Born in a Grave!

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March 11, 2024
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March 22, 2024

Paul Tillich, the well-known theologian, retells a story which was told at the Nuremburg war-crimes trials following WWII.  It described a number of survivors and escapees from the concentration camp’s gas chambers, who lived for a time in a cemetery in Vilnius, Poland.  One of the young women in the group gave birth in a grave, assisted by an 80 year old grave digger.  Wrapped in a linen shroud, and hearing the first cries of this baby, the old man prayed: ‘Great God, have you finally sent the Messiah to us?  For who else than the Messiah can be born in a grave?’  (Tillich 1948:165)

God went the way of all flesh.  We know this. We walk this as part of the Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus as we accompany him to the cross and stand as witnesses, or we may also be hanging alongside him on the cross.  God’s grave has been raided though, and we know life has begun once again, created freshly, this time in Christ.  The power of Christ’s resurrection and its significance for all of us are linked to Christ’s sharing in our deaths.   Jesus said to his disciples:

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  (John 12:24-25)

One of the remarkable differences in John’s gospel, as Jesus draws ever closer to his betrayal, arrest and death, is his refusal to be frightened, regretful or hesitant about what is ahead.   Jesus confronts his anticipated death with courage and boldness, in control, and he refuses to be persuaded to change how he lives, teaches, ministers in response to how he expects he will die. 

John tells us very clearly Jesus knows his final hour is coming.   But his reaction is not one of fear.  He is troubled, but not that troubled.  There is no praying from Jesus to remove the cup from him (Mark 14:36).  Instead, Jesus declares, ‘Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ (18:11)

And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour?’   No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour’.  (John 12:27)

God’s love, seen in Jesus the Christ, has joined us and will join us wherever evil threatens to overtake us.  Love came down, love absolutely divine to join us in whatever pain or loss or sorrow might be ours.  In the person of Jesus, God has made God’s self, available and open to humankind and all that humankind can do.  Pouring himself out for the life of the world, Jesus makes heaven and earth one.  There on the cross God is fully all in all: the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome.  (John 1:15)

The beginning and end have been brought together.  His end is our beginning.

His passion is for us and with us. God has acted and will continue to act, as we hear through the prophets and in the Gospels, that God is there to motivate, move and enable us.  God has been with us to give us all that is necessary for the fullness of life.  Our awareness of such fullness is being called into view by God as we let a new life of love, power, hope and justice with which God overshadows us, and surrounds us, enters our being. 

This way of being in our hearts and souls, this awareness is a discovery each person has to make for themselves; and specifically the discovery we cannot earn or grab what we need from God, but only realise we have already been given it because God gives it to us even before we know about it.  All that is needed is openness to the gift. 

This makes such commentary ‘that God has given me this cross to bear’ a nonsense.  We are saying in such statements that our culture and ourselves, put meaningless fate at the centre of our existence, not God.  ‘Taking up our cross ‘does not mean bearing the burdens, tragedies and heartaches of life which have come our way, on our own.  ‘Taking up our cross’ means offering willing obedience and self-emptying for the sake of God’s kingdom.  Letting go our own desires and letting God be the centre of our existence, and the source of grace for all our living.

So, if Jesus’ end is our beginning, how do we abandon our way of life as a personal possession, to gain the life Christ offers? 

Our beginning is the living of our lives with thanksgiving and praise for all the ways in which we have been graced.  Jesus’ love has wiped away our sin, obliterated it, yours, mine, the whole world’s, and we can now truly live as we’ve never lived before.  No longer must we seek for the truth of our lives, for the Truth has come to us.  God has taken the initiative to search us out and know us. 

With glorious, extravagant love God saves us.  Through Christ Jesus, despair is overcome by hope, weakness is swallowed up in strength, hatred is surrounded and finally conquered by love.  Jesus lived a life of complete transparency to God, a life that entered into death but triumphed in glory.  His was a life that is ours to share.     

As we think about this, I hope we can echo the hope-filled words of the 80 year old grave digger who was seeing new life emerge from the most despairing of circumstances; and which are still being repeated daily in the rubble of Gaza and Ukraine and Sudan:  You are the Messiah, have you finally come for us, now born in a grave?

The Lord be with you.


Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds] 2015.  Feasting on the Gospels John, Volume 2 Chapters 10-21.  Westminster Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

Tillich, P. 1948.  The Shaking of the Foundations.  Charles Scribner’s Sons. NY.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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