Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. … He is not here.” (Mark)
At the heart of the idea of God, lies a great paradox. If God is infinite, then there is no room for anything else to exist. But if God is finite, then there is something bigger than God, and God is only limited and partial, and not God at all. What to do?
There is an idea known as tsimtzum in the Jewish mystical tradition that tries to address exactly this conundrum. It holds that in order for creation to exist, the infinite God had first intentionally to draw back to make room for created being (the Hebrew word “tsimtzum” means to contract). God pulls inward, to make room for the existence of what is not God—the other.
Now think of the implications of that idea: in order for us (or anything else) to be, God first has to create an empty void. Emptiness is the prerequisite for existence.
In his poem “Emptiness,” the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu wrote these words:
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.
How interesting, then, that the first indication of the resurrection is not anyone’s personal encounter with Jesus, but simply the discovery of an empty tomb. As the angel says to the women who come looking for Jesus, perhaps almost sarcastically, “He isn’t here.”
And even when the disciples do later encounter Jesus, more often than not the emphasis in the resurrection stories is on how elusive Jesus is, disappearing just as he is recognized—think of the supper at Emmaus, when just as the disciples realize it is Jesus with whom they are breaking bread, he vanishes from their sight.
And of course this pattern of retreat and withdrawal culminates in the story of Jesus’ ascension, when he withdraws from the disciples altogether.
We spend a lot of mental effort trying to make sense of the resurrection, but I wonder if it might not help to ask if what it is really about, is God drawing back from the ordinary human world, where we know only violence and death, with the purpose of making room for a new way of life to come rushing in to fill the void (much like the primordial moment of creation)? What if the resurrection is a kind of, well, a kind of new creation? (After all, that’s what St. Paul says our life in Christ is, a new creation [2 Cor. 5:17, Gal 6:15]).
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that no one actually saw the resurrection—in fact, we know almost nothing about it, except that it was accompanied by a great earthquake. All that we really know, are its effects. And those effects are the deep-seated conviction of Jesus’ followers that in him they have been given a way of peace to pursue, and a Spirit of hope to trust, as they—and we—remake the human community.
So what if the message of Easter is that through an empty tomb, God has opened up the space in which we, by following him, can cross over from an old life circumscribed by violence and death, into a new and larger space where life opens out before us, like the experience walking from inside a dark enclosed house into the fresh radiant brilliance of the morning sun? No wonder the resurrection happened just at sunrise.
Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan priest and poet, once observed that even Jesus refused to say much of anything about the resurrection itself. What Jesus did focus on, every time he appeared to the disciples, was the new way of life by which they were to move forward in the path he had cleared for them. And so, for Cardenal, the point of the resurrection is that the tombs of all those who in their life loved as Jesus taught them to love, are existentially empty. Sure the bones are there, but not the spirit. Their spirit is “hid with Christ in God,” as St. Paul puts it (Col. 3:3).
Parents know well this pattern of pulling back to enable growth: indeed, one of the principal tasks of being a mother or father to children, is first to equip them with a sense of confidence and direction, but then gradually to draw back to make room for the child to find his or her own way of being in the world.
Or a teacher knows the same truth: at the heart of being an educator lies the importance of forming students with an instinctive curiosity and the tools for discovery, but then of turning them free to explore and create on their own.
In fact, much of life is about having an adequate self-awareness and self-assurance, to be able to draw oneself back in order to make room for the freedom of others. And that is a lesson our nation is still struggling to learn.
The great Christological hymn in the second chapter of Philippians is built around this very theme: Christ, says the writer, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. It’s yet another instance of God pulling back, to let something new take its place.
And isn’t something like this, also the spiritual truth that we draw from the desert that surrounds us here in New Mexico—that it is in the emptiness of a landscape seemingly denuded of life, that we become most vividly aware of the preciousness of life itself? Emptiness inspires clarity. Absence precedes presence. (And that’s also what the Eucharist is all about, isn’t it?—revealing the absent Jesus to be present in our midst.)
In a poem called “Seen” (which we read at this morning’s Easter pilgrimage), the poet Jan Richardson describes the dynamic emptiness of the tomb this way:
You had not imagined
that something so empty
could fill you
and now you carry
like an awful treasure
or like a child
that roots itself
beneath your heart:
how the emptiness
will bear forth
a new world
that you cannot fathom
but on whose edge
There is no other word
There is simply
There is simply
Ó Jan Richardson, janrichardson.com