Human beings have a tendency to see what they expect to see. Various psychological studies have shown that people “fill in the blanks,” they see what they are conditioned to see and may completely miss something that is unexpected or out of context. That might be a good insight to keep in mind during this Easter season. What do we see when we peer into the empty tomb?
When we hear the Gospel stories we hear them like people who know how the story ends. We’ve seen this movie, we know how it ends. We jump ahead and anticipate the resurrection. We know it is Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we know it is Jesus whom Mary mistakes for the gardener, we know what it means when Peter peers into an empty tomb. We rush headlong into the resurrection, we aren’t confused, we don’t ponder or wonder or stand amazed, we know.
From our place of certainty it is easy to misunderstand the reactions of the disciples. We think they are obviously rather slow on the uptake for failing to instantly understand the reality of the resurrection. Why did the male disciples dismiss the reports of the women that the tomb was empty? How could the disciples on the road to Emmaus not recognize Jesus? What on earth was wrong with Mary Magdalene that she took so long to recognize Jesus? But perhaps what we have the most trouble recognizing is our own lack of understanding of the truly radical nature of the resurrection.
The resurrection was more than simply the resuscitation of a dead body. Jesus was not brought back to life the same way Lazarus was. Something different, more profound, more radical has happened. The empty tomb means that God is acting in history in a way that our minds cannot even comprehend.
The first disciples could not immediately recognize Jesus because God was doing something completely new, completely unexpected. It was only in hindsight that they remembered Jesus’ cryptic clues. Then as now hindsight is 20/20. The disciples were being called on to see something that they had no context for, something that pushed them beyond all previous boundaries and understandings. Jesus had died but he was still among them. The power of the Roman Empire and the religious establishment had conspired to kill Jesus and his nascent proclamation of the Reign of God. But the power of God burst the human limitations that could only see death. The tomb, and its reality of death, was turned inside out.
The strongest tomb most of us will encounter is not made of rock. It is made of our preconceptions, our assumptions, our arrogance and short-sightedness. Like the disciples we know exactly what we are going to find. We know how things work, we know what to expect and we can see only what we have been conditioned to see. But the resurrection means that the power of God is right here, right now, in front of ours, turning reality inside out. The empty tomb is all around us, but can we see it?