|35 - The Sign of the Empty Tomb, May 3, 2020|
This sermon was recorded on our St Herman's YouTube Channel. Here is the link:
Mark 15.43 – 16.8
Sitting down to compose this morning’s ‘sermon’, my mind swept over the field of St Mark’s Gospel from beginning to end. I was not a little astonished by what I saw—for the first time! The Gospel of St Mark appears to have drawn the prophetic theme of a New Exodus, which becomes the Inner Exodus of the Gospel, into an image of the Church’s baptismal font, or of the LORD’s Tomb. To read St Mark’s Gospel mindfully, then, is to join the myrrhbearers on the inner Exodus of the Gospel and draw near spiritually with them to the LORD’s Tomb in the mystery of our baptism.
For consider, the Gospel of St Mark begins with the LORD baptized by John in the Jordan in the desert, a geographical symbol of death as was the enslavement in Egypt and even the Babylonian exile. It then proceeds with the Savior going on an Exodus throughout Galilee, and it ends in the Tomb, in the LORD’s resurrection from the dead, the substance of His baptism. John the Baptist sees the LORD rising from the waters in the Jordan and the heavens opened and the Spirit descending on Him as a dove, and hearing the voice of the Father: ‘This is My Beloved Son.’ Mark’s Gospel ends with the myrrhbearing women seeing the angel inside the LORD’s Tomb (as John saw the LORD in the Jordan), and hearing the angel say: ‘the LORD is risen from the dead. He is not here.’ The Savior’s Tomb now is filled with eternal life, as the Jordan in the desert was filled with the Living Waters of the Savior’s Holy Spirit, as are the waters of the Church’s holy baptism. So, Mark’s Gospel ends at the same mystical point where it begins, but in a much higher key: it ends with eternal Life that is now in the LORD’s Tomb, which is not just a geographical symbol but the actual place of death, the real Egyptian bondage, the real Babylonian exile from which all of human nature is delivered.
Having thereby written his Gospel in the shape of an inner Exodus from the waters of the Jordan to the LORD’s Tomb, St Mark sets Golgotha before us as the holy mountain of the LORD, the destination of the prophets’ New Exodus. To believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then, is to draw near with the myrrhbearing women to the LORD’s Tomb as to the LORD’s Temple on His Holy Mountain. One ascends the LORD’s Holy Mountain and enters His Temple, His Tomb, by descending into the Church’s baptismal font. There, the heart of stone is rolled away, the curtain is torn in two; the wall of enmity (death) is destroyed. The Heavens are opened. And, one comes out into the LORD’s Holy resurrection in the Kingdom of Heaven that is within you (Lk 17.21), in the mystery of God which is Christ in you (Col 1.27), in the mystery, in the temple, of your own heart that is deep, beyond all things. (Jer 17.9 LXX)
This, I think, reveals the force otherwise hidden in one of the different endings to the Gospel of St Mark that is found in some of the ancient manuscripts following directly upon the account of the myrrh-bearing women fleeing the LORD’s Tomb that we read this morning. This ending is called ‘the shorter ending’ of St Mark (compared to the ‘longer ending’ which consists of Mk 16.9-20). None of our English bibles include it, so you may never have seen it. It reads: ‘Immediately, the myrrh-bearing women reported all these instructions [from the angel given to them at the LORD’s empty Tomb] to those [gathered] round Peter. And, after these things, Jesus Himself sent forth the holy and incorruptible preaching of eternal salvation through them from the East to the West.’
‘The holy and incorruptible preaching,’ it says. Let’s now note another distinguishing feature of St Mark’s Gospel. It begins with the word of the prophets. It ends with the word of the angel and, in this shorter ending, with the word of the apostles’ preaching. That word, of course, comes from the LORD Himself. And now, that very same WORD is sent out from the East to the West in the form of the apostles’ preaching whose words are holy and incorruptible because they carry the eternal salvation that has gone out to the ends of the universe (Ps 19.4) from the LORD’s empty Tomb.
