The Tomb as a Womb

It was Easter Sunday: April 12, 2009. I stood in awe at the tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem. I had spent the entire night there in prayer, and was the very first pilgrim to enter that morning. It was a transformative experience that I will never forget, an experience almost too real to remember.

The church of the Holy Sepulcher houses both the location of Christ’s death on Calvary and his tomb, made forever holy by his resurrection. My friends and I joined in the Catholic liturgy at those sites for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

It was odd to celebrate those ceremonies in the morning. But Jerusalem is an odd place. Because these holy sites are shared with the Orthodox, the Armenians, and the Copts, there is an age-old “Status Quo” agreement that determines who has access when. The Catholic time is 8am, regardless of the occasion.

A few of us returned to the basilica that Holy Saturday night to observe a personal prayer vigil at the Lord’s tomb. I’m ashamed to admit that it is the one and only all-night prayer vigil of my life. For some reason, when it comes to the Lord, that level of sacrifice and generosity is elusive. Too bad, because the Lord is never outdone in generosity!

Knowing that I would be there all night, I was in no rush to “get my prayers done” or to feel like I had to be doing something at any given time. This turned it into a timeless experience. For the first few hours I simply sat back and absorbed the stream of pilgrims that were coming to the church to try to get into the tomb. Occasionally I read some Scripture passages. I began praying for the many people whom I knew needed my prayers. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sorrow over so many suffering souls and so many problems in the world – not to mention my own problems.

Then something happened that (for me) only happens about once every 10 years. I began to get the inklings of a poem swelling up within me. For the moment, I put it aside. After all, I thought, I am not a poet! But eventually I opened myself to the movement. The words came rather quickly. It went something like this:

O Tomb of Christ, this Easter Night
I bring to you man’s lonely plight:
toil, trial, sickness, woe,
unceasing wounds left by our foe,
anger, hatred, factions, fights,
fear-filled days and tear-filled nights,
heartache, heartbreak, darkness, death,
and growing pain with every breath –
but hope, hope-filled sadness
to you, the source of gladness.
O tomb that could not hold the Son
Who on this night the victory won,
I bury all my sadness here
and that of those I hold most dear,
that we may rise to second birth
here at the center of the earth.

I was just finishing as the Orthodox began their 2 a.m. Palm Sunday liturgy (their Easter was still a week away). Their somber and sorrowful chanting was beautifully haunting, and resonated with my heart. The time flew by. I began to write on that sheet of paper the names of any and every person I could think of who needed my prayer, as well as my personal intentions. The ink couldn’t run onto the page fast enough. I finished about the time the Orthodox were clearing out.

Ironically, my watch battery had gone dead on Good Friday, so the night was truly timeless. It must have been around 4 a.m. that I attempted to enter the tomb, like Mary Magdalene, “early in the morning, while it was still dark” (John 20:1). An Armenian priest was setting up for their liturgy, and it seemed quite unlikely I would be allowed in. I began to pray the beads of my Rosary, reflecting on the first glorious mystery – the Resurrection of Jesus – and hoping against hope. For some reason a few of the servers were late, and he waved me in.

I approached, finishing the final Hail Marys, and then entered the inner door on my knees. The moment I reached the threshold I broke down and wept as I had not for a very long time. It was such an unburdening and sense of true peace. The best word I can use is GLORY. I experienced the “Glory of the Father” by which “Christ was raised from the dead” (Rom 6:4), and this Glory filled me with Hope. Without eliminating or minimizing my own sadness or the sadness of others, this Hope permeated my soul with a deep confidence summed up in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

I prayed for a few moments before heading back out, not wanting to test the limits of Armenian hospitality. With many tears still in my eyes, I silently thanked the priest for his kindness, and returned to the side of the tomb where I had been praying the past few hours. I wedged that sheet of paper and all those intentions into the side of the tomb and continued to weep and shake for several minutes more. Then I resumed my prayer, turning to Romans 6 and feeling the words come alive in my heart. The resurrection suddenly felt so real!

As the first streaks of dawn were just appearing, I pulled out my Liturgy of the Hours book to pray Morning Prayer. My heart was filled with praise, and so I sang the prayers. How surreal it was to stand at the entrance near the church, chanting the antiphon, “Very early on the morning after the Sabbath, when the sun had just risen, they came to the tomb, Alleluia” – at the very moment that hundreds of pilgrims were streaming in to see the tomb.

I am stunned at what came out of my heart that night. Only during the last six years have I found the courage to plunge deeply into those sad and lonely places of my heart – old places of pain that I didn’t even realize existed. But they were there, and they cried out to the Lord that Easter night in the poem that came out of me. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, and heals the brokenhearted.

The tomb is indeed a womb, giving birth to the newness of the resurrection. That new birth is what my heart longs for – and resists. It seems like it should be easy to welcome the Glory of the resurrection. But the resurrection opens an infinitely vaster horizon of human existence. When a baby passes from the security and comfort of the womb into a vast new world, he needs much nurturing, protection, and guidance to grow into it. So do we. That is why we celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday, and once a year with even greater solemnity. We plunge into death with Christ and rise with him in newness. May you and I joyfully claim even more of that newness this year. A blessed Easter to you all!

5 Replies to “The Tomb as a Womb”

  1. What a beautiful and Glorious experience you were able to receive. May we all be able to open our hearts and receive a similar experience some day! God is so good!

  2. Though one part of my journey, my formation and then ordination, I am grateful for your, sharing, and wise words. Father may God continue to bless you. God’s peace!

  3. Father Derek,
    At Easter Mass I sat through a totally uninspiring Homily where the Priest tryed to say everything and said nothing for his efforts. We all don’t have the gift of public speaking, so I don’t want to sound too harsh. Your reflections in the Holy Land provide deep focus regarding what is truely important. Thank you for your priesthood.

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