Lent cross imageContrary to All Expectation

“Contrary to all expectation,” she said, “underneath it all, was the shelf upon which the body of Jesus had lain, carved from the bedrock itself.”* So said Chief Scientific Supervisor Professor Antonia Moropoulou, coordinator of the restoration project currently underway in the Edicule of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. “Under the marble slab, we found an earlier Crusader slab; under that some rubble and fill; and under that, the original rock surface upon which the body of Christ was laid.”* *(translation mine)

Perhaps you’ve been following this story through the National Geographic reports; having been to the Church of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre dozens of times, and bringing hundreds of pilgrims to the Tomb of the Resurrection, I must say it was not “contrary to my expectation” that they should find exactly what they did, but I’m deeply excited the “rediscovery” should happen during my lifetime. After all, the interior of the tomb hadn’t been bereft of its marble cladding for 500 years, and not for 500 years before that when it was very nearly destroyed; yet contrary to all expectation, it survives, and remains a place of pilgrimage for millions.

“Contrary to all expectation” should be chiseled above the door. 1700 years ago, when Bishop Makarios returned from Nicea with permission from a sympathetic Emperor to excavate the tomb, church historian Eusebius of nearby Caesarea asked Makarios where he was going to dig. “At the Temple Hadrian built over Golgotha,” Makarios replied. Eusebius was skeptical: “The Scriptures tell us it was outside the city walls,” he pointed out. “This is well inside. And why would Hadrian build a temple over a burial ground?” “Nevertheless,” Makarios answered, “Walls move. That is where we have always gone. From the beginning. It is there.”

So dig they did, funded by the Emperor, directed by Makarios. Hadrian’s Temple was dismantled, the area cleared. And then, from the doubting Eusebius, his own eyewitness account: “…as soon as the original surface of the ground, beneath the covering of earth, appeared, immediately and contrary to all expectation, the venerable and hallowed monument of our Saviour’s resurrection was discovered. Then indeed did this most holy cave present a faithful similitude of his return to life, in that, after lying buried in darkness, it again emerged to light, and afforded to all who came to witness the sight, a clear and visible proof of the wonders of which that spot had once been the scene, a testimony to the resurrection of the Saviour clearer than any voice could give.”

Of course, everything about the place has always been contrary to expectation. Pilate, releasing the body, was surprised Jesus was already dead. Joseph, in commissioning the tomb, expected to use it himself, not to offer a last-minute resting place for the prophet Jesus. Joseph and Nicodemus never thought they’d spend Passover Eve in a rush burial job. The soldiers, surprised at being posted guard, never thought anything would come of it save boredom and damp morning chill. The women, released from Sabbath, expected to find a guarded, sealed tomb, blocked by a heavy stone. Peter and John, running to see the cause of the returned women’s hysteria, were amazed to find only the grave clothes, the body long gone (even though John claimed to have figured things out by then). Hiding out in the upper room, shutters closed, doors locked, silent in grief, nobody expected Jesus to appear among them, alive and well, flesh and bone. “Peace,” he says to the dumbfounded, terrified gathering of family, followers, friends. “Peace.”

It is contrary to all expectation, the whole story, the whole event. And yet…

The stone was rolled away.

The body gone.

Fear, confusion, panic ensue, no one saying, “I told you so, he said he would.” Everyone running, hiding, scared. Or clearing off to Emmaus.

When he returns. Appears. Arrives. Something unrecognizable about him, but it is him, it is him, and he is alive, alive, alive. Contrary to all expectation. He is alive.

And we proclaim it still. “He is Risen,” we shout, we sing. Contrary to all expectation, 2000 years on, it remains our claim, our faith, our triumphant song. “He is Risen. And we shall be risen with him.” Not because it is expected. Not because it is plausible. But because it is true. Contrary to all expectation, it is true.

Thanks be to God! For Christ is Risen Indeed!

—The Rev. Douglas H. Rollwage