Ponder closely what this is saying. If the eternal salvation of the apostles’ preaching goes out to the ends of the universe, from East to West, it isn’t because of a successful evangelization or missionizing campaign. It’s because the eternal salvation of their preaching is the death and resurrection of the LORD, which is a reality that is now everywhere present, filling all things—because the eternal God who was dead and buried and rose again did so in our flesh and blood. (Heb 2.14) He did so not outside but inside of us, in the ‘midst of the earth,’ (Ps 74.12) in the human heart that is in the midst of the human body and soul. That is, the eternal salvation of the apostles’ preaching doesn’t extend only as far as their preaching goes. It goes before them; for, it is the Grace of the Holy Spirit that extends through the whole of human nature north, south, east and west, past, present and future in the death and resurrection of Christ. The apostles’ preaching proclaims the fact, the ‘ontological’ reality of the Kingdom of Heaven that is ‘within you’ (Lk 17.21), of the mystery of God that is ‘Christ in you’ (Col 1.27). It shows any who would listen how they themselves can draw near the LORD’s Tomb with the myrrhbearing women at the top of the mountain in their own hearts.
Can you now see that the apostle’s preaching is ‘holy and incorruptible’ because its substance is the eternal salvation of the LORD’s death and resurrection? The words of their preaching are like the nets of those fishermen Ezekiel saw in his vision (Eze 47.10). They were casting their nets out into the sea of this worldly life which was ‘flooded’ by the Mighty River of the LORD’s Holy Spirit flowing out from the East Gate of that Temple Ezekiel saw at the top of the mountain on which the LORD had set him (Eze 47.1-5: that Temple, at Christmas, shows the mystery of the Virgin; but, now in Pascha-tide, it shows the mystery of the LORD’s Tomb). The fishermen are the holy apostles. They are casting their nets in the form of their preaching into the waters of this ‘earthly life in the desert,’ the waters of death. The words that constitute the ropes of their nets were not spun from out of their own religious mind. That is, their preaching does not come from the desert of their own musings or speculations on the meaning of Jesus’ Holy Pascha. It is given to them by the LORD from within the mystery, the ‘Living Waters,’ of His Tomb. The apostles’ preaching is holy and incorruptible because their words are the very form and shape of the eternal salvation that is found in the LORD’s Tomb, now become, in His resurrection, the ‘place of the living.’ This eternal salvation is found within the LORD’s Tomb, not outside of it. That means this eternal salvation is found within our death, for it is within us, not outside of us that the LORD has destroyed death, our death, and given life, ‘eternal salvation,’ to those who were in the tombs, which would be us. In the LORD’s Holy Pascha, our nature has been changed. Human nature does not exist anymore outside of God in the waters of death. If it has become God’s own nature by His incarnation, it now exists in God in the Living Waters of Christ’s Holy Spirit.
What this says to me is that to receive the preaching of the apostles is not to receive a school of religious thought or a denomination of religious interpretation. It is to live in the death of the Savior, the death of God, in which our ‘inner man’ has been changed, transfigured. It is to live in the baptismal font whose mystical substance is the LORD’s Tomb, the end of the Old Exodus, the beginning of the New, the Font in which our death is changed into the death of death and the beginning of eternal life in the eternal salvation of the apostle’s preaching. At my funeral, others will place my body in a grave. But, if I choose to live now in the LORD’s empty Tomb, I am the one, not others, who places my earthly body as a spiritual corpse into the LORD’s Tomb, which has become, by His holy and incorruptible Pascha, the place of the living. That means that in the Church’s baptismal font, the tomb of my heart is being emptied of any spiritual corpse, specifically the spiritual corpse of my own soul, and the tomb of my heart is becoming a bridal chamber. For, in the Tomb of the LORD, in the Church’s baptismal font, corpses simply don’t survive. They touch the LORD’s risen Body, as did St Thomas, and they are raised from death to life.
