At the end of Luke’s gospel (Lk. 24:1-12), once the women had shared with the disciples what had occurred at the tomb, we are told that Peter runs to the tomb and upon arriving he bends down and sees “the burial cloths alone”. It seems an almost inconsequential thing. The main fact is the empty tomb, right? The burial cloths are just an after-thought one might think. John, in his gospel, is even more precise – the burial cloths are also noted but then John shares that the cloth used to cover the head of Christ was rolled up in a separate place.
In the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel we find the story of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend who has now been dead for four days. Jesus commands that the stone be removed and then he cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” John 11:44 reads this way; “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his head wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”
Lazarus emerges from the tomb still wrapped in the cloths of death because he is raised back to a life that is still bound by mortality. He will one day die again. In the empty tomb of Christ, the burial cloths have been left behind because Christ has been raised to newness of life. He who once was dead now lives forever! Death no longer has power over him!
Our God is a God of life and not of death. Guided by the Spirit we can now read this throughout salvation history. God created everything and all life out of the sheer gratuity and abundance of his love. God looks upon his creation and proclaims it to be good! When the people of Israel were enslaved God heard their cry. God freed them from their slavery and led them into the new life of their own land and their covenant with him. The prophets, again and again, call the people back to true life that can only be found in relationship with God. Even when the people profaned the covenant and the very name of God, God promises that he will restore them and cleanse them for the sake of his own holy name. God cannot be other than God. John tells us that “God is love” and Pope Francis asks us all to recognize this holy year that the name of God is mercy.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God promises that not only will he cleanse us outwardly but, even more so, that he will give us a new heart and a new spirit and that he will take from us our stony hearts and give us natural hearts.
In the empty tomb of Christ, with the burial cloths discarded and left behind, God removes our stony hearts. In the very place of death and decay, God gives us a new heart and a new spirit! Our God is a God of life and not death.
The new heart and new spirit of the Christian flows from the empty tomb of Christ and this new heart has already begun beating! Our resurrection to new life has already begun. St. Paul (and all the saints by their very lives) remind us that through our baptisms we have died with Christ in order to rise to newness of life with him. We now live for God in Christ Jesus!
In Christ, the tomb is emptied and the cloths of burial are left behind. Now, we, in Christ, can leave behind the life-denying cloths that bind us and all of humanity – the burial cloths of sin, violence, arrogance, egocentrism, injustice, isolation and fear. In Christ, we have risen to newness of life! In Christ, we can live again for one another and for God! Death is not the final word! Newness of life in Christ flows out of the empty and defeated tomb.
The tomb is emptied. The cloths that bind are left behind. Christ is risen! We are given a new heart and we can now live in newness of life!