Monday, June 5, 2017

Tomb as Tabernacle

If there is indeed a God, it seems the next logical question would be whether that God is knowable to us. If he is knowable, does he care about us? The Christian tradition provides us with answers to these questions. He is knowable. He does care about us. This care is not a distant kind of caring in the sense that I may “care” about whether my sports team wins their game or not. It is an intimate care that stands in solidarity with his Creation. A care that takes on real, human flesh. A care that bears our sins to make us right with our Creator.

If all this is true, we should expect to see evidence of it throughout Scripture. Over and over, God takes residence among his people. One unexpected instance of this dwelling, or tabernacle-ing, is Christ’s tomb. 

Jesus’ Birth: The Tabernacle  
At different points in the Old Testament the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Temple are all vital to the Jewish faith because they contain the Divine, they are the locus where Heaven and Earth intersect. God was sacramentally present with his Covenantal People through those channels.

The New Testament opens with another important instance of God taking up a dwelling among his people: the Blessed Mother. According to Catholic Thomas Howard, “she alone had been chosen for a cooperation with the Most High that went far beyond bearing witness to the Word, as had been the office of the patriarchs, the law-giver Moses, and the Prophets. She was to bear the Word.”[1] Nevertheless, Mary’s womb continues the biblical pattern of God taking up residence among His people. Mary’s womb anticipates what is to come: the Incarnation.

In Matthew’s birth account, the author relays the angel’s words to Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins” (Matt 1:21; NRSV). He then offers this analysis, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt 1:22-23). In St. John’s Gospel, he adds a profoundly simple statement to this Incarnation event, “And the Word became flesh and lived [“tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14). The Divine taking on human flesh is the ultimate act of solidarity and the epitome of love. Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel remind us that the Incarnation is a perpetual, history-altering reality, “I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). 

Death and Resurrection

In the Gospels, Jesus’ birth and burial are treated as literary parallels. At Jesus’ birth, he is wrapped in linen bands (Luke 2:7). At his death, he is wrapped again in linen bands (Matt 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). At his birth, they “laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). At his burial, they took his body and “laid it in a tomb” (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). In Luke’s nativity narrative, an angel makes an announcement of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds who make a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace (Luke 2:8-20). An angel also announces the resurrection to a group of women visitors at the tomb (Matt 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10). John’s description of the two angels standing by the tomb resembles the Ark of the Covenant as well (20:11-12). If Jesus’ birth story and Incarnation alludes to the idea of “tabernacle,” could his death and burial story too?

Interestingly, Jesus was laid in a tomb that looked somewhat like a cave. Elsewhere in literature, caves are closely associated with wombs. Odysseus in a cave with the Cyclops claims he is “no-man” (Gk: oudeis). After bursting forth from the cave, he has a name (Odysseus). It is a picture of birth and clever wordplay (note how similar oudeis and Odysseus sound).

From a pre-resurrection perspective, the tomb of Christ was not a womb but an end. Some Jewish factions in Jesus’ day believed in a resurrection in the distant future (Pharisees and Martha in John 11:24). Other Jews (the Sadducees) rejected it outright. Gentiles also rejected the concept of resurrection. In Greco-Roman mythology, N.T. Wright points out, there is only story, Orpheus and Eurydice, dealing with even the possibility of resurrection and it ends on a pessimistic note.[2] The disciples themselves are pessimistic too. The two Jesus encounters on the road to Emmaus appear none too hopeful, resignedly admitting, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21a).

However, from a post-resurrection perspective, the tomb is very much like a womb. An incubator. It is, to the Christian, the last tabernacle, the last container of divinity. It is a place of waiting and, at the right moment, Christ burst forth from the grave. Rebirth is a vindication, a proclamation that He accomplished the Father’s will and destroyed death entirely (1 Cor 15). Like other tabernacles that came before it, the grave is not sufficient for holding the Divine, something the Church picked up almost immediately, as Stephen proclaimed, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48). The tomb, death’s womb, was the final barrier preventing humanity from access to the Divine.

God With Us

God cannot be contained in statues or images, they are dumb and mute and crafted by human hands (Pss 115:4-8; 135:15-18; Isa 2:8; Hos 13:2). Furthermore, God cannot be contained in any building made by human hands. The Tabernacle and the Temple are obsolete, the curtain rend asunder (Matt 27:51). Not only that, but God cannot be bound to only a particular ethnicity. The Gospel has been taken to Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and all the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and now, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Ultimately, God cannot be contained by any of these things and even more, the grave. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

Only one thing can “limit” God. God is only constrained by love, not as an external boundary but an essential part of his nature (1 John 4:8). He cannot be what he is not. Because of his aseity, he will never cease to be love and because he is love, he will never cease to be “with us.” As Paul confidently states, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). The whole world is, in a sense, a tabernacle. He is with us always. By reflecting on the former tabernacles, we are reminded of the universal truth that God is with us, even in the grave and that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).

[1] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 186.
[2] N.T. Wright, “The Surprise of Resurrection,” in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, ed. Troy A. Miller (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 77.

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