was already running in the direction of the spectacle. The remaining women watched in horror as she disappeared down the road and out of their sight.
   “I’ll go after her,” said Susanna, running after her. “I’ll see you at the tomb,” she shouted back to the others. They wanted to stop her, but before they could find the words, she was already out of their grasp.
   As the remaining women watched her also vanish into the darkness ahead, Salome tried to reason with the others, arguing that it was better to come back during the day; but the rest wanted to carry on. They couldn’t leave Magdalene and Susanna alone in such a terrible place, and besides, if something had happened at Jesus’ tomb, they wanted to know what it was.
   The group continued on toward the tomb, their pace much slower than before. As they went, they discussed whether they would be able to apply the spices to his body, especially because of the security around the tomb. The authorities seemed very eager to protect it. Would the soldiers remove the stone for them, or would they have to try and do it themselves?
   The sun was just starting to rise when they finally arrived at the tomb. Susanna sat on a rock nearby, looking dejected. When she saw the others, she ran up to tell them the news, but before she could open her mouth, Joanna asked, “where’s Mary Magdalene?”
   “She’s gone to tell the apostles,” said Susanna.
   “Tell them what?”
   Susanna pointed in the direction of the tomb. The others looked up along the path, and were astonished to see that the stone had already been rolled away.
   “Where are the soldiers?” asked Joanna.
   “I don’t know,” said Susanna. “They must have taken Jesus’ body somewhere, but how are we supposed to find him in a place like this?”
   “Did you take a look inside?”
   “Of course not!” replied Susanna, disgusted at the thought. “I’m not going in there by myself, and Magdalene ran off before we could look in.”
   Joanna and Mary the mother of James ran up to the tomb entrance, and stooped down to peer in, dangling their lamps into the darkness. Salome and the other women followed after them.
   “Can you see anything?” asked Salome.
   “I can’t see his body,” said Joanna. “But I can’t tell from here. I’ll have to go in.”
   She crouched down to go through the entrance, and then helped Mary in. They clung to each other, lamps held out ahead of them, as they made their way further into the tomb, to the recess where Jesus’ body was supposed to be.
   “There are some cloths here,” said Joanna in a loud voice, making sure the others could hear. Her words echoed around the tomb. Susanna, Salome and the other women climbed into the tomb, but they stayed near the entrance.
   “Let’s stand guard here,” Salome said to the women in her group. They all agreed. None of them really wanted to be in a dark tomb that was supposed to have a dead body in it, and that had been sealed only a few days ago, but was now standing wide open.
   Salome, in particular, was also afraid of the dark. The lamps gave off just enough light to prevent her from being completely petrified; but at the same time, the flames cast eerie shadows that danced on the walls, and if she watched them long enough, she was sure she could see them making faces at her, taunting her.
   She peered further into the tomb, where Joanna and Mary were, and her heart skipped several beats as she saw what looked like a young man, sitting on the right side of where Jesus was supposed to be.
   Unable to speak for fear, she nudged the other women in her group, and pointed in the direction of the man. From what they could make out, he was wearing a white robe, and appeared to be looking at Joanna and Mary with a slight smile on his face. The two women had obviously not seen him. They were using their lamps as searchlights, feeling around the tomb like women desperately looking for a lost coin. Salome wanted to call out to the two women, but she was too stunned to say anything.
   Then the young man got up, and stood behind Joanna. He was tall, much taller than her, and even though Salome wanted to rush to Joanna’s aid, something seemed to hold her back. But it wasn’t fear. She couldn’t quite describe what it was.
   Joanna and Mary would tell their version of the story to the other women later. Once they had searched the sides of the tomb with their lamps, they turned round to explore the recess where Jesus’ body should have been, and were astonished to see two men standing by them, wearing robes of brilliant white that seemed to sparkle as the light from the lamps reflected off them. As the two women gazed at them, speechless, the man on the left gestured to the man on the right, as if inviting him to speak for them both. The man on the right began speaking.
