Facing the Tomb

We need to go back a bit. After the Sabbath, the Gospel reading begins, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  But what happened before the Sabbath?  According to Matthew, the two Marys witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, looking on from a distance with other women.  They then saw the burial of Jesus in a tomb, a new tomb which Joseph of Arimathea had provided for himself when his time came.  As the stone closed over the mouth of the tomb, the women were there, facing it.  On the Sabbath itself, the Saturday, the tomb was secured – it was sealed and Pilate supplied soldiers to guard it.

Then on Sunday morning, the two Marys came to see the tomb. According to Matthew, they carried no spices – they had no intention of anointing the body.  They just wanted to see the tomb.  It’s natural – a day or two after a funeral, in St Monans where I was parish minister, I’d sometimes see the next of kin back at the graveside, looking, talking, praying. It’s the place I feel closest, they’d say.  But then they had an experience my former parishioners have not yet had.  There was an earthquake, and an angel rolled back the stone.  The guards were rendered comatose with fear.  The angel invited the Marys to look inside the tomb and see that Jesus’ body was not there.  We realise that the stone was not moved to release Jesus, but to show the women that he was raised from the dead.  The women left the empty tomb, and then encountered the risen Jesus, and worshipped him.

This year, when I’ve preached in St Salvator’s Chapel, I’ve used the architecture, furnishings and decoration of the chapel as another text alongside scripture. The Chapel itself reflects the Christian faith in an immense variety of forms of expression across the five and a half centuries of its presence here.  Today, it seems appropriate to consider the tombs in the Chapel.  There is one in the ante-chapel by the South Door; there is one hidden behind the pews in the north wall; and of course there is the tomb of Bishop James Kennedy, founder of St Salvator’s College.  Part of it is depicted in the order of service – but do come and have a closer look after the service.

It was built during Kennedy’s lifetime, almost definitely to his direction. It may have been intended for the Cathedral, but was placed here probably between the consecration of the chapel in 1460 and before Kennedy’s death five years later.  One of the Chapel’s purposes was as a corporate chantry, that is, a place where services would be performed for the souls of Kennedy, other Bishops of St Andrews and the Royal House of Scotland to support their progress through Purgatory.

The tomb, where Kennedy’s body still lies, down some steps, is covered in a large black marble slab. At one time there may have been an effigy of Kennedy on the slab, under the arched recess.  Above this arch is the wonderfully ornate gothic carving, seemingly of towers, pinnacles, bowers, niches, windows, even carved staircases.  It was badly damaged when the builders were in in the late 18th Century, but remains one of the finest pieces of medieval church carving in Scotland.

Tomb of James Kennedy

What does the carving signify? Two scriptural inspirations have been suggested.  One is words from Jesus to his disciples, In my father’s house are many mansions.  But I prefer an alternative suggestion, that of Revelation 21, part of which we heard earlier, which envisages the fulfilment of creation as God’s gift of a new heaven and a new earth, a “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”  Later the vision describes a city made of jasper and gold, and further precious jewels, sapphires, emeralds, pearls and more.  It has a high wall with twelve gates.

But more important than the architectural and building specifications is the character of this city. It will be a place where the divine and human intertwine, where God is at home among mortals, and where so much that we know of creaturely experience will have passed away – pain, suffering, death and mourning.  As the distinguished historian of the University, Ronald Cant, interprets Kennedy’s tomb: the decoration is reared aloft above the vault where all that is mortal of Kennedy rests. Sin is vanquished.  Death is swallowed up in victory.

St Salvator

Facing the tomb is the Second World War Memorial Window, unveiled in 1950, exactly 500 years since Kennedy had laid the four corner-stones of the Chapel. Designed by William Wilson, who taught in the Edinburgh School of Art, the window’s central figure is St Salvator himself, the holy saviour Jesus Christ, crucified but risen.  Look closely and you can see the marks of his wounds on his feet and hands.  But he also shows symbols of resurrection: his right hand is raised in blessing and he holds the resurrection banner.

You might think it peculiar that in this Scottish University Chapel Jesus holds the English flag. But in fact medieval and Renaissance images of the risen Jesus often portray him holding a flag – usually a red cross on a white background, occasionally a white cross on a red ground.  It symbolises Jesus’ triumph and victory over evil and death.  It seems that the flag was then associated with St George and other saints because of its prior connection with Christ.  And its association with England, via St George, came later again.

Facing the tomb then is the crucified Christ, risen from the dead. So we do need to go back.  Easter is barely meaningful without Good Friday.  This semester at the Enquirers Group which I lead exploring the Christian faith, students came up with cinematic ways of understanding these events.  The crucifixion they understood was really Resurrection: the Prequel.   But equally, they interpreted the resurrection as Crucifixion: the Sequel.  Perhaps like The Godfather, or the Before Sunrise films, we can’t understand one of them in isolation.  Tesco’s copywriter was not far from the truth when writing, Good Friday just got better.  Though linking it to cheap beer and cider was a little off the point.  On a day of fasting.

The Son of God who was raised was the one who was killed, executed by Empire, one of countless Jews put to death in Judaea. We remember Pontius Pilate for this one death, but in fact he was recalled from Judaea for his excessive cruelty.  Countless others were put to death on his watch.  Religion didn’t help: the high priest was glad to be rid of a problem, a radical from the Galilean backwoods who didn’t understand the compromises the smooth-running religious co-existence with Empire demanded.  Jesus’ death had a particular shape, and a resonance with many who die unjust deaths today.  But in some ways it’s just a death, like any death.  And we all die.  Joseph of Arimathea and James Kennedy knew they would die, and built their own tombs.  People in St Monans would show me where they had bought their lair.  And even students, while acting as if they are immortal, know they are not.  Mind you, I did meet recently the University Cryogenics lab manager – but even he agreed with me that death is inescapable.  There are no bodies awaiting resuscitation there.

We all face the tomb. We are all aware of the effects of our mortality and of those we love: our pain, and suffering, our loss and grief.  In almost every circumstance we love life, and long to enjoy its gifts for as long as we can – the fresh green of new leaves on the trees; the moving harmonies of favourite music; the delight of something which makes us laugh.  And more than anything we love people with whom we share this life – our family and our friends, and we long for these relationships to continue, and to see and know how their lives will go.

We are all conscious of the presence of so much suffering through conflict, violent injury, war and death – the news of the most powerful conventional bomb of all time coming through on Good Friday only heightens that awareness.

And so, as scripture says, death is the last enemy. We are all called to live well in the light of it.  For many, death is the end and they can’t imagine life beyond it.  Facing the tomb has its own significance for them.  But the message the Marys heard, and saw, the man they encountered, the God they worshipped, St Salvator, offers hope to many.  Hope that death is not the end, that evil, sin and death lie defeated; that we will be raised; that the holy city, the new Jerusalem is coming; that God will dwell fully in creation, with God’s beloved people, with us.  This is the Easter hope – that we can face the tomb, trusting that God is good.

Let me wish you a very happy Easter.