From the General Conference pulpit in April 1992, Elder Marion D. Hanks, then of the Presidency of the Seventy, shared this sweet story:
As Easter time approaches, let me share with you the tender story of an eleven-year-old boy named Philip, a Down’s syndrome child who was in a Sunday School class with eight other children.
Easter Sunday the teacher brought an empty plastic egg for each child. They were instructed to go out of the church building onto the grounds and put into the egg something that would remind them of the meaning of Easter.
All returned joyfully. As each egg was opened there were exclamations of delight at a butterfly, a twig, a flower, a blade of grass. Then the last egg was opened. It was Philip’s, and it was empty!
Some of the children made fun of Philip. “But, teacher,” he said, “teacher, the tomb was empty.”
A newspaper article announcing Philip’s death a few months later noted that at the conclusion of the funeral eight children marched forward and put a large empty egg on the small casket. On it was a banner that said, “The tomb was empty.”
Have there ever been more important words spoken? When Mary Magdalene saw the stone rolled away from the door of the Garden Tomb, she was the first to know that the greatest miracle in history—the greatest miracle possible—had been performed. Those that had followed Jesus, those that took His divine Sonship on faith, had their devotion validated because of one thing: the tomb was empty.
Decades before telling that story about the boy with Down syndrome, Elder Hanks composed the hymn “That Easter Morn,” which has been in our hymnbook since its revision in 1985. The first two verses tell what the Savior did, when He rose and left the tomb empty:
That Easter morn, a grave that burst
Proclaimed to man that “Last and First”
Had ris’n again
And conquered pain.
This morn renews for us that day
When Jesus cast the bonds away,
Took living breath
And conquered death.
It seems remarkable to describe the Savior’s resurrection as the grave “bursting.” It’s as though the tomb could not possibly hold the resurrected Jesus Christ, and indeed it couldn’t—He had risen again, cast the bonds away, and taken living breath. This simple tomb, made of stone created by the Savior Himself at the foundation of the world, was the lone observer of Christ taking up His physical body again and overcoming death for every man, woman, and child who would ever live.
This hymn, simultaneously somber and triumphant, is an Easter celebration; in living again, He conquered pain, and He conquered death. He lives, and because He lives we too shall live again. None of us were there that morning with Mary Magdalene, but we know these things are true by faith—all possible because the tomb was empty. But what do we do with this knowledge?
Thus we in gratitude recall
And give our love and pledge our all,
Shed grateful tear
And conquer fear.
Knowing that Christ overcame death should instill us with gratitude and empower us to commit our lives to the Lord’s service, but it’s perhaps more important that the Atonement allows us to conquer fear. Christ conquered pain and death, but conquering fear is up to us—we can replace fear with faith, knowing that death with ultimately have no sting, that we have a loving Heavenly Father who has a plan for each of us, that the Lord has called a prophet in our day, and that our mortal sojourn is but a way station on our journey to return to live with Him again. But we each have to overcome our fear with that knowledge, and no one can do it for us.
As we celebrate Easter this week, I hope we can take some time to recognize not only why we have the holiday, but what it really means to us individually. Christ lives—what will we do differently because of it? What fears do we still cling to, that we can conquer in the name of the Savior and His resurrection? He burst the grave, and made our Heavenly Father’s plan viable. He lives again, each of us will live again, and we can live eternally with our families in the presence of God.
Because the tomb was empty.