The Earth's Most Serious Wound--------The Empty Tomb
by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

Taken from LIFE OF CHRIST, Image Books, 1958



In the dim dawn of Sunday morning several women were seen approaching the tomb. The very fact that the women brought spices proved that they did not expect a Resurrection. It seemed strange that such should have been the case after the many references by Our Lord to His death and His Resurrection. But evidently the disciples as well as the women, whenever He predicted His Passion, seemed to remember more His death than His Resurrection. It never occurred to them as a possible thing; it was foreign to their thoughts. When the stone was rolled to the door of the sepulcher, not only was Christ buried but also all of their hopes. The only thought the women had was to anoint the body of the dead Christian act that was born of despairing and as yet unbelieving love. Two of them, at least, had witnessed the burial; hence their great concern was the practical act:

Who would roll away the stone for them from the entrance to the tomb. [Mark 16: 3]

It was the cry of hearts of little faith. Strong men had closed the entrance to the tomb by placing this huge stone against it; their worry was how to remove the barrier in order that they might carry out their errand of mercy. The men would not come to the tomb until they were summoned------so little did they believe. But the women came, only because in their grief they sought consolation in embalming the dead. Nothing is more antihistorical than to say that the pious women were expecting Christ to rise from the dead. The Resurrection was something they never expected. Their minds were not made up of the kind of material on which such expectations could grow.

But as they approached, they found the stone rolled back. Before their arrival, there had been a great earthquake, and an Angel of the Lord, who descended from Heaven, rolled back the stone and sat upon it:

His face shone like lightning; his garments were white as snow. At the sight of him the guards shook with fear and lay like the dead. [Matthew 28: 4]
When the women came near they saw that the stone, great as it was, had been rolled away already. Instead of the dead Body of their Master, they saw an Angel, whose countenance was as lightning and his raiment as snow and who said to them:
Fear nothing; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He has been raised again; He is not here; look there is the place where they laid Him. But go and give this message to His disciples and Peter: He is going on before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He told you. [Mark 16: 6-8]
To an Angel, the Resurrection would not be a mystery, but His death would be. For man, His death was not a mystery, but His Resurrection would be. What had been natural to the Angel, therefore, was now made the subject of the announcement. The Angel was one keeper more than the enemies had placed about the Savior's grave, one soldier more than Pilate had appointed.

The Angel's words were the first Gospel preached after the Resurrection, and it is the one that went back to His Passion, for the Angel spoke of Him, as "Jesus of Nazareth Who was crucified." These words conveyed the name of His humanity, the humility of His dwelling place, and the ignominy of His death; in all three, lowliness, ignominy, and shame are brought in comparison with His rising from the dead. Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem are all made the identifying marks of His Resurrection.

The Angel's words: "Here is the place where they laid Him," confirmed the reality of His death and the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Tombstones bear the inscription: Hic facet or "Here lies." Then follows the name of the dead and perhaps some praise of the one departed. But here in contrast, the Angel did not write, but expressed a different epitaph: "He is not here." The Angel called on the women to behold the place where their Lord's Body had been laid, as though the vacant tomb was evidence enough of the fact of the Resurrection. They were directed to hasten immediately and give intelligence of the Resurrection. It was to a virgin woman that the birth of the Son of God was announced. It was to a fallen woman that His Resurrection was announced.

Those who saw the empty grave were bidden to go to Peter who had tempted Our Blessed Lord once from the Cross and had three times denied Him. Sin and denial could not choke Divine love. Paradoxical though it was, the greater the sin, the less the belief; and yet the greater the repentance from sin, the greater the belief. It was to the lost sheep panting in the wilderness that He came; it was the publicans and the harlots, the denying Peters and the persecuting Pauls to whom the most persuasive entreaties of love were sent. To the man who was named a Rock and who would have tempted Christ from a Cross, the Angel now sent through the women the message, "Go tell Peter."

The same individualizing prominence given to Peter in the public life was continued in the Resurrection. But though Peter was mentioned here with the Apostles of whom he was the head, the Lord appeared to Peter alone before He revealed Himself to the disciples at Emmaus. This was evident from the fact that later on the disciples would say that He appeared to Peter. The glad news of Redemption was thus given to a woman who had fallen and to an Apostle who had denied; but both of whom had repented.