   From the sound of his voice and the way in which he spoke, Joanna and Mary knew that he couldn’t be a normal man. His voice had an otherworldly texture, soft and gentle but with a divine authority to it. As he spoke, the two women could see that the gleaming came, not just from his robe, but also his body. When the women realized they must be angels, fear gripped them, and they lowered their heads, afraid to look at them directly.
   However, none of the women would ever forget the words he said to them. In a comforting voice, he told them not to be stunned or afraid. He told them Jesus was not here, because he had been raised up as he said he would be. The women were to go and tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus was going ahead of them into Galilee, and they would see him there.
   With that, the two men sat down in the recess where Jesus’ body was supposed to be, and they both gazed serenely at the entrance of the tomb. After a few moments of uncertainty, Mary and Joanna both realized this was their cue to leave. All of the women scrambled out of the tomb without saying a word, and fled as fast as they could. When they had reached what they all felt to be a safe distance, they came to a sudden halt. For several moments there was a tense silence, and then Joanna and Mary broke out into fits of laughter.
   “Come on,” said Joanna, after she had regained her breath. “We need to tell the apostles about this.”
   “Tell them what, exactly?” said Susanna.
   They all began discussing what they had seen. Joanna and Mary said the men must have been angels, because of the way they spoke, and the radiance of their clothing and bodies. Salome, Susanna and the other women, who had been inside the tomb but had stayed near the entrance, were not as certain. They heard what had been said, but from where they were standing they had only seen one man, a young man, on the right side of where Jesus should have been. They agreed his clothes were white, but they didn’t see the radiance the two women were talking about, or if they did, they assumed it was the light coming from Joanna and Mary’s lamps.
   The discussion soon turned to what it all meant. If they told the apostles they had seen angels, would the men believe them? Even if they did, what then? Would the men go around telling everyone that Jesus was alive, based on their statements about seeing shiny young men who were really angels? And if people were already being expelled from the synagogue simply for believing in Jesus, and Jesus himself had been executed, what would happen to them if they went around telling people that Jesus was alive, and that angels had told them this?
   Gradually, any joy they felt was replaced once again by fear. This time, it was not a fear of dark tombs or lightning bolts or men who appeared to be angels. It was a fear of uncertainty and doubt, of being ridiculed, of being shunned, and of being killed.
   One by one, despondent, devastated, they dropped to the side of the road. They sat in silence, saying nothing to anybody, trembling and occasionally weeping, as if the world around them had just collapsed. Occasionally, a kind passerby would ask whether they needed any help, but the women would just wave them away. To them, it felt like they sat there for days, although it was really no more than a few hours.
   Eventually, partly out of shame, and partly because her own courage was beginning to return, Joanna spoke up.
   “Look,” she said. “We didn’t follow this man all the way from Galilee, just to sit here like beggars on the outskirts of Jerusalem. We need to tell the others about what we saw.”
   Just then, another passerby approached them.
   “Greetings!” he said. “What are you doing here?”
   The women tried to ignore him, but the man sat down next to Joanna. “What is the matter with you, Joanna?” he said.
   This caught her attention. She pushed away the hair in front of her face, wiped away the tears from her eyes, and looked intently at the man.
   “How do you know my name?” she asked.
   “Why wouldn’t I?” he replied. “I knew it even before you began ministering to me.”
   It took a few moments for her mind to catch up with what her heart already knew. She gazed at him, and he smiled back. After a few more moments, she burst into laughter. The others looked at her, and then at the man. What had he said that was so funny? But Joanna wasn’t laughing at him, or at what he’d said. She was laughing because now she understood. Now she got it. Now she saw him for who he really was. And at the same time, here he was, sitting right beside her at the side of the road, smiling at her, or rather with her.
