In a 13th century book of psalms, called The Psalter of Queen Ingeborg, there is a full-color rendering of the discovery of the empty tomb. One detail in the picture is at variance with accounts of the event in all four gospels, including the one we just heard from Mark. That single difference is fascinating and instructive.
The illustration, done in a style suggestive of an Eastern Orthodox icon, depicts an empty tomb. An angel stands to the left. And on the right is a group of three women, whose cheeks are flushed with excitement. I imagine they are Salome and the two Marys mentioned by Mark. Two of the women hold what must be jars of burial spices in their hands. Sprawled in the foreground are three unconscious soldiers.
It’s the artist’s rendering of the tomb that is especially interesting. It’s a sarcophagus or coffin rather than a cave. Instead of a stone rolled to the side, the lid of the sephucher has been opened like a trap door. The angel and one of the women are pointing with long graceful fingers at the open and empty grave. The picture is simple, lovely and powerful. It depicts the essence of the Easter story perfectly — without words.
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Not only did the resurrection of Jesus Christ pop open the trap door of his sepulcher, it also opened for us “the gate of everlasting life,” as the collect for Easter Day expresses it.
Death is, in a sense, a gate or a doorway. It is the portal through which all of us inevitably pass.
In Christianity death takes two forms. The first is composed of those daily experiences of dying that are part of the reality called sin. These are the hurt, terror, pain, and wrong we inflict on ourselves and others. They are the real and figurative suicides and murders of human existence. Everyone participates. No one is immune.
The second form of death is the ultimate physical dying that lies at the end of each human life. There is no avoiding this event either. It is the other great common denominator of being human, whether one is rich or poor, famous or anonymous, brilliant or ordinary. It puts into perspective everything that we are and do.
The portal of our daily dyings is like a revolving door. For the most part we know what’s wrong in our life. We work to fix it with various degrees of effort and skill. Repairs hold for a while. Then things fall apart again. We are pretty poor mechanics when it comes to fixing the messes we make in our lives.
St. Paul puts the human dilemma this way in his Letter to the Romans: “Even though the desire to do good is in me, I am still not able to do it. I don’t do the good I want to do; instead, I do the evil that I do not want to do. If I do what I don’t want to do, this means that I am no longer the one who does it; instead it is sin that lives in me.” [7:18b-20] That’s the revolving door that sweeps us around and back into the place where we were before. We know a lot about this as individuals, and we see it played out in so many ways corporately, as is so painfully evident in our nation and world right now. We human beings cannot solve the problem of sin by our own devices alone.
Have you ever been stalled between floors in a crowded, malfunctioning elevator? I have, and it’s not much fun, especially for a claustrophobic like me. Before long imagination takes over and you begin to think that you’ll be trapped forever. You feel as if you are going to suffocate. And you pray that someone will answer the alarm bell soon.
I wonder if that’s how existential claustrophobia feels. For a person who expects nothing beyond this life, could death seem like elevator doors closing on one forever? I can imagine that the anticipated loss of identity, of being, of self would be a spiritually suffocating prospect.
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There is a prayer in the burial service in The Book of Common Prayer that reflects the way that we Christians contend with our struggles with sin and our fear of death. It goes like this:
Grant that all who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life, and that through the grave and gate of death we may pass with him into our joyful resurrection.
In baptism, we place our whole trust in Christ and in his power at work within us, thus breaking the cycle of the revolving door of ineffective self-reliance. This is a Pauline insight which is spelled out in Romans 6 and elsewhere in Paul’s epistles. It is what enables the apostle to end his lament about sin with these liberating words: “What an unhappy man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death? Thanks be to God, who does this through our Lord Jesus Christ!” [7:24-25]
It is the baptismal incorporation into Christ that assures us that as God raised him from physical death, so we also will be raised at our dying. His experience has shown us that when the doors of death close behind us, doors of new life open before us.
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The gesturing figures of Mary and the angel in Queen Ingeborg’s Psalter point past the open lid to Christ’s empty sepulcher. The collect of the day assures us that Christ’s resurrection opens the way to eternal life for all. And the burial office reminds us of how we pass through the grave and gate of death sacramentally.
A door is open before us this Easter, inviting each one of us to enter in faith with all our heart, with all our mind and with all our soul. Amen.