Herman Melville, known to most readers as the author of Moby Dick, lived much of his writing life in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
To this day, Pittsfield and its environs still maintain a rural quality, and in Melville’s day (mid-19th century) must have been quite rustic, to say the least. Perhaps in this antique pastoral setting Melville did occasionally encounter a jackal, a scavenger dog that feeds on small game and the carcasses of dead animals. Maybe it was witnessing the work of these land bound vultures that moved him to write the following observation: “Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” The suggested scene is certainly rather grisly and grim: lean foragers sustaining themselves off mortal remains.
Yet Melville is certainly justified in comparing the feeding habits of the jackal to the spiritual nourishment that supports the believing Christian. The lesson of Easter is precisely that supernatural faith is conceived and preserved while pondering with Peter, John and the women the empty tomb of Jesus Christ. Like the jackal, the more the Christian reflects on the starkness of the tomb that Easter morning the more he is driven to appreciate a life beyond the grave, a life beyond this earth, a life beyond time.
Jesus offered his followers and still offers men of every generation a model of charity and justice, an example of compassion and forgiveness, a pattern of obedience and patience. Jesus defended religion, gloried in the Scriptures, embraced prayer and demanded sincerity. Jesus welcomed the foreigner, treasured the poor, supported the handicapped and guided the masses. By anyone’s definition, Jesus Christ must be listed as one of the great men of history. Yet in spite of Jesus’ numerous good works and enduring good example, it is only amidst the tombs, with the jackals, that the Christian believer confronts the real Jesus Christ. Jesus was not just a prophet pointing out the way of truth. Jesus was not just a healer offering respite from the aches of humanity. Jesus was not just a saint transforming society by his prayers. Jesus Christ was the eternal Son of God, one in being with the Father, through whom all things were made, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.
At the empty tomb of Jesus, the believer comes to realize that the true work of Jesus Christ has just begun. His career was not limited to numerous sermons, several miracles and a righteous life. His career is to lead all men from the sad state of earthly existence to the joyous condition of eternal happiness. The empty tomb at first suggests and then confirms a life beyond this life, a world beyond this world, an existence beyond the extent. The faithful Abraham, the beleaguered Moses, the unifying David, even the reforming Mohammed, the reflective Buddha, and the insightful Confucius were undeniably great men of history. But they were merely that: men of history. Jesus uniquely transcends history, introducing mankind to an entirely new dimension — the supernatural, the celestial, the eternal. Jesus is triumphant over the tomb and hence over death. The empty sepulcher confirms this victory.
Engraved over the time-honored tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem are the brief Latin words: Non Est Hic (He is not here). These three words confirm the entirety of the Gospel message. Jesus is the eternal Son of God who comes to share everlasting life with those who accept him through the faith entrusted to the Church. Jesus leads his followers beyond the grave, beyond this life, to a new and glorified life in union with God in eternity. Jesus is indeed “not here.” He is gloriously reigning at the right hand of the Father, making intercession for his brothers and sisters still here on earth, healing them of their sins, fortifying them with his grace, and offering them victory over the grave as well. Through Christ, the grave of every believer will also be discovered empty as they rise to everlasting happiness on the last day.
As Melville wrote, faith is brought to its fullness by the contemplation of the fate of the dead. Deceased loved ones are not simply dust mixed with the soil of a burial plot. Dead believers are not merely ashes under a patch of grass. Like the risen Christ, the faithful have been transfigured into eternity — victorious over sin, death and the grave.