My father was always a notorious pack rat. Some of his collecting fell under the heading of sentimentality – knick-knacks and mementos from his travels or his childhood. Other items were in the category of thrift – broken things that might one day be fixed, scraps of things that might one day be useful. So our family basement was always lined with tall metal storage shelves filled with boxes of stuff. One day some years ago I happened to discover that several boxes on the shelves were actually empty. I asked my mother why we were storing so many large empty boxes. “Oh, that,” she replied. “When I manage to clean out and throw something away, I put an empty box in its place, so your father doesn’t know that the space is available. If he sees an empty space, he fills it up with more stuff!”
I am thinking about empty places in our lives. I am thinking about walking past the empty office of a cherished colleague after he had left our long-shared workplace. I am thinking about perching silently on the bed of my son’s empty bedroom after he had gone off to college. I am thinking about staring in the window of an empty storefront, where once a favorite bookstore had been.
Two years ago I was reflecting upon such empty places as I prepared to leave behind so much that was familiar and fulfilling in my life. Now I am reflecting upon such places again in the wake of my father’s recent death.
An empty place is, so often, a hollow place. A lonesome place. Sometimes, in a sense, a ghostly place. When we experience such empty places, we may rush to fill them – as my dad himself used to do with his storage shelves. Yet perhaps we should not. For emptiness may be a sign of endings and loss, but emptiness may portend something else as well.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. [Matthew 28:1]
According to the gospels, the women stood there that morning before the empty tomb. Perhaps they had brought with them spices for embalming. Certainly they had brought all of yesterday’s grief and sorrow, all of tomorrow’s uncertainty and fear.
You and I also come to stand before the empty tomb on Easter morning. Not unlike those women, you and I come with our own losses, hurts, failures and anxieties. We stand here with sorrow at the ill health and relentless diminishment of people we love. We stand here with furious grief at murderous shootings and our national lack of will to combat them. We stand here with anxiety in the face of terrorism. With these and other losses and fears, we stand alongside one another, alongside Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, alongside humanity itself.
And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord … came and rolled back the stone ... [And] the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” [Matthew 28:2-6]
“He is not here, for he has been raised.” We arrive at the central proclamation of Easter. Mark well, dear friends, that the report of the empty tomb alone is not enough. The affirmation of Jesus’ absence must be followed by the acclamation of Jesus’ resurrection. “He is not here, for he has been raised.” In this acclamation all Creation shudders and is reborn. In this acclamation are met all our deepest fears and hopes. In this acclamation is awakened our Easter faith. He is not here, for he has been raised!
The empty tomb stands before us, as truly empty as all those other empty places of our lives – the lonely spots where our loved ones ought to be; the silent places where activity should not have ceased; the hollow pit where hopes have failed. And will we rush headlong to fill those empty places? For my dad’s storage shelf compulsion was not unique; our nature abhors a vacuum.
With what will we fill our empty places? With activity for activity’s sake? With eating or drinking or any frantic distraction close at hand? Or perhaps, in the longer run, might we instead fill our empty places with poignant memories, with gratitude and prayers, and with new beginnings honoring that which was?
In any case, let us not be too quick to fill an empty place. For an empty place is itself, like the Empty Tomb, the sign of a new beginning. That is the proclamation of our holiest of days. The Easter accounts vary in the four gospels, but for all four of the evangelists, the first evidence of Christ’s resurrection is the Empty Tomb. The tomb is empty because, somewhere out in the darkness, new life has begun! “He is not here, for he has been raised.”
Perhaps we stand before emptiness with sorrow. But by God’s grace we now stand before emptiness also with hope. The tomb is empty. Christ has been raised. Our empty places portend endings. Our empty places portend new beginnings. Such is the grace of God. “He is not here, for he has been raised.” The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Faithfully and fondly,
The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
Homepage art: “Transcendental Songs: Rose Window” by Gay P. Cox
oil, 70x70 inches