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Together, Apart: Bible Study - The Empty Tomb

This is the fifth of our Bible Studies to explore together, apart, with God, as Coronavirus keeps us from gathering in person. You can leave comments on our Facebook page @FlitwickChurch and join in the conversation.

Bruce Wolf – Mary Magdelene

Matthew 28: 1 - 10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

Ways to explore the passage

Choose the one or two ways of exploring the passage that feel best for you, or try all four – but not at the same time!


The Gospel resurrection accounts are central to the Christian faith. As the hymn (and St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) says:

Had Christ, that once was slain, ne'er burst his three-day prison, our faith had been in vain; but now is Christ arisen, arisen, arisen, arisen.

Each of the Gospel writers approaches the resurrection story differently – there are common elements, but each account is told from a slightly different perspective, depending on the original eye witnesses, the theological emphasis of the writer and the needs of the community they were writing for. So, here in Matthew as in the other Gospels, we have an early morning the visit by woman, a moved stone, an empty tomb and emotions of fear and joy.

Matthew’s account leaves us in no doubt that God was at work. Any account that embellished the reports of eyewitnesses was rejected by the early Church. The resurrection was such an extraordinary event that early Christians didn’t want fanciful additions making it even less believable. (For this reason writings such as the gnostic ‘Gospel of Peter’ did not make it in the Bible canon.) However, Matthew includes a number of elements in his account which show that the only way to make sense of the experience was as an encounter with the power of God. For example, the earthquake and the appearance of the angel have deep Old Testament resonances. The empty tomb cannot be explained by someone simply moving Jesus’ body; there is much more going on here.

You have probably heard this story many times before. Rather like the Christmas story, we tend to weave our own resurrection account together from the four Gospels. So, read Matthew’s version again now. Slowly. Really slowly.

What words spring out at you? What do you notice that maybe you have never noticed before? What seems strange? What don’t you understand? What comforts you? What questions do you have?


Sit in a comfortable position and take your time on each step. This might take several minutes. Now read the passage again. Close your eyes and enter the scene. Imagine yourself going with the women in the half-light to Jesus’ tomb Pause and then read the passage again.

What can you see, smell, touch, hear? How are you feeling, physically, emotionally? Are you cold or warm? Sleepy or wide awake? Who is with you? What is it like to walk on rocky paths, stumbling, in the semi dark. What are you carrying? Is it heavy? What can you smell?

You arrive at the tomb. Bend down and peer into the gloom. What do you do see? Is it easy to make sense of? What is your immediate reaction – emotional and physical? Is the earthquake real or metaphorical to you? And what about the angel? A voice in your head making sense of things, or a real celestial being in front of you?

You drop what you were carrying and go running back to tell your friends what you have seen. Suddenly, on the road, you run into Jesus. What do you feel? What does Jesus look like? How does he react to seeing you? What do you want to say to him? How would you greet him? What would you ask him? Look at his face as you speak. What do you see?

What answers does Jesus give?

Do his answers comfort or unsettle? Or both?

What else would you want to say to him as you kneel on the road?

What might you want to do as a result of this encounter?

Thoughts and Questions

Rituals around death are incredibly important. Across cultures and eras, people have found ways of making sense of death and finding ways to let go. Jesus, the leader of a rag tag band of men and women, had died in a frightful way. His friends were in that very early stage of grief – shock and denial. Layered onto this, they had lost their leader, the one to whom they looked for direction and guidance, the glue that held them together. And they were afraid that their association with him might lead to their own arrest and trials. No wonder the disciples were afraid and huddled together out of sight behind locked doors.

Jesus had died in a sudden and brutal way. According to the rituals of the day, those who had taken down his body were unclean. To touch a corpse made you ritually unclean, and to be hanged was seen as a curse, so Jesus’ body was doubly defiled. Those who had laid him to rest had put their own purity on the line to care for him.

Care of the body was women’s work, but coming to the tomb was dangerous for them. We know that soldiers had been put on guard. What sort of reception might the women be expecting or fearing? Yet the rituals of death were so strong, it was so important to honour Jesus’ memory, that still they came. To wail at his tomb and, if they could, to tend to his body that had been so hastily buried two days before.

So eager are the women to see to the rituals of death that they set off as soon as the release from Sabbath allows, at very first light on Sunday morning.

What are the rituals of death in our culture? How are they helpful? What rituals have we lost that used to be observed, what if anything has changed in recent years? Have these changes been helpful? Under the current restrictions because of COVID19, funerals have had to alter radically. What difference do you think these changes will make to the way people grieve and why? What might we as family members, friends, or Church be able to do to help people to grieve while normal rituals are missing?

The resurrection of Jesus puts a different slant on death and grief. What difference does belief in resurrection make when we are grieving? Does it impact the depth of our grief or its pattern? If not, what can we as Christians say in the face of death? What can we say to those who have been bereaved that speaks of hope authentically?

You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

Bruce Wolf Mary Magdelene

Given the centrality of the empty tomb to the Christian faith, it is a relatively little used scene in terms of art. The cross is a much more common topic to explore in art than is the resurrection. Those painting that do depict the resurrection usually focus on elements that are peripheral to the Biblical account, showing light emitting from the empty tomb, or a Jesus glowing as though he’s just had his Ready Brek. Perhaps this is because if we stop to think, the whole point of the resurrection is that was very little to see. No spectacle or crowds or ritual. Just three women in the early dawn and an empty tomb. In the resurrection, God doesn’t break into human life in a way that leaves us in no doubt, in a way that gives us no option but to believe. Instead God shows us enough and allows us to make up our own minds, allows us to believe or not. Even the first witnesses to the resurrection doubted their own eyes.

This sculpture by 20th century artist Bruce Wolf shows us Mary Magaldene at the tomb. We don’t see the tomb itself, or an angel, or grave clothes, just Mary and her reaction.

What to you notice first of all about the sculpture? Do you like it or not? Look carefully at Mary’s posture. What does the way she is sitting say about her, where she is and what she’s just seen. And what about her clothes? Are they significant? They are rough woven, the clothes of a peasant woman – does this make her experience more easily relatable, or less?

Mary has her head covered and has dropped her perfumed oils. It was not Mary Magdalene, but variously Mary sister of Martha or an unnamed prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet so scandalously. What resonances do you think the artist is drawing out here?

Who is Mary looking at? The angel, or Jesus, or someone else? What can you tell from the angle of her head and her expression? The Bible tells us that the women reacted with a mixture of fear and joy. Do you see that here, or do you see something else?

If this were a moving figure, what would we expect Mary to do next? What would her next movement be? How can you tell? What does this tell us?

Do you find this image helpful? It focusses on one person’s response rather than the whole scene. What does this say about the way we experience the resurrection now? Is our response perhaps as important as the events themselves? Does that change your view of what happened and why?

You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

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