Mary Magdelene, John tells us, looks into the tomb and sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet, where Jesus’s body had been. Who are they, these angels? The question introduces us to a strange, poetic world. Every line of John’s Easter story echoes with allusions to the Jewish scriptures and to the whole story of creation that is recounted there.
The Temple was a microcosm of the entire created order. Its Holy of Holies was a paradise, decorated (as was Theodulf’s chapel) with tree-forms, fruits, and flowers. Separating the Temple’s most sacred space from the daylight outside was a vast veil depicting the heavens. Only the High Priest ever entered the Holy of Holies, and only on the Day of Atonement; he passed through the veil—through the heavens—to the court of God himself. The Holy of Holies in the Old Testament was the house of propitiation: the site where the people’s distance from God was ritually overcome by the scattering of blood.
For the New Testament, Jesus himself is the propitiation; Paul even describes him as the mercy-seat on the ark itself (Romans 3:25).
Back, then, to Theodulf’s mosaic. The ark here appears to be open; the lid has been removed; and a fold of cloth—the rest of it inside the ark—is visible over the ark’s front edge. Such a cloth does not belong in the Holy of Holies; it belongs in the tomb of Jesus. This ark is not just the throne of God; it is Jesus’s empty grave. The small cherubim who flanked the ark are now the angels in Jesus’s tomb. Christ’s own body is the new Holy of Holies, the intersection of heaven and earth, time and eternity.
If the throne of God is suddenly revealed as a tomb, then the empty tomb is by the same token exalted. We see it here in a paradise like that described in Genesis; the Garden of Eden where God once walked with humankind in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8).
As Mary is about to discover: he is here again.
1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magʹdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. 4 They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; 5 and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, 7 and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13T hey said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-boʹni!” (which means Teacher).