A few weeks ago I began pondering the idea of absence. Several circumstances gave rise to this train of thought, including musings about how people lose their faith in God. I wondered if they stopped feeling God’s presence for some reason and that opened a void which Satan could fill. What was only a momentary absence somehow becomes convincing proof of God’s non-existence.
In the three years of Jesus’ mortal ministry, He became defined by his irrefutable presence in Israel. He performed miracles with many witnesses, He taught convincingly in small and large group settings, He manifested God’s power on innumerable occasions, He boldly declared His origins and divine Sonship, He walked on water, He calmed storms, He raised the dead. His presence in one village led the people to drive Him away (Matthew 8:28-34, NT) while in many other communities He gained notoriety. His direct impact on the larger community became so marked that local rulers grew restless and began plotting how to make Jesus disappear.
Despite His own prophecies about His short-lived presence on earth, Jesus’ apostles continued to rely heavily on His accessibility and seem to have taken His proximity for granted. When some of the disciples failed to heal a young man on their own, they (sheepishly?) watched Jesus heal him and then asked why they could not succeed. Perhaps out of concern for His disciples to continue His work once He was gone, Jesus lamented, “how long shall I be with you?” (Matthew 17:17, NT.) No one seems to have made contingency plans in the event of Jesus’ permanent absence.
I imagine the apostles’ shock as Jesus was led away from Gethsemane, publicly humiliated and condemned to an infamous death. They weren’t counting on this. Some of the apostles stayed nearby as observers and mourners while Jesus hung on the cross. Many of them gathered together in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and burial, facilitating Mary’s urgent report of the empty tomb and providing the setting for Jesus to appear to them. But even after witnessing the resurrected Lord, some of the apostles simply returned to their previous lives (John 21:2-3, NT). How could they keep a movement alive when its founder was no longer present? Could people believe in someone who is absent?
The miracle of the empty tomb is the absent Christ. Because the tomb was empty on the third day, no grave will permanently keep its dead. Because the tomb was empty, all people can receive forgiveness of sin, healing, comfort, joy. Because the tomb was empty, the resurrected Christ could organize the spread of God’s work on the earth. In the absence of Christ, the apostles began their ministries to teach, heal, baptize, confirm, and testify of the once present Jesus and now resurrected Son of God. He didn’t become less real or stop existing when He was no longer a constant presence. The promise of His Resurrection provides the reality of glorified, eternal existence for all mankind.
This Easter I think of dear friends and dead family members, absent but not gone; separated by distance but not by memory; loved and not forgotten. Sometimes absence dims memory and makes us question the reality of our experienced past. At times I have lost the feeling of God’s presence in my life and it is tempting to question whether He was really ever there in the first place. But in that absence I have found compelling proof of God’s present reality, His mindfulness of me, His awareness of and concern for all His children.
Like the apostles had to learn in the wake of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ’s absence from earth did not change His reality. In His absence, the apostles testified boldly of His eternal existence, glory, power, and presence. In His absence, we can continue to believe; we can hold fast to our faith; we can choose to press forward in our devotion and commitment to follow Him. We can, because He lives.