Mary Magdalen, who had in the darkness moved ahead of her companions, noticed that the stone had already been rolled to one side, while the entrance stood wide open. A quick glance revealed that the grave was empty. Her first thought was of the Apostles, Peter and John, to whom she ran in excitement. According to Mosaic Law a woman was ineligible to bear witness. But Mary did not bring them tidings of the Resurrection; she was not expecting it. She assumed that He was still under the power of death, as she told Peter and John:

They have taken the Lord out of His tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him. [John 20: 2]
Out of all the disciples and followers there were only five "watching:" three women and two men, like the five in the parable who awaited the coming of the Bridegroom. All of them were without suspicion of the Resurrection.

In their excitement both Peter and John ran to the sepulcher, thus leaving Mary far behind. John was the better runner of the two, and arrived there first. When Peter arrived, they both went into the sepulcher, where they saw linen cloths lying about, as well as the veil they had put on the head of Jesus; but this was not with the linen cloths; but was wrapped up by itself. What had taken place was done decently and in order, not by a thief nor even a friend. The Body was gone from the tomb; the original bindings around His Body were found in their convolutions. If the disciples had stolen the body, they would not in their haste have unwrapped it and left the linen cloths. Christ had risen out of them by His Divine power. Peter and John:

Until then they had not understood the scriptures, which showed that He must rise from the dead.  [John 20: 9]
They had the facts and the evidence of the Resurrection; but they did not yet understand its full meaning. The Lord now began the first of His eleven recorded appearances between His Resurrection and Ascension: sometimes to His Apostles, at other times to five hundred brethren at once, at some other times to the women. The first appearance was to Mary Magdalen, who returned to the sepulcher after Peter and John had left it. The idea of the Resurrection did not seem to enter her mind either, though she herself had risen from a tomb sealed by the seven devils of sin. Finding the tomb empty, she broke again into a fountain of tears. With her eyes cast down as the brightness of the early sunrise swept over the dew-covered grass, she vaguely perceived someone near her who asked:

Why are you weeping? [John 20: 13]

She was weeping for what was lost, but His question took away the curse of tears by bidding her to stop her tears. She said:

They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have laid him. [John 20: 14]

There was no terror at seeing the Angels, for the world on fire could not have moved her, so much had grief mastered her soul. When she had said this, she turned and saw Jesus standing; and she knew not that it was He. She thought He was the gardener------the gardener of Joseph of Arimathea.

Believing this man might know where the Lost One could be found, Mary Magdalen went down on her knees and asked:

If it is you, sir, who removed Him, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away. [John 20: 15]
Poor Magdalen! Worn from Good Friday, wearied by Holy Saturday, with life dwindled to a shadow and strength weakened to a thread, she would "take Him away." Three times did she speak of "Him" without defining His name. The force of love was such as to suppose no one else could possibly be meant.

Jesus said to her:

Mary! [John 20: 15

That voice was more startling than a clap of thunder. She had once heard Jesus say that He called His sheep by name. And now to that One, Who individualized all the sin, sorrow, and tears in the world and marked each soul with a personal, particular, and discriminating love, she turned, seeing the red livid marks on His hands and feet, she uttered but one word:

Rabbuni! [John 20:16]

[which is the Hebrew for "master"]. Christ had uttered "Mary" and all Heaven was in it. It was only one word she uttered. and all earth was in it. After the mental midnight, there was this dazzle; after hours of hopelessness, this hope; after the search, this discovery; after the loss, this find. Magdalen was prepared only to shed reverential tears over the grave; what she was not prepared for was to see Him walking on the wings of the morning.

Only purity and sinlessness could welcome the all holy Son of God into the world; hence, Mary Immaculate met Him at the door of earth in the city of Bethlehem. But only a repentant sinner, who had herself risen from the grave of sin to the newness of life in God, could fittingly understand the triumph over sin. To the honor of womanhood it must forever be said: A woman was closest to the Cross on Good Friday, and first at the tomb on Easter Morn.