So, what is it to live in the LORD’s Tomb, in the Church’s baptismal font, in the eternal salvation of the holy and incorruptible preaching of the apostles? It says that the women fled the Tomb in fear. Trembling and ‘ek-stasis’ had seized them. (Let the student of mythology note how these women behave in their ecstasy, compared, let’s say, to the dionysiac maenads!) St Paul says, “work out your own salvation in fear and trembling.” (Phil 2.12) Does he mean, work out your salvation in the fear of the LORD’s empty Tomb, in the waters of your baptism, which would be the tears of contrition? Perhaps we can take this to mean that to live in the LORD’s Tomb is to live in the fear of God, with faith and love. We should be suspicious of a salvation that does not instill a sacred fear and trembling into our soul, because that means we are not living in the fear of the LORD’s saving death that destroys death; that is, we are living in a false salvation, false because it does not destroy pride and conceit and self-justification that destroys my heart’s capacity to receive the God of humility and compassion and His eternal salvation.
I am increasingly convinced that it is critically significant that the first witnesses to and preachers of the LORD’s Holy Resurrection were the women. For, women ‘fundamentally’ are not preachers of words, of ideas or speculations. They are fundamentally mothers. As mothers, they bring forth not cold, lifeless ideas but warm, living children. That the first ‘preachers’ of the LORD’s resurrection were the women who loved Him tells us that the WORD of the apostles’ preaching—which they received from both the LORD Jesus and the women, which also may be significant—is not a religious theory or philosophical school of thought. It is the Son of God Himself who has come forth from the tomb, not mythologically, but in real flesh and blood as the First-born of the dead, just as He came forth from woman (Gal 4.4), from the Virgin, not mythologically, but in real flesh and blood as the Son of Man. The ‘eternal salvation’ of the apostles’ preaching is not an idea we can parse in our mind. It is the WORD of God Himself who has become flesh, born of woman (Gal 4.4). You cannot believe in the LORD Jesus Christ as you would a scientific hypothesis or a philosophical idea or a religious thought, or a political ideology, or a crazy superstition. To believe in Him is to become human, it is to become who you truly are, a child of God, born of His Bride and Mother, the Church, and of His Holy Spirit, living in the mystery of His death and resurrection which became, in the LORD’s Holy Pascha, the new principle of human nature in the ‘Eve’ of its soul, its ‘inner man’.
Now, did you see that our readings from St John’s Gospel this week began (on Monday) with the LORD changing water into wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee? This wine of the LORD was not produced from grapes of the earth; it was produced from water, a symbol of the human spirit, that was in earthen jars (perhaps a symbol of the human body?), when the servants did what the LORD told them to do. This ‘sign’ happened at a wedding, where the bridal chamber is nearby. Can you see that the ‘sign’ of this ‘miracle’ signifies the mystery of the LORD’s Cross and His Tomb? For, that’s where and when He becomes absolutely one with us. But, if He died in our flesh and blood that He had made to be His own, it means that He became one with us in our heart, because that’s where we are dead. But, if He became one with us in our death, it means that He has transfigured our heart into the bridal chamber, for that’s where we have been united with the LORD who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life. This is how our nature was changed in the LORD’s Tomb! Our nature was changed from a pagan temple filled with idols to a holy temple filled with the Holy Spirit; from a place of death where we were separated from God to a place of the living where we have become one with God as He became one with us.
So, to live in the LORD’s Tomb is to live in the mystery signified in the ‘sign’ of the wedding of Cana. It is to have the love of God the Father in us, and in the love of God, to have the ‘holy and incorruptible’ Life of His Son in us (Jn 5.24-26 & Jn 5.42) Love proceeds from the heart. It penetrates the heart and transfigures the heart of stone into a heart of flesh, and then, as it did the myrrhbearing women, it throws the heart into an ‘ek-stasis’; that is, it raises the heart beyond herself and into the love of God that is deep beyond all things.
Now we have followed the ‘inner Exodus’ of the apostles’ preaching all the way to its source, and beyond; for, we have followed it back to the fear and trembling of the myrrhbearing women deep inside the Tomb of the LORD. That fear and trembling has thrown us into an ‘ek-stasis’; that is, it has cast us outside of ourselves and into the love of God beyond all things that casts out fear. Now we are back at the beginning; for, now we are becoming children of God, born not of flesh and blood here below, but of the Spirit of God from above, in whom we ourselves are now becoming, in the eternal salvation of the apostles’ preaching, holy and incorruptible. Amen! Christ is risen!