Death Could Not Hold Him

THERE ARE A NUMBER of sacred images popular in the West which are considered inappropriate or uncanonical in the East. This means that their depictions are actually misrepresentations of the one they represent. The poplar depiction of the Holy Trinity as an older man, a younger man and a dove is one such inappropriate image. The reason this image, copied in many 19th century icons, is considered uncanonical is because God the Father never became a man and the Holy Spirit never became a bird! Mixing these symbolic representations with the canonical and true depiction of the Word of God incarnate as Jesus is confusing at best.

Another uncanonical representation often presented as an icon shows the risen Christ emerging from the tomb, often carrying a banner or standard. This is considered inappropriate because no one actually saw Christ rise from the dead. The Gospels do not present us with any narrative of Jesus’ resurrection. They simply speak of the apostles and the myrrh-bearers hearing the angelic proclamation that Jesus had risen. This is why canonical Byzantine iconography depicts either the empty tomb or the symbolic representation of Christ leading mankind to Paradise.

The Tomb in the Scriptures

St Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the Lord Jesus was buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea: “Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth
and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed”
(Matthew 27:57-60). We learn from Mark 15:43 that this Joseph was not only well-to-do, but also a leading Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin. John adds that he was a disciple of Jesus, “but secretly, for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote that the requirement to bury the dead before sunset was so important that even executed criminals would be buried, if only temporarily, while the Roman practice was that their bodies would be left exposed to the elements.

John also tells us that Joseph’s tomb was near the place where Jesus was crucified, and therefore outside the city of Jerusalem. “Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So there they laid Jesus, because of the Jews’ Preparation Day, for the tomb was nearby” (John 19:41, 42). At the time, most Jews in the area were still buried in caves hollowed out for the purpose or dug out of the nearby rock.

According to John, Joseph was accompanied by the Pharisee Nicodemus, a member of the ruling class. “And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:39, 40).

The Tomb of Jesus Today

The burial place of the Lord was not adorned outwardly in any way, but its location was firmly fixed in the hearts of believers. It became such a place of devotion that the Roman Emperor Hadrian had a temple built to the goddess Venus over the spot to affirm the superiority of the Roman state religion. According to the fourth-century historian Eusebius, “Certain impious and godless persons had thought to remove this sacred cave entirely from the eyes of men, supposing in their folly that thus they should be able effectually to obscure the truth. Accordingly, they brought a quantity of earth from a distance with much labor, and covered the entire spot; then, having raised this to a moderate height, they paved it with stone, concealing the holy cave beneath this massive mound. Then, as though their purpose had been effectually accomplished, they prepare on this foundation a truly dreadful sepulcher of souls, by building a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols to the impure spirit whom they call Venus, and offering detestable oblations therein on profane and accursed altars. For they supposed that their object could not otherwise be fully attained, than by thus burying the sacred cave beneath these foul pollutions” (Life of Constantine, III, XXVI).

Under Constantine, Christianity was freed from persecution and, later, obtained a protected status. Constantine had the temple to Venus destroyed and replaced it with a church in ad 335. Its dedication is celebrated in our liturgy on September 13 each year. Known in the West as the Holy Sepulchre, its authentic name is the Anastasis, the Church of the Resurrection.

This church was enlarged, damaged, repaired and destroyed again several times during the following centuries. The three main components – the basilica, the chapel of the crucifixion at Golgotha and the tomb – were enclosed in the single structure we have today.

The tomb itself was a cavern “hewn out of the rock,” as we read in Matthew 27:59. Constantine’s builders isolated the tomb by removing the rockface around it. It was enclosed in a rotunda in the year 380. In 2016 restoration work began on the tomb-chapel. Marble cladding which protected the shelf or burial bed on which the Lord’s body had been laid, was removed, exposing the original limestone shelf. After some 60 hours of studying and documenting the site, archeologists replaced the cladding, reasonably certain that this was indeed the burial place of Jesus.

The Tomb Is Empty!

While archeologists can testify to the antiquity of the tomb, only faith can assent to the Gospels’ essential affirmation: the tomb is empty, Christ is risen! This was the heart of the Gospel message of Christ to the world. Perhaps the first recorded proclamation of the resurrection is that of St Peter told in the Acts of the Apostles: “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. … Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:23, 24,36).

In the Byzantine Churches of the Mediterranean, both Catholic and Orthodox, it is customary to display the emptiness of the tomb and the powerlessness of death by means of the Red Eggs, blessed at the end of the Paschal Liturgy. Participants exchange the Paschal greeting (Christ is risen! – Indeed, He is risen!”), cracking each other’s eggs. The broken shell, died red in remembrance of the blood of Christ, becomes an image of the empty tomb, powerless to contain the One who was confined in it. As we sing in the resurrection troparion on many Sundays, “Death is despoiled. Christ God is risen, bestowing on the world great mercy!”