The Garden, the Cross and the Tomb

How easy it is to jump ahead, in our eagerness to be united with our Lord in a resurrection like His own mighty resurrection. Stop for a moment. Stop and think on Paul’s words: “if we have been united with him in a death like his.” A death like Jesus’ death. What does that mean?

We cannot come to new life without death. We cannot find the Risen Lord without the Cross; we cannot reach Easter any way except through the agony of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday.

Christ is risen! On Easter, we raise our voices in praise and thanksgiving, celebrating the victory won for us by our Lord, our new life made possible in His new life.

And rightly we do celebrate—but before we do, wait a moment. Paul writes in Romans that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5 ESV). How easy it is to jump ahead, in our eagerness to be united with our Lord in a resurrection like His own mighty resurrection. Stop for a moment. Stop and think on Paul’s words: “if we have been united with him in a death like his.” A death like Jesus’ death. What does that mean?

We cannot come to new life without death. We cannot find the Risen Lord without the Cross; we cannot reach Easter any way except through the agony of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday.

Good Friday

Our Lord leads the way—from triumph and hosannas as He entered Jerusalem on Sunday, through the lonely watch in the garden of Gethsemane. Mark tells us that in the garden, Jesus “fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:35-36). Our Lord Himself  was distressed and troubled, yet constant in obedience to the Father. How easy it is to proclaim Christ when we anticipate that His will is peace and prosperity. Yet Christ calls us to come and die. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3).

Would you die for Christ? Here in America, we are unlikely to literally die for Christ at all, and certainly not as our Lord did—in agony, His scourged body stretched across  the wood of the cross, struggling to breathe. Put it differently. Would you be willing to lose your job for Christ? Would you let go of God’s good gifts to follow God Himself?

Christ calls us to share in His death, that we may share in His resurrection. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). We will, soon, glory in His resurrection—but first comes the cross.
The crowd shouts, “Crucify him, crucify him!” (John 19:6). We are in that crowd. Pilate offers to release Him: the crowd shouts, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.” (John 19:12). What accommodations have we made with Caesar? What do we worship instead of the One True God? We must face the darkness in our own lives as we make our way toward the light of Easter.

Christ is crucified. Not for a vague and unspecified “humanity,” nor for a general idea of “sinners” which we so easily interpret as “other people.” No—on the cross He hung for three bitter hours, bleeding, thirsty, listening to the mockery of the crowd—for us. For me who writes this, for you who are reading this, for all the individual human lives that have ever been and ever will be. And with Christ was crucified all our sins. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6-7).

Holy Saturday

Jesus is dead. Say it again: Our Lord is a lifeless body, wept over by a few women, His friends having scattered. Darkness lies over the land. We can imagine the disciples, on that terrible Saturday, puzzling over what seemed to be shattered hopes. “We had hoped,” Cleopas would say a day later on the road to Emmaus, “that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21). Is this what the vindication of Israel looks like? Is this what the Kingdom of God looks like? Or is it what it seems to be—shame, death, defeat?

What is there to do? Perhaps only to give up. Yet not everyone had abandoned Him. In the waning hours of Friday, a few stayed faithful, even if it was a faith without hope. Joseph of Arimathea, a man “looking for the kingdom of God,” did what he could, even if it was pathetically little. “This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid … The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.” (Luke 23:51-56).

A bitter, sorrowful obedience. Not a joyful anticipation of the Resurrection, for we know that they did not understand. The world shook at the moment of the Lord’s death, but then it seemed to go on just as always. Shouldn’t the world have paused, with the Son of God lying dead in the tomb?

We have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter. But we also have to go through Holy Saturday. The time of waiting: time to let the significance of His atoning death seep in; to face the sins that sent Him to the cross.

Easter

“Now, if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). We have died with Christ; we have suffered the agony of our sin that He carried for us on the cross; we have failed Him, fled from Him, come back in shame and sorrow to kneel beside His tomb.

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And then—into the darkness of Holy Saturday shines the light of Easter. An empty tomb. Shock, fear, awe, joy. “He is not here, for he has risen” (Mt 28:6).

Now, only now, can we raise our voices in praise with Paul: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). Christ is risen—not a legend, not a hope, not a spirit, but the Son of God in new, strangely transformed life, the first fruit of the new creation.

Christ is risen! And that changes—everything. “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11).
Christ is risen! How can we sing out loudly enough to convey the joy, the utter and earth-shaking joy of those words? It is the pivot-point of history. It is the sure foundation for everything in our life and work and worship.  It means that Jesus is the world’s true Lord—that Jesus, and not Caesar, is God. Christ is risen! How can we find language to carry that meaning?

One poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, comes closer than any other in capturing the mingled awe and joy of the Resurrection—perhaps because Hopkins was, like the Lord he served so faithfully, a man well acquainted with grief and troubles. Hopkins writes:

…the Resurrection,
A heart’s clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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What part of the Easter story do you have the biggest struggle with understanding or accepting?

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