The Empty Tomb
As I have said, the author of the Fourth Gospel speaks of the source of human evil and delusion as the "father of lies" and the "murderer from the beginning." If this "father" is a father from the beginning, and if what he fathers is lies, then the first lie must also have taken place at the beginning. If he is a murderer from the beginning, then the beginning must have been a murder. The first lie took place at the site of the first event. The event was a collective murder; the lie was that it was not a murder but an act of religious devotion and zeal. The lie was the myth.
As it no doubt was at the beginning, so throughout history, it is at the graves of those slain by collective violence that the "grave" assurances of the "father of lies" have traditionally had their greatest appeal. The "father of lies" accounts for the collective violence in religious terms and converts the tomb of the slain one into a shrine where the camaraderie born of the murder can be revived and hallowed. By building a tomb and going there to perform solemn rites of remembrance, we humans forget our own responsibility for the deaths of those whom the grave purports to honor or those who will die in the violence required to avenge their deaths.
"Murder calls for the tomb," writes René Girard, "and the tomb is but the prolongation and perpetuation of murder." (1) The tomb of those who died violently is a myth in stone. Both the myths and the tombs relate the story of past violence and give it meaning. They exonerate those who fall under their mythic influence from moral responsibility for collective violence. They edify and unify the mourners. Tombs are the architectural components of rituals that, according to Elias Canetti, make it possible for those who have raged and murdered to feel themselves "aligned with the suffering" and free from "the accumulated guilt of killing." (2) The tomb is where the "father of lies" and the "murderer from the beginning" can be counted on to issue his solemn reassurances and conjure into existence another of the "kingdoms" of "this world" or revive a flagging one. "There is no culture without a tomb and no tomb without a culture," writes Girard; "in the end the tomb is the first and only cultural symbol." (3)
If speaking in these terms seems strange, one need only glance at the newspaper to see how casually and habitually the tombs of victims are turned into sacred justifications for more victimization. The July 8, 1992, edition of the New York Times, for instance, carried a story about the fierce ethnic fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave of Azerbaijan. The story begins by quoting a notice posted in a building in Armenia where assistance for the Nagorno-Karabakh partisans was organized. The notice read:
All those who hold dear the graves of our ancestors, our churches and our holies, must sow terror on the foe. By day and by night, they must perish.Whether one is living in the ancient world or the modern one, in order to "sow terror on the foe" night and day one must go mad. If the terror can be sanctified, if the violence can be experienced as holy, and if the esprit de corps of those sowing the terror can achieve religious intensity, then the madness can pass for lucidity itself. The "father of lies" of which the author of John's Gospel speaks is the force that converts the graves of those killed violently into the solemn obligation to unleash violence on others. To paraphrase Howard Nemerov, the tomb is where murders become memories and memories become the beautiful obligations.
One of the most graphic of the recent instances of this was ably recounted in Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History. Kaplan writes of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic: "The only Eastern European Communist leader in the late 1980s who managed to save himself and his party from collapse did so by making a direct appeal to racial hatred." (4) Kaplan tries to explain why, but for a quick synopsis of his explanation, let me just quote the first two paragraphs of the Tina Rosenberg review of Kaplan's book that appeared in the March 28, 1993, edition of the Washington Post Book World. Rosenberg writes:
On June 28, 1987, an ambitious Serbian Communist leader came to a field in Kosovo called Kosovo Polje, the Field of Black Birds, on the anniversary of the defeat there of a Serbian commander. "They'll never do this to you again," he pleaded to the crowd. "Never again will anyone defeat you." That was the moment, writes Robert D. Kaplan, when the Serbian revolt against the Yugoslav federation began. The speaker was Slobodan Milosevic. The defeat commemorated on that field took place in 1389.If we now live outside the vortex of passion and ferocity that seized the Nagorno-Karabakh partisans and the Serbian nationalists, we are not immune to the seductive power the author of John's Gospel calls the "father of lies and murderer from the beginning." There is growing evidence that many unsatisfied with the utilitarian banalities of modern life are becoming nostalgic for the kind of pure conviction the "father of lies" dispenses often enough at the tomb. The American poet James Wright put it this way:
A year later, the coffin of the defeated Serb commander began a yearlong pilgrimage through every village in Serbia, followed by multitudes of sobbing mourners dressed in black in each town. For many in Serbia, the year 1989 marked not the fall of communism, but the 600th anniversary of the defeat of Knez Lazar at Kosovo Polje.
Walking here lonely and strange now, I must findBecause culture begins, so to speak, at the grave site, tombs and graves have tended to provide existing cultures with an ideal venue for "prodding wrath toward its just devotions," and reviving cultural solidarity. The use of graves for deflecting moral responsibility for violence onto others is an explicit concern of the New Testament, and this concern sheds light on the structural significance of the empty tomb story. Jesus rebuked his religious opponents with these words:
A grave to prod my wrath
Back to its just devotions... (5)
Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You who build the sepulchers of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the holy men, saying, "We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers' day." So! Your own evidence tells against you! You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets! Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began. (Matt. 23:29-32)Tombs have precisely the opposite effect that the crowing of the cock had on Peter in the passion story. The crowing cock made Peter conscious of the fact that he had been swept into the mimetic complicity with those who murdered Jesus. Tombs function to extinguish precisely that recognition of complicity. By decorating the tombs of past victims, those morally troubled by acts of collective violence can bemoan the violence and shift responsibility for it to others without having either to acknowledge or to renounce their own complicity in the violence. The interpretation becomes the next room of the dream, the dream from which Peter awoke upon hearing the cock crow.
