What kind of corpse is this?

Entombment of Christ

The Entombment of Christ / Caravaggio, 1602-03

You haven’t died yet, but you sort of know what to expect. Other people have died. Animals have died. They leave behind a corpse. It draws flies. It rots.

Soon it looks and smells so offensive that it must be put out of sight. We have buried or burned corpses since prehistoric times.

Two millennia ago, a corpse was taken from a Roman cross. The dead man’s friends prepared his body for burial. They had no time to finish the job properly, but they expected he was like any other dead man. They would come back later to finish.

That man, Jesus, never in his life fulfilled anyone’s expectations. When his friends came back to give him a proper burial, he was no longer in the tomb. He appeared to them, spoke with them, even ate with them. What other corpse has ever behaved like that?

False expectations of Jesus’ followers

Jesus had told his disciples three times that he would die. They didn’t believe it, but he died. He referred several times to the cross. If he did not explicitly say that he would die by crucifixion, he gave strong hints. He died nailed to a Roman cross.

He told them that one of them would betray him. They all saw Judas with the temple guards who arrested him.

He publicly announced that Peter would betray him. Did Peter have the nerve to confess to the others what he did? No matter. He, at least, knew that Jesus had been right.

Jesus also told them several times he would rise again. That last night he was with them, he said he would go away and return.

No one expected any of those things to happen. Instead, on that first Easter morning, the women expected to finish the work of embalming a corpse. They expected to find a stone rolled over the entrance to the tomb. They expected to have trouble finding anyone to help them move it.

women at the empty tomb

Women at the empty tomb / Fra Angelico, 1437–1446.

John 20:1 says it was still dark when they came. It was dark in two senses.

First, it would have been barely past sunrise. It may have been cloudy. In any case, they didn’t have much light.

Second, their unbelief darkened their spiritual vision. They had enough light to see that the stone was rolled away, that the tomb held no corpse. They lacked the spiritual vision to remember the promise of resurrection.

Mary Magdalene ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves.

Sure enough, they saw no body in it. Peter noticed that someone had folded the napkin that had covered Jesus’ head. As the two returned, it did not occur to them that Jesus had risen.

Mary returned, still grief-stricken. She spoke with two angels and then saw the risen Christ. She only recognized him when he spoke her name.

No one believed her report that she had seen and talked with Jesus. The same men who a week earlier had confidently expected high positions in Jesus’ kingdom no longer expected anything of Jesus but lingering disappointment.

Jesus’ expectations and ours

Jesus always had different expectations. He expected that he would proclaim the kingdom of God to clueless people who would not understand. He expected to suffer pain and humiliation on the cross. He expected not only to die, but to go to hell, where he would seize back the authority Satan usurped in Eden. And, of course, he expected his resurrection. His corpse would fulfill his expectations, not anyone else’s.

More than that, he expected his disciples finally to understand. He expected them to accomplish great works no one else could have imagined. He expected them to establish a church that would transform the world, though not without struggle and occasional defeat.

Scripture contains numerous promises, and most of them carry conditions. These expectations have no conditions. They will happen. Jesus will not be disappointed.

Meanwhile, the church continues to hold different expectations from Jesus. Sometimes the promises seem so real and vivid that fulfillment must be just around the corner. When it’s not, the promises seem so unreal that we cease to expect they will happen at all.

It is not enough to believe in Jesus. He intends for us to believe him and not be faithless. He has set no more difficult and arduous task than that before us. We must cling to the promises even when they seem to be in vain. We must discern Jesus’ expectations and hold on to our faith. Like Abraham, our part is to believe God and hope against hope.

Jesus’ unconditional promises do not depend on us doing anything right. One day we will turn away from our dirty mirror and see the risen Lord face to face. In the mean time, let’s learn to expect it.

Photo credits:
Entombment of Christ. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Women at the empty tomb. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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