   How could she not laugh? God had told Abraham to name his son Isaac, meaning “Laughter.” She remembered being taught that story, and thinking to herself that it was a ridiculous name to give a child. Now she knew it had been perfect. The impossible had just happened, and she had been there to witness it. She knew it would sound unbelievable to others, laughable even. It sounded ridiculous even as she thought about it. Who would believe their report? But the stunning reality of it also made her laugh in a way that nobody or nothing else could.
   For a fleeting moment she saw Isaac in her mind. God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, whom he loved. Isaac had to carry the wood on his own back to the place of his sacrifice, the same wood he would then be placed upon. But Abraham knew his son would return with him, because of the power of God.
   Now she was no longer just a believer in such stories. Now she knew. The man sitting next to her was also an only Son who was loved by his Father. His name would also mean laughter. He too had carried the wood to the place of his death, and was then placed upon that same wood. The difference was, the man sitting beside her had given his life freely, not as a child sacrifice, but as a hero. And she knew he had done it for her.
   Now that she understood, she wanted to enjoy his gaze for as long as possible. The other women huddled closer to Joanna, watching her stare at him with a wide grin on her face; but they could sense it wasn’t the gaze of a woman who had been captivated by a charming and handsome man. It was something deeper.
   “What is it?” asked Salome quietly, almost afraid to interrupt them, and not quite sure whether to expect the answer to a joke, or the revelation of a profound secret known only to Joanna and the man.
   Joanna inclined her head toward Salome, while her gaze remained fixed on the man. “It is the Lord,” she whispered.
   The others saw that Joanna had replied, but they didn’t hear the words. “What did she say?” they demanded to know.
   Salome also fixed her eyes upon the man. “She said it’s the Lord.”
   The rest of the women stared at him, and he began to look at each of them in turn.
   Before his death, he had been scourged so violently by the Roman soldiers that his back was covered in thick stripes. His face had been pummeled by their fists, leaving bruises all over it. The crown of thorns had been pressed down so hard that streaks of blood had left their trails down his face. The last memory the women had of Jesus was of a man who had been thoroughly disfigured, broken and crushed by the Roman state, sharing the fate of anyone who claimed to be a king without the authorization of Caesar. The words “KING OF THE JEWS” had been fixed over his head by Pilate as a warning to others who might have such lofty ideas.
   All of this was gone. Instead, the man’s face was clean, radiant, youthful but wise. It was the face of a man who had been relieved of all worry and stress, and who had something profound and exciting to say, yet all the time in the world to say it. They knew it was the face of Jesus.
   Suddenly, the women all grabbed at his feet, and began to bow down to him; and just as suddenly, he got up, and urged them all onto their feet.
   “Do not be afraid any more,” he said to them. “I have conquered the world, and now the spoils are mine. And I share them with you, and anyone who comes to me; for those who believe in me will see life. The reward is with me, and the wage I pay is in my hand. But as for you, you will be witnesses of me, because Isaiah wrote about you when he said, ‘Raise your voice with strength, you bearing good news for Jerusalem. Do not be afraid.’ My sisters, this is the reason I came: to feed my flock, and gather the lambs, and then I will return to the Father who sent me.”
   For a while, his eyes seemed to wander far off into the distance, and then he fixed his attention upon the women again.
   “My sisters, go and report to my brothers, that they go into Galilee, and they will see me there, before I return to the Father.”
   The women were reluctant to leave and wanted to ask him many questions, but he urged them to go, and assured them that they would see him in Galilee.
   Meanwhile, Mary Magdalene, having earlier set off on her own to tell the apostles about the missing body, had already arrived at where Peter and John were staying, out of breath, sweat dripping from her brow, hair wrapped around her face in a disorderly manner. As they opened the door to her, the two apostles would never forget the words she practically screamed at them through the mass of hair.
   “They have taken away the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve laid him!”
   Peter and John looked at each other. Then they looked at Mary. Then they looked at each other again. They didn’t need to say a word. In that moment, they both knew the race was on. Who would get to the tomb first? Mary watched in silence as the two grown men dashed through the door and raced off into the distance. With a sigh, she pulled the door shut behind them, turned around, and headed back to the tomb, this time at her own pace.