Mary was always at His feet. She was there as she anointed Him for burial; she was there as she stood at the Cross; now in joy at seeing the Master, she threw herself at His feet to embrace them.

But He said to her with a restraining gesture:

Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. [John 20:17]

Her tender tokens of affection were directed to Him more as the Son of Man than as the Son of God. Hence He bade her not to touch Him. St. Paul would have to give the Corinthians and Colossians the same lesson:
Even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so now no longer. [2 Corinthians 5: 6]
Let your thoughts dwell on that higher realm, not on this earthly life. I repeat, you died; and now your life lies hidden with Christ in God. [Colossians 3: 2]
Her tears, He suggested, were to be dried not because she had seen Him again, but because He was the Lord of Heaven. When He had ascended to the right hand of the Father, which signified the Father's power; when He would send the Spirit of Truth, Who would be their new Comforter and His inner Presence, then indeed would she truly have Him for Whom she yearned------the risen glorified Christ. It was His first hint, after His Resurrection, at the new relationship He would have with men, of which He spoke so fluently the night of the Last Supper. He would have to give the same lesson to His disciples, who were too preoccupied with His human form, by telling them that it was expedient for Him to leave. Magdalen wished to be with Him as she was before the Crucifixion, forgetting that the Crucifixion was endured for glory and for the sending of His Spirit.

Though the Magdalen was humbled by this prohibition of Our Savior, she nevertheless was destined to feel the exaltation of bearing tidings of His Resurrection. The men had grasped the significance of the empty tomb, but not its relation to Redemption and victory over sin and evil. She was to break the precious alabaster box of His Resurrection so that its perfume might fill the world. He said to her:

Go to my brothers and tell them that I am now ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God. [John 20: 17]
This was the first time He ever called His Apostles "My Brethren." Before man could be an adopted son of God, he had to be redeemed from enmity with God.
In truth, in very truth I tell you, a grain of wheat remains a solitary grain unless it falls into the ground and dies; but if it dies, it bears a rich harvest. [John 12: 24]
He took the Crucifixion to multiply His Sonship into other sons of God. But there would be a vast difference between Himself as the natural Son and human beings, who through His Spirit would become the adopted sons. Hence, as always, He made a rigid distinction between "My Father" and "Your Father." Never once in His life did He say "Our Father" as if the relationship were the same between Himself and men; His relation to the Father was unique and incommunicable; Sonship was by nature His; only by grace and adoption were men sons of God:
The Son does not shrink from calling men his brothers, when he says, I will proclaim Thy name to My brothers; in full assembly I will sing Thy praise. [Hebrews 2: 11]
Nor did He tell Mary to inform the Apostles that He was risen but rather that He would ascend. The Resurrection was implied in the Ascension, which was as yet forty days off. His purpose was not just to stress that He who had died was now alive, but that this was the beginning of a spiritual Kingdom which would become visible and unified when He sent His Spirit.

Obediently, Mary Magdalen hastened to the disciples who were "mourning and weeping." She told them she had seen the Lord and the words He had spoken to her. What reception did her tidings receive? Once again, skepticism, doubt, and unbelief. The Apostles had heard Him speak in figure, symbol, parable, and straightforward speech of the Resurrection which would follow His death, but:

When they were told that he was alive and that she had seen him they did not believe it. [Mark 16: 11]
Eve believed the serpent; but the disciples did not believe the Son of God. As for Mary Magdalen and any other woman who might tell of His Resurrection:
The story appeared to them to be nonsense, and they would not believe them. [Luke 24: 11]
It was a forecast of the way the world would receive the news of Redemption. Mary Magdalen and the other women did not at first believe in the Resurrection; they had to be convinced. Neither did the Apostles believe. Their answer was "You know women! Always imagining things." Long before the advent of scientific psychology, people were afraid of their minds playing tricks on them. Modern incredulity in the face of the extraordinary is nothing compared to the skepticism which immediately greeted the first news of the Resurrection. What modem skeptics say about the Resurrection story, the disciples themselves were the first to say, namely, it was an idle tale. As the original agnostics of Christianity, with one assent the Apostles dismissed the whole story as a delusion. Something very extraordinary must happen, and some very concrete evidence must be presented to all of these doubters, before they overcome their reluctance to believe.

