The Tomb as Tabernacle
Yesterday was Ascension Day, which means the Church’s fifty-day Easter celebration is nearing its end. Before we leave it behind for this liturgical year completely, let’s reflect on it one last time.
If there is indeed a God, the next logical question is whether that God is knowable to us. And if he is knowable, does he care about us? The Christian tradition provides concrete answers to these questions. He is knowable, “he has spoken through the prophets.” He does care about us, “for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” His care is not in the abstract but exists intimately, taking on real, human flesh. It is a love that bears our sins—even to the point of death on across—to make us right with our Creator.
The beauty of God is that he works in patterns. His interventions throughout salvation history have discernable rhythms, patterns, and types. Throughout the pages of Scripture, God can be seen taking the initiative by taking up residence among his people. One unexpected instance of this dwelling, or tabernacle-ing, is Christ’s tomb.
At different stages in Israel’s history, the Ark, Tabernacle, and Temple played vital roles in the Jewish faith because they were the dwelling place of the Divine. They were the locus where Heaven and Earth intersected: God was sacramentally present with his people in those spaces.
The New Testament opens with another important instance of God taking up a dwelling among his people—this time, in the womb of the Blessed Mother. According to Catholic writer Thomas Howard, “she alone [was] chosen for a cooperation with the Most High that went far beyond bearing witness to the Word, as had been the office of the patriarchs, the law-giver Moses, and the Prophets. She was to bear the Word.”,1 Mary’s womb is situated between Old Testament instances of God’s indwelling among the people of Israel and the New Testament’s proclamation of God’s presence in and through the Sacraments of the Church.
In the Gospel of Matthew’s birth account, the author relays the angel’s words to Joseph, “[Mary] will bear a Son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save the people from their sins” (Matt 1:21; NRSV). Matthew then offers this analysis, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (Matt 1:22-23). In John’s Gospel, the Incarnation event is neatly summarized by saying, “And the Word became flesh and lived [“tabernacled”] among us” (John 1:14).
In the Gospels, Jesus’ birth and burial are treated literarily as parallels to one another. At Jesus’ birth, he is wrapped in linen bands (Luke 2:7). At his burial, he is again wrapped in linen bands (Matt 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). At his birth, they “laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). At his burial, they took his body and “laid it in a tomb” (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). In Luke’s nativity narrative, an angel makes an announcement of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds who make a pilgrimage to Jesus’ birthplace (Luke 2:8-20). Meanwhile, an angel announces the resurrection to a group of women visitors at the tomb (Matt 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-10).
Interestingly, Jesus was laid in a tomb that was most likely a cave. Elsewhere in literature, caves are closely associated with wombs. Odysseus, trapped in a cave with the Cyclops, claims he is “no-man” (Gk: oudeis). After bursting forth from the cave, Odysseus mockingly reveals his true name. It is a picture of birth that relies on clever wordplay, given how similarly oudeis and Odysseus sound.
If Jesus’ birth story is an allusion to the concept of “tabernacling,” could this be true of his death and burial story too?
From a pre-resurrection perspective, the tomb in which Christ was laid was not a womb, but an end. Some Jewish factions in Jesus’ day believed in some sort of resurrection in the distant future (John 11:24). Other Jews, namely the Sadducees, rejected the possibility of resurrection outright. Gentiles also tended to reject the concept of resurrection. In Greco-Roman mythology, N.T. Wright points out, there is only one story which even deals with the possibility of resurrection, the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and it ends on a pessimistic note.2 The disciples themselves are pessimistic too. The two followers Jesus encounters on the road to Emmaus appear none too hopeful, resignedly admitting, “we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21a).
However, from a post-resurrection perspective, the tomb is very much like a womb. It is, to the Christian, the last tabernacle, the last container of divinity. John’s depiction of two angels standing by the tomb resembles the Ark of the Covenant (20:11-12), hearkening back to this concept. The tomb is a place of waiting—until, at the right moment, Christ bursts forth from the grave. Rebirth is a vindication, a proclamation that he accomplished the Father’s will and destroyed death. Like other tabernacles that came before, the grave is not sufficient for holding the Divine. This is a theme expounded on by Stephen, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands” (Acts 7:48). In his polemic, he is referring to the Jewish Temple, but the same logic can be applied to the tomb. The grave was the final barrier preventing humanity from access to the Divine;the resurrection means it has been overcome.
God cannot be contained in statues or images; they are dumb, mute, and crafted by human hands (Ps 115:4-8). Furthermore, God cannot be contained in any buildings built by people. The Tabernacle and the Temple are obsolete, the curtain rend asunder (Matt 27:51). Even beyond that, the Gospel cannot be bound to any particular ethnicity as “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Ultimately, God cannot be contained by any of these things and even more, the grave is impotent at stopping him. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? (1 Cor 15:55).
Only one thing can “limit” God. He is constrained by love, not as an external boundary, but as an essential part of his nature (1 John 4:8). He cannot be what he is not. Because of his aseity, he will never cease to be love—and because he is love, he will never cease to be “with us.” As Paul confidently states, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39). He is with us always. The tomb, then, is not a sense of despair but a reminder that even in the grave, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
 Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1997), 186.  N.T. Wright, “The Surprise of Resurrection,” in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, ed. Troy A. Miller (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 77.