According to the poetics of Matthew's Gospel, at the moment of Jesus' death "the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy ones rose from the dead," and all the evangelists indicate that shortly thereafter, when those closest to Jesus went to the tomb where his body was interred, they found that the tomb was empty. What actual historical event might be at the heart of the story of the empty tomb we cannot know. Paul, the earliest Christian source we have, never mentions the empty tomb. Like the story of tombs opening and the earthquake, the empty tomb may have been an interpretation in the form of a narrative detail. It may have been one of the several "events" in the passion story that exist to help the reader understand, not just what happened, but the meaning and significance of what happened. The story may have been based on an inability to find the corpse of Jesus, or the discovery that "he is not here" may have been a more profound discovery, one momentous enough to have been made even in the presence of a corpse. As I said, we can never know. What is important is what the Gospel texts tell us. The texts that speak of the empty tomb make it clear that it was originally a very troubling experience, with no positive connotations whatsoever. Those who had gone to the tomb to perform the anointing and mourning rituals were shocked and troubled to discover that Jesus was not there.
The empty tomb is essential for understanding the resurrection, not because it announced the resurrection, but because it deprived those who were later to experience the resurrection of a cathartic religious ritual that might have substituted for it. The discovery of the empty tomb meant that Jesus' corpse and its resting place could not be made into a shrine and become the locus for a new religious cult. Had Jesus' tomb not been empty, the explosive force that scattered the gospel revelation out beyond the culture-world in which it originated and broadcast it to the corners of the earth might have been offset by the gravitation pull of a central shrine. Had the tomb not been empty, what Paul feared might have happened. The Cross might have slowly moved to the margins of Christian awareness and the Christian message. Christianity might have become what some have recently declared it to be: a philosophical affair presided over by a Jeffersonian Jesus full of wise and occasionally ironic sayings.
Given the significance of the empty tomb, nothing symbolizes Christianity's apostasy in history as perfectly as do the Crusades, that cluster of sacrificial convulsions that essentially brought "Europe" as a cultural phenomenon into existence. Pope Urban B launched the First Crusade by passionately imploring European Christendom to arm for the task of reclaiming from the infidel the sepulcher of Christ. This sacred mission remained the supreme rallying cry for all the subsequent Crusades. In other words, Christianity's most notorious revival of sacred violence involved a repudiation of the story of the empty tomb and a more or less spontaneous revival of the structures of sacred violence whose perversities the crucifixion had exposed.
This is a book about the historical effects of the gospel, not about its theological or metaphysical meaning, but the first of these historical effects was the birth of a community of people whose lives make sense to us and would have made sense to them only in light of their experience of the resurrection. As the theologian John Macquarrie put it, "Only a belief in the resurrection provides anything like a sufficient reason for the rise of Christianity after the death of Jesus." (6) Paul stressed the point when he wrote, "If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing in it is useless" (1 Cor. 15:14). The resurrection is a historical event. Christianity would not exist without it. But Christianity came into existence with the proclamation of the resurrection, a declaration of its supreme significance. Furthermore, it is clear from the New Testament that for those who first experienced it the resurrection coincided with an act of recognition and was accompanied by the awakening of a new kind of mental clarity.
The proclamation of the resurrection was and is: Christ is risen. It is a proclamation that can be convincingly made only in the present tense and only by those who have experienced it. Moreover, it is always a post-crucifixion experience. The rending of the Temple veil, the quaking earth, and the opening tombs are the poetic images that the evangelists use to express the profound emancipation that the crucifixion brought about and made possible. So radical is this emancipation that it cannot even be imagined from inside the mental bunkers from which it liberates us. Even those who believe in the resurrection as an act of faith in the church's teaching are able to do so because the emancipating power of the Cross has begun to sweep away the mythological, ideological, and rationalistic clutter that stands in the way of that belief.
Primitive myth, and the ideological pseudo-myths and rationalistic counter-myths that are its modern residue, exists to keep the revelation of the Cross from breaking in on us. If successful, the bulwarks against truth that mythological superstition, ideological idées fixes, and Procrustean rationalism erect prevent what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus from happening (Acts 9:1-19). But they also prevent from happening what happened to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, when the truth of the resurrection began to slowly break in on them (Luke 24:13-35). Just as the Risen Christ in Luke's Gospel remained unrecognizable until he sat at table and broke bread with his companions, so the resurrection remains a historical enigma and an object of theological speculation until -- at the breaking of bread, or while at prayer, or in the giving or receiving of unearned love -- everything is suffused with the light of the resurrection. At that moment, one feels what Paul must have felt when he said: "Death, where is thy sting?"
1. Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation o f the World, 164.
2. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 145.
3. Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation o f the World, 83.
4. Robert D. Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993), 39.
5. Quoted in Richard Howard, Alone with America (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 578.
6. John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 406.