Their skepticism was even more difficult than modem skepticism to overcome, because theirs started from a hope that was seemingly disappointed on Calvary; this was far more difficult to heal than a modern skepticism, which is without hope. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say that the followers of Our Blessed Lord were expecting the Resurrection and, therefore, were ready to believe it or to console themselves for a loss that seemed irreparable. No agnostic has written about the Resurrection anything that Peter and the other Apostles had not already had in their own minds.

When Mohammed died, Omar rushed from his tent, sword in hand, and declared that he would kill anyone who said that the Prophet had died. In the case of Christ, there was a readiness to believe that He had died, but a reluctance to believe that He was living. But perhaps they were permitted to doubt, so that the faithful in centuries to come might never be in doubt.


After the women had gone to notify the Apostles, the guards, who had been standing about the tomb, and who were witnesses to the Resurrection, came into the city of Jerusalem and told the chief priests all that had been done. The chief priests immediately assembled a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the express purpose of which was to bribe the guards.

After meeting with the elders and conferring together, the chief priests offered the soldiers a substantial bribe and told them to say, His disciples came by night and stole the body while we were asleep. They added, If this should reach the Governor's ears, we will put matters right with him and see that you do not suffer. So they took the money and did as they were told. This story became widely known, and is current in Jewish circles to this day. [Matthew 28: 12-15]

The "rich bribe" contrasted rather strongly with the meager thirty pieces of silver which Judas received. The Sanhedrin did not deny the Resurrection; in fact, they bore their own unbiased testimony to its truth. And that same testimony they carried to the Gentiles through Pilate. They even gave the money of the temple to the Roman soldiers whom they despised; for they had found a greater hate. The money Judas had returned they would not touch because it was "blood money." But now they would buy a lie to escape the purifying Blood of the Lamb.

The bribery of the guard was really a stupid way to escape the fact of the Resurrection. First of all, there was the problem of what would be done with His Body after the disciples had possession of it. All that the enemies of Our Lord would have had to do to disprove the Resurrection would be to produce the Body. Quite apart from the fact that it was very unlikely that a whole guard of Roman soldiers slept while they were on duty, it was absurd for them to say that what had happened, happened when they were asleep. The soldiers were advised to say they were asleep; and yet they were so awake as to have seen thieves and to know that they were disciples. If all of the soldiers were asleep, they could never have discovered the thieves; if a few of them were awake, they should have prevented the theft. It is equally improbable that a few timid disciples should attempt to steal their Master's Body from a grave closed by stone, officially sealed, and guarded by soldiers without awakening the sleeping guards. The orderly arrangement of the burial cloths afforded further proof that the Body was not removed by His disciples.

The secret removal of the Body would have been to no purpose so far as the disciples were concerned, nor had any of them even thought of it; for the moment, the life of their Master was a failure and a defeat. The crime was certainly greater in the bribers than in the bribed; for, the council was educated and religious; the soldiers were untutored and simple. The Resurrection of Christ was officially proclaimed to the civil authorities; the Sanhedrin believed in the Resurrection before the Apostles. It had bought the kiss of Judas; now it hoped it could buy the silence of the guards.


On that same Easter Sunday, Our Blessed Lord made another appearance to two of His disciples who were on their way to a village named Emmaus, which was a short distance from Jerusalem. It was not so long ago that their hopes had been burning brightly, but the darkness of Good Friday and the burial in the tomb caused them to lose their gladness. No subject was more in men's minds that particular day than the Person of Christ. As they were discoursing with sad and anxious hearts on the awful incidents of the last two days, a Stranger drew near to them. Their eyes, however, were held fast so that they did not recognize that it was the Risen Savior; they thought Him to be an ordinary traveler. As the story unfolded, it became clear that what blinded their eyes was their unbelief; had they been expecting to see Him, they might have recognized Him. Because they were interested in Him, He vouchsafed His Presence; because they doubted His Resurrection, He concealed the joy and knowledge of His Presence. Now that His Body was glorified, what men saw of Him depended on His willingness to reveal Himself and also on the disposition of their own hearts. Though they did not know Our Lord, they nevertheless were ready to enter into discussion with the Stranger concerning Him.

