The soldiers outside the tomb kept vigilant watch, half of them on watch while the other half slept, turn and turn about, every three hours. As darkness fell, they remained on extra high alert for any Galilean gang creeping up. If anything untoward happened or anyone sneaked by them, they would be executed, either as a squad or by one picked out by lot to answer the crime of all. There was no chance they would doze off.
But it was Day Three. And there were no gangs of Galileans. Instead there was an earthquake which shook them all awake. And then there was a bright lightand a shining being arrived dressed in dazzling white. Just the one. It rolled back the heavy stone, snapping the Roman seals and ropes, and then sat on the top of it. The guards were terrified, falling to the ground like dead men.
And when they came round and realised that the seals were broken and the tomb they had been guarding stood open, they ran back to the Temple to tell the elders.
The chief priests and Pharisees refused to believe that this was God’s hand. Instead, they bribed the soldiers to say that the disciples had succeeded in sneaking past them, rolling back the heavy stone without them noticing, before departing with a dead body wrapped in cloth saturated with pungent spices which they managed not to smell. As a clincher to the deal, the elders promised to see their commanding officer to head off any talk of execution or punishment for dozing off in such magnitude. And so the tale was started. It became the official view but, oddly and uniquely, no-one was ever prosecuted for breaking the Roman Seal, or for bodysnatching, or for knocking out the Roman Guard with a bright light!
The first light of the first day of the week crept across the garden. The band of women, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Salome and Joanna, arrived with their spices and ointments. As they approached they began to wonder amongst themselves how they were going to get the stone shifted. But when they arrived they found it had already been done. And the guards were only remarkable by their total absence. Had they done it and left? What was going on?
They went inside the tomb. They could not see the body of Jesus but the tomb was not exactly empty. Rather, there was a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right hand side. Before they had a chance to speak another one appeared. The terrified women cowered down with their faces to the ground. Angels? Why were angels here?.
“Don’t be afraid,” said one of the angels gently. “I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. But why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, He is risen, as He told you He would be. Remember how He explained to you that He must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day He would rise again? Well, it’s happened. Come, see the place where they laid Him.” The women looked up and saw where he pointed at the empty ledge. “Now,” went on the angel more briskly, “Go quickly and tell all His followers that He is risen from the dead and is going ahead into Galilee. You will all meet Him there just as He told you.”
The women left.. Once outside the tomb, they ran as fast as they could to take the message to the disciples to see what they made of it. Mary Magdalene outran the other women and went straight to Simon Peter.
“They have taken the body of our Lord away and we don’t know where,” she gabbled out.
Simon Peter had John with him. “Rubbish, woman,” they growled. “Of course he’s there.”
But Mary Magdalene was so distraught that they ran back with her to the tomb. John got there first. He stooped down and looked in and then ducked back out again. Simon Peter charged past and went right inside. He saw the linen cloths folded neatly but no body. He saw the head cloth folded separately. Now he believed Mary. So did John as he followed his friend inside. They did not know what to make of it. They could not connect what Jesus had told them with the scriptures they knew and did not understand that He was actually risen from the dead.
They left, bewildered and wondering what could have happened.
But Mary stayed behind. All she could think about was that her Lord had disappeared. Simon Peter and John, the two disciples closest to Jesus, were as confounded as she was. She had thought that if she could have just been allowed to anoint His body, touch Him one last time, she might begin to have closure. Here was where He should be. Where was He? There was absolutely nowhere else to go. Racked with grief, she wept outside the tomb in heart rending sobs.
At last she thought to look inside the tomb again, just in case perhaps there was an inner inner chamber … and there were the two angels.
“Why are you weeping?” one of them asked her.
“Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have lain Him.”
She turned away and met a third figure outside. She thought it was the gardener as this was, after all, the private garden of a wealthy man.
“Sir,” she managed to choke out, “if you have taken Him away, tell me where He is and I will collect Him.”
“Mary!” said Jesus.
Surely she knew that voice. She looked up through her tears and recognizedHhim.
“Rabboni!” She flung herself at Him.
“No, do not cling onto Me,” said Jesus. “For I have not yet ascended to My Father. But go and tell My brothers that I am ascending to My Father and your Father, to My God and your God.”
Meanwhile, the other women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, were still on their way to the rest of the disciples. Suddenly, they met someone.
“Rejoice!” They stopped and gazed in dawning wonder and delight. It couldn’t be …but it was! Jesus himself! They fell down and held His feet and worshipped Him. “There is no need to be afraid any more,” He told them. “Go and tell my brothers that I will see them all in Galilee.”
He left them but they had held His actual feet, heard His familiar beloved voice. There could be no mistake. The reason that tomb was empty was because Jesus had risen and left it. ‘Risen’ meant ‘come back to life’. They couldn’t wait to find the disciples and tell them.
And while the disciples were trying to make sense of the women’s accounts, all gabbling excitedly, and the guards were being bribed by the Temple elders, people all through the city of Jerusalem were being surprised by the sudden appearances of godly people who had died and whose graves had been opened in the crucifixion day earthquake.
Image: The Empty Tomb.