Friday, April 25, 2014

The Evidence of the Empty Tomb

If only I could see Jesus as the disciples did, then I could believe.

It is easy to envy the first followers of Jesus. With their own eyes, they saw Him give sight to the blind, open the ears of the deaf and raise the dead. They knew the features of His face, the timber of His voice and the charisma of His personality. They spoke with Him and witnessed for themselves the love He had for them.

Living some two thousand years later, it can be tempting for us to think that if we had their experience, we would find it easier to believe all the claims of the gospel and even easier to live them out. We think that this is especially true about the feast we celebrate today, the Resurrection. If He appeared to us, if we were able to see His Risen Body, if we were able to touch Him as Thomas did, then we would have no doubts whatsoever. We would put our faith without reservation in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.

However, reading today’s gospel, quite a different scene is played out. Mary Magdalene, Peter and John are not the confident disciples we would expect. More than anyone else, they were Jesus’ most intimate friends. Yet they are confused. They do not know what to make of the scene that is unfolding before them. They are not sure what they are to believe.

In many ways, they find themselves in the same situation we do. Like us, Jesus has not yet appeared to them in His resurrected body. Like us, the only evidence they have that Jesus has risen is an empty tomb. And yet, with so little to go on, we are told that John, the disciple Jesus loved, believed. He had not seen Him with His own eyes. He did not yet understand the Scriptures which prophesied that He would rise from the dead. And yet he believed as we are called to do.

Gathered here today, can we believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Let us consider the evidence that we have - the empty tomb. Is that enough to put faith in the resurrection?

It is clear that Jesus died and was placed in a tomb. Three days later, that tomb was found to be empty and Jesus’ body was never found. Is there a theory that can explain for us how that could have happened?

Some have suggested that the disciples stole His body. But how likely is that? The gospels tell us that the tomb was already empty when the women arrived there. We know also that guards were placed at the tomb by the Romans and that there was a large stone blocking its entrance. Is it possible that the disciples who had fled during the crucifixion and were in hiding in the upper room could suddenly find the courage to confront the Roman guards and steal Jesus’ body?

Also, history tells us that all of the apostles except Saint John were martyred for the faith. Yet there is no historical record that any of them, even under the most horrific of tortures, confessed that Jesus’ body had been stolen. If the disciples had conspired to fake the resurrection, would not one of them have admitted it?

There are some who claim that the Roman authorities took Jesus’ body so that the disciples would not have a place to gather and remember Him. As the story goes, they hoped that once they discovered that Jesus’ body was missing, they would leave Jerusalem and forget all about Him. However, this claim also does not stand up to scrutiny. As faith in Jesus’ resurrection began to spread throughout the empire, would not the authorities have produced His body to prove that He had not risen and squash the claims of the apostles?

Finally, there are some who explain the empty tomb by claiming that Jesus had not really died on the cross. He only had gone into shock or fallen into a coma. When they placed Him in the tomb, he only appeared to be dead. After resting for a few days, He revived. The disciples then interpreted this as His having been raised from the dead.

However, like the others we have mentioned above, this claim also makes little sense. Consider what Jesus’ endured. He had been severely whipped and beaten. For three hours, He hung on the cross with nails run through His hands and feet. He experienced a tremendous loss of blood. With all the trauma He suffered, is it possible that all He needed to recover was a couple days rest? Even if He had been taken to a modern day intensive care unit, it would take months of blood transfusions, surgeries, physical therapy and other medical interventions to get Him back on His feet. It is not possible that. given all He suffered, He could have healed up in such a short period of time.

Like the disciples, we are confronted with an empty tomb. When we consider the evidence, there is only one logical conclusion we can draw. Jesus was raised from the dead as He predicted He would be. Though we have not seen Him, that does not mean that we have no reason to believe. We have the empty tomb and the testimony of Scripture. It was enough to make John believe. It is also enough to make us believe as well.

In the next few weeks, we will read the gospel accounts of how Jesus appeared to the disciples, showing Himself to be very much alive. We will notice that those appearances always take place on “the first day of the week”, that is, Sunday, the day of the resurrection. It is also the day that Christians gather to celebrate the Eucharist. At Mass, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, Jesus appears to us. He shows Himself to be alive. We receive Him into our bodies and we become one with Him.

As it turns out, we have all that we need to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead and alive among us. Blessed are we who have not seen yet believe. Now we must go and put that faith into practice.

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