September 23, 2023

By Father James Zimmer

When you “come up empty,” pay attention. You may bump into someone so real, they could be divine—in fact, the Risen Christ.

On the day of resurrection, Mary Magdalene came up empty. Peter, John, Thomas—the guards, chief priests and elders, for that matter—came up empty. That emptiness ushered some into a new, unimaginably beautiful life. Others missed the chance and went on with the “same old, same old.”

This is what I mean by “coming up empty”: What you wanted didn’t happen. Better, what you thought you wanted didn’t happen. You wanted something good; it didn’t happen. You wanted something virtuous, holy; it didn’t happen. Maybe you wanted something unvirtuous, unholy, downright evil; it still didn’t happen. In fact, you can’t make it happen. Or, you got what you wanted and still weren’t satisfied. That’s coming up empty. That’s the moment to be attentive.

Mary Magdalene came to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Nobody there. Soldiers, posted to make sure Jesus’ body stayed put, had nothing to show. Mary ran to tell Peter, John and the other disciples. The guards hurried to the chief priests and elders: The tomb is empty!

“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” The answer to that question was greater than Mary Magdalene thought. In comparison, what she thought she wanted was puny—a dead body to anoint. When Jesus said “Mary,” what she really wanted, happened! You could even say she happened. She became truer to herself, more alive, more beautiful.

Back to the guards: They wanted nothing more—they thought—than for Jesus’ body to stay lying in that limestone cave. Now he’s gone! Could anything be worse? They surely had heard of him (How could anyone not?). His presence carried a strange magnetism.

Herod, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s wife, the Pharisee Nicodemus—all felt the pull. (Read the Gospels; you’ll see what I mean.) When they found the tomb empty, if the guards and chief priests had paid attention to that “tug” in their deepest being—their heart—how their lives would have changed. They’d have been a hundred times richer. Instead, they pretended. They came up with their own explanation. They did not become truer, more alive, more beautiful. “Same old, same old.”

Father James Zimmer

We “come up empty” more often than we’d like to admit. The hard realities of life can help us, then. I visit the sick and dying at Sanford Hospital. I spend time with those who care for them. That gives me the chance to face every day the all-important question: Whom are you looking for? Might this be the value of the COVID pandemic? Keeping us from what we think we want, exposing our emptiness, the futility of our competing ideologies, it confronts us: Who are you, really? Whom are you looking for?

Early on in the pandemic, I went to give the sacraments to a woman dying from COVID. I’d just phoned her family; they couldn’t be with her. Talk about an “empty tomb” feeling! I donned all the personal protective equipment, and looking like an astronaut headed for the moon, opened the door. I heard singing!

A young nurse, her hand on the patient’s hand, mouthed soothing tones—an echo of heaven itself. I could almost feel Christ, risen from the dead—in Heaven, yes, yet on earth, in human form—a young nurse, a not-so-young priest, a dying woman, a grieving family at home. It was as though the Father’s voice was heard: Whom are you looking for? The One for whom you look is here—alive!

Aching limestone walls echo
My heart’s one longing:
You who love me,
Whom I want to love—
Where have you hidden?
Buried deep, it seems,
In our rubble, if I look—
You are there ahead of me.