   For Peter and John, it was a close race. For a while, it was neck and neck, but John eventually won – a detail he felt best to keep to himself. He didn’t want to bruise Peter’s ego; and in the larger scheme of things, what did it matter that John was the faster runner?
   But when he arrived, he hesitated to go into the tomb. Stooping forward to peer in while getting his breath back, he could only see the linen cloths. Peter arrived a few moments later, and he stooped even further forward so he was practically inside the tomb, and could also see the cloths. After recovering his breath, John decided to go inside, to get a better look. The face cloth, the shroud that had been around Jesus’ head, was not lying with the other cloths but had been rolled up separately.
   When they saw this, they immediately knew what it meant. Jesus’ body had not simply been moved. After all, who would take the body, but leave the cloths it had been wrapped in? They knew it meant he had been raised up, and they began discussing it.
   Just then, they heard the sound of panting outside the entrance of the tomb. They came out and saw Mary Magdalene, looking exhausted and anxious.
   “There’s no body,” John said to her, “just the cloths. If he’s been raised up, we should just go home and wait for him.”
   Peter and John urged Mary to come back with them, but she refused. They even promised to lay on a big meal for her and the other women, but nothing would persuade her to leave. In the end, they decided to go back without her, after making her promise to come back as soon as possible. With that, they went back to where they were staying.
   But Mary stood weeping outside the entrance of the tomb. She wasn’t going anywhere until she got some answers. What had the soldiers done with her Lord? Had he been raised up, as Peter and John seemed to think? Or had the soldiers just moved his body, and not told anyone where they had put him? But why would they remove the cloths? And where were the soldiers anyway? Why had they not told anybody where they had moved the Lord?
   Sadness, anger and confusion gave way to curiosity. She wondered if she could figure out the puzzle herself. She went over to the right side of the entrance and stooped over to peer into the tomb. Her eyes widened, her jaw dropped, her heart skipped several beats and her body trembled, as she saw two men in white robes sitting where the body of Jesus should have been, one at the head and one at the feet. They both looked at her with a slight smile. She was about to demand what they were doing in her Lord’s tomb, when they spoke first, almost in unison.
   “Woman,” they said, both of them tilting their heads slightly. “Why are you weeping?”
   During the time she had been running to find the apostles, she had been rehearsing the same line over and over in her head and even out loud; and so the answer rolled easily off her tongue.
   “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him!”
   The smile on the faces of the two men intensified, as if they found her plight amusing. Yet she did not feel like there was any cruelty behind the smiles, but rather, it was as if they knew something she didn’t.
   Not knowing what else to say, she found herself staring at their robes, and the wonderful way in which they seemed to reflect the light – sparkling, dazzling, enchanting. Then she looked back at their faces. They were handsome, youthful, but they seemed to be looking past her. Confused, she turned around, and saw the gardener standing nearby, looking at her with a friendly but puzzled look on his face.
   “Woman,” he said, “why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
   She grabbed his arm. “Sir,” she pleaded, “if you have moved him, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
   She began tugging on his arm, to lead him to one of the other tombs into which Jesus might have been placed. But the gardener stayed still, and said to her, “Mary!”
   Maybe it was his dialect. Maybe it was his gentle tone of voice, or the way he said her name. But the realization came to her instantly. This wasn’t the gardener. She stopped looking around at the other tombs, and her insistent tug on his arm turned into a firm grip.
   “Teacher!” she exclaimed.
   “Stop clinging to me,” he said, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.’”
   A little later, the other women arrived at where the apostles and other disciples had gathered, and they reported the empty tomb and the appearance of men in white garments. But to the apostles and disciples, their stories sounded like hysterical nonsense. After all, the women couldn’t even agree on whether there was one man or two, and whether they were angels or not. Nevertheless, the disciples dispatched two men to investigate the tomb. They found it to be empty like the women said, but they didn’t see any men in shiny outfits.


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