By the Third Sunday of Easter, the exuberance of Easter morning has faded. Life has gone on and it seems remarkably similar to the life we were living before the dawn of Resurrection Day. The cross has flowered and been stored until next year, the flowers distributed, and our minds turn have turned to the hope of warm, quiet days of summer ahead. Only the steady flame of the Paschal Candle burns to remind us that Easter is present.
Like the disciples, we stand doubtful and incredulous before the stories of the empty tomb. They and we wonder whether it was truly real. Surely it is today, with all its complications and woes, that is normal — not yesterday with its proclamation of a death that turned out to be life, and of a defeat turned into eternal triumph. How could such a thing be true?
Some years ago my husband, Lindon, and I were on a tour of the archaeological site beneath the great Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. For many years scholars discredited the tradition that the church had been built over the site of Peter’s tomb where he had been laid after being crucified upside down. They gave little credence to the oral tradition that supported such a notion. It wasn’t until the sixties, during the burial of a prelate of the church, that it was discovered the basilica had been constructed over a first century cemetery. The graveyard was located beside the circus where it is likely Peter was put to death. Even then, having found a slab from that period inscribed with prayers asking for Peter’s intercession, the scholars remained unconvinced. When the stone was removed, they discarded the skeleton beneath on the basis it was not interred deeply enough to be significant. Finding nothing else, they finally remembered the bones they had uncovered. Retrieving the plastic box in which they had been stored they were sent for tests. No one does or can claim that they are the bones of St. Peter, but the skeleton was that of a man of about seventy who had lived an outdoor life as a fisherman or a farmer. Judging from the nature of the damage to the anklebones, it was concluded he had died as a result of being crucified upside down. The grave is located immediately below the ancient and present main altar of the sanctuary.
That’s the nearest I have ever come to being at the tomb on the original Easter Day. To stand at the site of the tomb of Jesus’ devoted apostle and friend was to come as close in time and space as I will ever be to our Lord. Afterwards we sat stunned in St. Peter’s square trying to grasp what we believed we had seen. It is so tempting to be like those archaeologists who were looking for more sophisticated signs of Peter’s presence and who passed by the very thing they were trying to find. The Resurrection is something we stumble across, something we have to be given the grace to see and believe. But, when we do, we know the joy that comes from God alone and it is more enduring than any stone, it will never fade like an Easter lily, and it will burn with paschal flame in our hearts for all eternity.
The Rev. Susan N. Eaves