17 April 2006
There is a reason why I worship from church pews rather than from the pulpit: my ideas tend to come a little late, usually while my mind and my spirit are interacting with the message of the sermon. Although these Easter thoughts are technically a day late, they were inspired yesterday, and I hope they will inspire you, too.
In the year 63 BC, Jerusalem welcomed the greatest general to ever set foot in that ancient city. For all the warcraft of Nebuchadnezzar or David or Sheshak (the pharaoh who looted the Ark of the Covenant from Reheboam), Pompey the Great was a general at the height of his glory, welcoming comparisons to Alexander the Great (who had bypassed Jerusalem in his conquests).
In full glory--his armor was coated with gold for his triumphs--Pompey strode through the city, advancing to the steps of the Temple, the very temple rebuilt by Nehemiah about 400 years earlier. Pompey, the Roman governor responsible for the eastern provinces, had joined the Hasmonians in a bitter civil war that had divided the ancestors of Judas Maccabees, who had gained independence from the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire. As power broker, he would usher in Roman suzerainty that would dominate the region for another 400 years.
His bodyguard shoved aside a group of Jewish protesters and held wide the temple doors for Pompey to enter. The general climbed the steps and entered as a Hasmonian guide described the significance of the altar and the Holy Place. At the far end of the hall hung a great curtain. Much to the horror of his hosts, Pompey advanced, reached out, and slipped through the curtain into the Holy of Holies, a room entered only by the High Priest once every year on the Day of Atonement.
He looked up into the square chamber, gazing at its four walls and smooth cobblestones. He looked back at his aides and grinned quizzically. "It is empty," he observed.
He turned, strode hurriedly through the temple to the exit, and left Jerusalem for more conquests and an eventual showdown (13 years later) with the only man in the world who could surpass his military genius: Julius Caesar.
No doubt the Most Holy Place became a punchline in the stories that Pompey told thereafter: such reverance and adoration given to a room that was completely empty!
The same observation was made by two women, who had hurried to a room carved out from the base of Golgotha, "Skull Hill," early on a Sunday morning nearly 100 years later. They had gone to adorn the body of a fallen Teacher, yet they had found that room empty: an empty cave that would become every bit as holy to believing Christians as the Most Holy Place had been to the Jews.
What would Pompey have thought? What's the big deal about an empty room?
After all, is religion just the worship of empty chambers? The ancient Minoans worshipped caves, I read, viewing them as portals, dwelling places of the gods. I don't know enough about Islam or Buddhism, but I would expect that there are empty rooms there, too. Perhaps empty rooms are the most obvious sign that faith is empty, the objects of believers' adoration are simply nonexistent.
Another question came this weekend at men's Bible study: what does it mean to be "poor in spirit" (Matthew 5:3)? My Bible commentary showed that this was "in contrast to the spiritually proud and self-sufficient."
One who is "poor in spirit," then, is someone with an empty room deep within themselves. Spiritual hunger, spiritual thirst, the longing for reunion with Christ--all come from the Empty Room of the heart. And Christ promised to bless these rooms with the "kingdom of heaven."
We worship empty rooms because there is a spiritual longing within each person that the God of Empty Rooms can only fill. Had the Holy of Holies been packed to the ceiling like a pharaoh's tomb, it could not have honored God before Pompey any more than it did. (As it was, the Holy of Holies became the first holy place Pompey couldn't loot.)
On Easter Sunday this year, I peered into the tomb with Mary and with Peter and with John. It was empty. Christ was risen. I broke bread and drank juice. On my knees in the silence thereafter, I hear echoes in the Empty Room within me. I begged to be filled.