“So, tell me the significance of the empty tomb?”
This question was asked of a student of theology by a professor of Christology. The tomb referred to in the question is that of Christ Jesus.
To begin, the tomb is connected to the dead body of Jesus. The tomb signifies that truly Jesus had a physical body of flesh and blood. That Jesus, a divine person, already possessing a divine nature, united to his divine person, a complete human nature, including body and soul. That this body was placed in a tomb signifies that truly Jesus had died; for we reverently bury our dead.
That the tomb was found empty three days later points to Jesus’ resurrection. The empty tomb in itself is not enough to prove the resurrection.
Our faith in the resurrection comes from those who witnessed the resurrected Lord; Mary of Magdalene, Peter, the two on the road to Emmaus, the 11 and the others. That it was the same Jesus who had died is verified by his bodily wounds. That Jesus was not a ghost is understood by Jesus being able to be touched and to eat. That Jesus’ body was different is perceived by his not being recognized immediately and his appearing suddenly.
The resurrection of Jesus manifests that the Heavenly Father has accepted Jesus’ sacrifice. Jesus’ death was a sacrifice on our behalf, for as he stated, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again no one takes it from me but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (Jn 10:17-18).
Again, Jesus, referring to his sacrifice, stated that the Son of Man had come to give his life for the redemption of many (cf. Mk 10:45). By his cross and resurrection, Jesus has gained for us the forgiveness of our sins. Sins being forgiven, death is overcome, for the “wage of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Sin causes death within us by decaying the image of the Word, through whom we were created (cf. Gn 1:26-27). Sin and death being defeated, we are now able to live a new life, sharing in the life of the Word.
We had become partakers of sin and death due to the deception of Satan. Satan had promised Adam and Eve, and we their children, to be like God. We were put under his dominion when our first parents ate the fruit. By conquering sin and death, Jesus frees us from Satan, allowing us to live now as sons and daughters of God. Sharing now in the Sonship of Christ, we are strengthened to say “Yes” to the will of our Heavenly Father.
The resurrection of Jesus is the cause of our resurrection on the last day. The hope of resurrection ought to inspire us to do great things for the glory of God. It is the hope of the resurrection that allows us to suffer anything here on earth with patience, especially when we are persecuted for our faith in Jesus. It is the hope of the resurrection that motivates us to go beyond our own self-interests and so love our neighbor. The hope of the resurrection allows us to let go of our own judgements, living life as intended by God; doing his will, not our own.
Reflecting upon the significance of the empty tomb, it is important to call to mind chapter 15 of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here is found a profession of faith, which has been handed on to us: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day, in accord with the scriptures; that he was seen by Cephas and then by the Twelve” (1 Cor 15:3-5).
It is the resurrection that is key to our faith and hope, for “if Christ be not risen, in vain is our preaching and in vain too is your faith” (1 Cors 15:14).
The tomb being empty points to our now being full of the new life in Christ. For the resurrection reveals to us that the tomb cannot hold us from the glory to which God has called us. We share in this glory even now by the grace Jesus has won for us. May the resurrection inspire us to live the new life in Christ, bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus, manifesting the glory of God in our bodies by everything that we do.
Father Jason Rocks is currently in Rome at the Pontifical North American College for advanced studies.