An Empty Tomb Is Not An Empty Promise
“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” aired almost three decades ago this week, and at the time, it was the most watched syndicated television show in the history of the medium. The charismatic host of the show that evening kept viewers on the edge of their seats as he spoke of a recently discovered secret room at Chicago’s Lexington Hotel. Broadcasting live, he promised the unveiling of long-kept secrets, the unknotting of historical mystery, and priceless artifacts where Capone once lived. Of course, it would take a character as ambitious as Capone himself to launch such an over-hyped, nationally televised treasure hunt like this, and “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” did not disappoint. The host that evening was Geraldo Rivera.
Yes, before he had his nose broken by a skinhead on daytime television; before he had fat sucked from his buttocks and shot into his forehead to remove the wrinkles; before he was sent packing from Afghanistan for disclosing the location of US troops; and before that infamous shirtless selfie went viral on Twitter, he had long ago revealed how ill-advised some of his decisions could be with this whole Capone affair. With 30 million people waiting and watching to see mysteries solved and questions answered, the vault was opened revealing nothing – unless you consider an empty gin bottle to be of historical importance. The opening of Capone’s treasures was nothing more than fraudulent ballyhoo, propaganda to increase ratings. The story was as empty as the vault.
I must confess that Easter can sometimes leave us feeling like Geraldo – inappropriate selfies and blubber injections aside. On Resurrection Sunday we gather with the sold-out crowd (Easter remains the most well-attended church day of the year) and hear the report of Jesus coming back to life. By the end of the show the grave stone is properly rolled away, we look inside for ourselves, sing a few celebratory songs, disperse to eat lunch with friends, hunt painted eggs, and stuff ourselves with bunny-borne chocolates. These are all fine activities, but rather anticlimactic given all the excitement; and given the fact that most of us shrug off the implications of Jesus’ resurrection as quickly as the baskets are put away and our Easter clothes are sent to the cleaners.
Yet, to speak of Jesus’ resurrection is to speak of more than a holiday or even a holy day. To speak of Jesus’ resurrection is to affirm the trajectory of the entire New Testament, the entire Christian faith, a faith that rises or falls on the phrase, “He is risen!” It is to speak of hope – for ourselves, for the world, and for the future. To speak of the resurrection is to speak of cosmic redemption. No doubt, these are ambitious confessions. How can one man’s resurrection centuries ago make any difference within the scope of eternity? Isn’t this a metaphysical publicity stunt just to boost Christianity’s ratings? Such questions are nothing new.
Answering similar objections, the Apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our faith is worthless.” Unafraid to soften his words, Paul goes on to say that without Easter Christianity is a farce; eternal life is a promise built on overhyped lies; God’s grace has been misrepresented; and those who adhere to the faith are as pitiful as Geraldo in a warzone (that last line is not a quote from Paul, though he might have appreciated it). Nonetheless, in rising from the dead, Jesus signaled that he will redeem humanity by overcoming all enemies, even death, and return the universe to wholeness. He will bring all of God’s creation back to life, making “life worth the living,” as the old song goes, “just because he lives.”
Yes, we believe that God has done something unique and eternal in Jesus, and his resurrection has overcome death, giving life to all who will receive it. We confess the Easter hope: “Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” An ambitious confession? Yes, but confession that the empty tomb is far more than an empty promise.