After listening to their long discussion, the Stranger asked:

What is it you are debating as you walk? They halted, their faces full of gloom. [Luke 24: 17]
Obviously, the reason these disciples were sad was because of their bereavement. They had been with Jesus; they had seen Him arrested, insulted, crucified, dead, and buried. Sorrow afflicts a woman's heart when she loses the beloved; but men generally become perplexed in mind rather than heart at a similar loss; theirs was the sorrow of a shattered career.

The Savior with His infinite wisdom did not begin by saying, "I know why you are sad." His technique was rather to draw them out; a sorrowful heart is best consoled when it relieves itself. If their sorrow would have a tongue and speak, He would have an ear and reveal. If they would but show their wounds, He would pour in the oil of His healing.

One of the two, whose name was Cleophas, was the first to speak. He expressed amazement at the ignorance of the Stranger Who was apparently so unfamiliar with the events of the last few days.

Are you the only person staying in Jerusalem not to know what has happened there in the last few days? [Luke 24: 18]

The risen Lord asked:

What do you mean? [Luke 24: 19]

He called their attention to facts. They apparently had not gone deeply enough into the facts for proper conclusions. The cure for their sorrow was in the very things that disturbed them, to see them in their right relations. As with the woman at the well, He asked a question, not to get information, but to deepen knowledge of Himself. Then not Cleophas alone but also his companion told Him what had happened. They spoke:
All this about Jesus of Nazareth, they replied, a prophet powerful in speech and action before God and the whole people; how our chief priests and rulers handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and crucified Him. But we had been hoping that He was the man to liberate Israel. What is more, this is the third day since it happened, and now some women of our company have astounded us: they went early to the tomb, but failed to find His body, and returned with a story that they had seen a vision of Angels who told them He was alive. So some of our people went to the tomb and found things just as the women had said; but Him they did not see. [Luke 24:19-24]
These men had hoped great things, but God, they said, had disappointed them. Man draws a blueprint and hopes that God in some way will rubber-stamp it; disappointment is often due to the triviality of human hopes. Original drawings now had to be torn up------not because they were too great, but because in the eyes of God they were too little. The hand that broke the cup of their petty desires offered a richer chalice. They thought that they had found the Redeemer before He was crucified, but actually they had discovered a Redeemer crucified. They had hoped for a Savior of Israel, but were not expecting a Savior of the Gentiles as well. They must have heard Him say on many occasions that He would be crucified and rise again, but they could not fit catastrophe into their idea of a Master. They could believe in Him as a Teacher, as a political Messiah, as an ethical reformer, as a savior of the country, a deliverer from the Romans, but they could not believe in the foolishness of the Cross; nor did they have the faith of the thief hanging on the cross. Hence they refused to regard the evidence of which the women had told them. They were not sure even that the women had seen Angels. Possibly it was only an apparition. Furthermore, it was the third day which had come and gone, and He had not been seen. But all the while they were walking and talking with Him.

There seemed to be a double purpose in the appearance of Our Savior after His Resurrection, one to show that He Who died had risen, the other, that though He had the same Body, it was now glorified and not subject to physical restrictions. Later on, He would eat with His disciples to prove the first; now, as with the Magdalen whom He forbade to touch Him, He stressed His risen state.

With these disciples as with all of the Apostles, there was no predisposition to accept the  Resurrection. The evidence for it had to make its way against doubt and the most obstinate refusals of human nature. They were among the last people in the world to credit such a tale. One might almost say that they were resolved to be miserable, refusing to inquire into the possibility of the truth of the story. Resisting both the evidence of the women and the confirmation of those who had gone to verify their story, the final word was that they had not seen the risen Lord.

Then the risen Savior said to them:

How dull you are! How slow to believe an that the prophets said! Was the Messiah not bound to suffer thus before entering upon his glory? [Luke 24: 25, 26]

They are accused of being foolish and slow of heart, because if they had ever sat down and examined what the prophets had said about the Messiah------that He would be led like a lamb to slaughter------they would have been confirmed in their belief. Credulity toward men and incredulity toward God is the mark of dull hearts; readiness to believe speculatively and slowness to believe practically is the sign of sluggish hearts. Then came the key words of the journey. Previously, Our Blessed Lord had said that He was the Good Shepherd, that He came to lay down His life for the Redemption of many; now in His glory, He proclaimed a moral law that in consequence of His sufferings men would be raised from a state of sin to fellowship with God.

