I wonder how dark it was in the tomb.
Not very dark, probably. John tells us that when the first disciple arrives, he can see the linens lying there without going in. Then Peter goes in and he can see not just the linens but also the napkin that had been on Jesus’ head. If they can see all that, it’s probably not very dark in there.
But for anyone who had followed Jesus, there was darkness nonetheless.
Judas had betrayed him. The crowd had arrested him. The Jewish Council had condemned him. Peter had denied him. Pilate had washed his hands of him. The people chose Barabbas over him. The soldiers had tortured him. And mocked him. And crucified him.
Mark tells us that the world went dark for three hours before Jesus was crucified (15:33). I bet it was dark in his followers’ hearts, a dark mixture of shame and loss and hopelessness.
The darkest dark I ever saw was on a caving trip.
I was in college and a part of this great outdoor club. I saw some friends from the club on a Friday night. “We’re going caving tomorrow!” they said. “You should come!” I had no experience caving, but they had plenty. I wasn’t doing anything that Saturday. Why not?
We got up early and drove from Atlanta to somewhere in Kentucky, at one of the many entrances to Mammoth Cave. Mammoth Cave is accurately named; it’s the longest cave in the world, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was just along for the ride. At noon we got out of the car, collected our helmets and headlamps and hip packs, and wandered into the cave.
At midnight, we exited. Just so you don’t miss the point: that was twelve hours later.
It had never occurred to me to ask, “How long will we be caving for?” I just assumed we’d “spelunk” for a few hours and then go get a good dinner to reward ourselves. Instead, we belly-crawled for a total of two miles, hip packs tied to our ankles and dragging behind us. I remember finally making it to this deep, dark room called “the cathedral” where my friends were oohing and aahing over stalactites and stalagmites, and all I could think was, “I am never going to see the light of day again.”
See, the darkness of a cave is so dark. There’s no moon behind a cloud or glow of city lights far in the distance. There is only the darkness and then more darkness. And you have your headlamps, of course, but after hours and miles of caving the darkness of the cave seems much darker than the light of any headlamps. It almost feels sticky, contagious.
The empty tomb was nowhere near that dark. I visited a tomb in the Holy Land, an old one at the spot they call Gordon’s Calvary. It was shallow, just a few feet deep. The light from the opening was more than enough to see inside.
The darkness of the world after Jesus’ death, however – that must have been every bit as dark as Mammoth Cave. A darkness that felt much darker than the meager light left in the world. A darkness that felt sticky and contagious.
Until they arrived at the tomb, that is. Then a great Light turned on.
Most days I wake up early in the morning, when it’s still dark. My alarm goes off about thirty minutes before my husband’s does and about ninety minutes before my children (are supposed to) wake up. I turn the alarm off, roll out of bed, and walk through my bedroom without turning on a light. If I can manage not to kick anything in the process, everyone will keep sleeping.
I make it to the short hallway but don’t turn the light on there, either. The point of getting up this early is to have time to myself, and that purpose will be quickly defeated if I awake one of the two sleeping children with bedroom doors in this hall. I walk into the bathroom and close the door. Everything is still dark.
And then, I flip the switch… and I’m immediately struck blind by the bathroom light.
There is no intermediate setting on this lamp, no way to ease into this transition. Flipping the switch veeerrryy slllooowwwly does not create a dimming effect. In an instant my early morning world goes from comfortable darkness to intolerable light.
On the first Easter morning the Light turned on like this.
John tells us that when the disciples looked in the tomb, they “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:8-9). I imagine the darkness leaving them in a rush and the light pounding into their hearts. Nothing gradual like the dawn of a sunrise – it was like an early in the morning bright lamp turning on, blinding them because their eyes and their souls had adjusted to the dark.
All in a flash, a post-crucifixion world turned out to be a post-resurrection world.
Sometimes, despite all my sneakiness, my children wake up when I do and we wander into the dark bathroom together. I turn on the light and they object: “Too bright! Turn it off! Turn it off!”
But our eyes will never adjust to it if we turn it back off. We have to leave it on and squint our way through the first few moments until we can see that the light is not too bright at all. The light is how it should be; it’s our vision that needs to change.
Our spiritual eyes can need this same kind of adjusting. Although the Light has one, there is still enough darkness in the world to cause us problems, enough to draw us to it by fear or fascination. It’s possible for us to find ourselves spending more and more time in those dark spaces of life, looking at them so long that we get used to it. We can get so used to the darkness that we even stop seeing the light.
Today is a day to let our eyes readjust.
Today, as we celebrate the Resurrection, we also celebrate the truth of the opening lines of John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
And now that the light is on – in our churches, in our souls –we must leave it on and stay with it so that our eyes adjust. We must live into Jesus’ parting instructions to his disciples:
“The light is with you a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (John 12:35-6).