The Cross was the condition of glory. The Risen Savior spoke of a moral necessity grounded on the truth that everything that happened to Him had been foretold. What seemed to them an offense, a scandal, a defeat, a succumbing to the inevitable was actually a dark moment foreseen, planned, and preannounced. Though the Cross seemed to them incompatible with His glory, to Him it was the appointed path thereto. And if they had known what the Scriptures had said of the Messiah, they would have believed in the Cross.

Then he began with Moses and and the prophets, and explained to them the passages which referred to Himself in every part of the scriptures. [Luke 24: 27]
He showed to them all the types and all the rituals and all the ceremonials that were fulfilled in Him. Quoting from Isaiah, He showed the manner of His death and Crucifixion and His Last Words from the Cross; from Daniel, how He was to become the mountain that filled the earth; from Genesis, how the seed of a woman would crush the serpent of evil in human hearts; from Moses, how He would be the brazen serpent that would be lifted up to heal men of evil, and how His side would be the smitten rock from which would come the waters of regeneration; from Isaiah, how He would be Emmanuel, or "God with us;" from Micheas, how He would be born in Bethlehem; and from many other writings He gave them the key to the mystery of God's life among men and the purpose of His coming.

At last they arrived at Emmaus. He made it appear as if He were about to continue His journey along the same road, just as once before when a storm was sweeping the lake, He made it appear as though He would pass by the boat of the Apostles. The two disciples begged Him, however, to stay with them. Those who have good thoughts of God in the day will not readily surrender them at nightfall. They had learned much, but they knew that they had not learned all. They still did not recognize Him, but there was a light about Him which promised to lead to a fuller revelation and dissipate their gloom. Their invitation to be a guest He accepted, but immediately He acted as the Host for:

When He had sat down with them at table, He took bread and said the blessing; He broke the bread, and offered it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight. [Luke 24: 30, 31]
This taking of the bread and breaking it and giving it to them was not an ordinary act of courtesy, for it resembled too closely the Last Supper at which He bade His Apostles to repeat the Memorial of His death as He broke the bread which was His Body and gave it to them. Immediately on the reception of the Sacramental Bread that was broken, the eyes of their souls were opened. As the eyes of Adam and Eve were opened to see their shame after they had eaten the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, so now the eyes of the disciples were opened to discern the Body of Christ. The scene parallels the Last Supper: in both there was a giving of thanks; in both, a looking up to Heaven; in both, the breaking of the bread; and in both, the giving of the bread to the disciples. With the conferring of the bread came a knowledge which gave greater clarity than all the instructions. The breaking of the bread had introduced them into an experience of the glorified Christ. Then He disappeared from their sight. Turning to one another, they reflected:
Did we not feel our hearts on fire as He talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us? [Luke 24: 32]

His influence upon them was both affective and intellectual: affective, in the sense that it made their hearts burn with love; and intellectual, inasmuch as it gave them an understanding of the hundreds of preannouncements of His coming. Mankind is naturally disposed to believe that anything religious must be striking and powerful enough to overwhelm the imagination. Yet this incident on the road to Emmaus revealed that the most powerful truths often appear in the commonplace and trivial incidents of life, such as meeting a fellow traveler on a road. Christ veiled His Presence in the most ordinary roadway of life. Knowledge of Him came as they walked with Him; and the knowledge was that of glory that came through defeat. In His Glorified Life as in His public life, the Cross and glory went together. It was not just His teachings that were recalled; it was His sufferings and how expedient they were for His exaltation.

The disciples immediately returned and went back to Jerusalem. As the woman at the well in her excitement left her water pitcher at the well, so these disciples forgot the purpose of their journey to Emmaus and went back to the Holy City. There they found the eleven Apostles gathered together, and with them other followers and disciples. They recounted all that had happened on the way and how they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.