Question: How does the Course material interpret the biblical image of the stone being rolled away from the entrance to Jesus' tomb?
Short answer: In the Course material, the biblical image of "rolling the stone away" represents the undoing of the illusory obstacles that seem to stand between ourselves and God. We undo these seeming obstacles by recognizing that they are illusions. "Rolling away" the illusory "stones" that seem to seal us in the dark tomb of the world reveals the eternal life and Love of God that lies beyond those illusions.
The format of this Q & A will be a slight departure from what I usually do. Instead of going line by line through my "short answer," I will introduce the Biblical image of "rolling the stone away," discuss the two passages in the Course material that use this image, present a visualization exercise aimed at bringing this image to life, and tie things together in a brief conclusion.
The Biblical image of "rolling the stone away"
This image is familiar to anyone who has ever read the gospels or attended an Easter service. However, I don't want to assume that everyone is familiar with it, so I'd like to begin by giving a brief account of its origin. This image is drawn from the story of Jesus' empty tomb, which appears in all four gospels (Matthew 28:1-8; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-9; John 20:1-10). While the details of the gospel accounts vary, the basic story is as follows:
After Jesus died on the cross, his body was taken down and given to Joseph of Arimathea, who wrapped it in a shroud and placed it into a tomb hewn out of rock. A massive stone was then rolled up against the opening of the tomb to seal it shut. But when some of his women followers visited the tomb on Sunday morning (what we now call Easter Sunday), they discovered to their surprise that the massive stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. They then learned from Heavenly messengers that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and that he would soon appear to his disciples, just as he had promised he would.
Modern Jesus scholars are unsure just how much of this story is historically accurate, but at any rate, this is the basic story behind the image of "rolling the stone away." Now, let us turn to the question of how Jesus interprets that image in the Course material.
"Rolling the stone away" means undoing the illusory obstacle of the body, so that what lies beyond the body stands revealed.
I am aware of two references in the Course material to the image of "rolling the stone away." The first one that I will discuss is actually the second one chronologically; it comes from personal guidance that Jesus gave to Helen after the Course was published. As Ken Wapnick tells the story, he and Helen were discussing the question of whether or not Jesus was actually resurrected physically. At one point in the conversation, Ken suggested that Helen ask Jesus himself for an answer, and so she put the following question to Jesus: "Was There a Physical Resurrection?" This is part of the answer that he gave her:
My body disappeared because I had no illusion about it. The last one had gone. It was laid in the tomb, but there was nothing left to bury. It did not disintegrate because the unreal cannot die. It merely became what it always was. And that is what 'rolling the stone away' means. The body disappears, and no longer hides what lies beyond. It merely ceases to interfere with vision. To roll the stone away is to see beyond the tomb, beyond death, and to understand the body's nothingness. What is understood as nothing must disappear. (Absence from Felicity, by Ken Wapnick, pp. 398-399)
I think that what "rolling the stone away" means in this context is pretty clear. Here, the "stone" is the body (and death, which the body symbolizes; later in the passage, the stone is called the "stone of death"). As long as we believe in the reality of the body, it is an obstacle to spiritual vision. But we can change that belief, as Jesus was finally able to do completely in the last moments of his life. "Rolling the stone away," then, means undoing the obstacle of the body by recognizing that it is pure illusion. Once this is accomplished, spiritual vision reveals that which lies beyond the body: reality, spirit, eternal life, the gate of Heaven, God.
(By the way, Jesus goes on to address more specifically Helen's question about whether or not he was resurrected physically. Basically, his answer was yes: After he let go of his body in the manner described above, he manifested another human body to appear to his disciples.)
"Rolling the stone away" means undoing the illusory obstacle of the belief that we cannot make it home to God, so that what lies beyond that belief stands revealed.
The second reference to this image is in the Course itself, in the Epilogue to the Clarification of Terms. In this Epilogue, Jesus gives us some final words of encouragement as he concludes his Course. In particular, he addresses an issue that I think virtually all of us on the spiritual path wrestle with: our doubts that we will ever find our way home to God, and our despair in the face of those doubts. What should we do when we are mired in doubt and despair about our spiritual journey? Here is Jesus' answer:
Forget not once this journey is begun the end is certain. Doubt along the way will come and go and go to come again. Yet is the ending sure. No one can fail to do what God appointed him to do. When you forget, remember that you walk with Him and with His Word upon your heart. Who could despair when hope like this is his? Illusions of despair may seem to come, but learn how not to be deceived by them. Behind each one there is reality and there is God. (C-Ep.1:1-8)
Whenever we are convinced that we will never make it home, we should remind ourselves that we are sure to make it home, because it is God's Will that we do so, and He is with us every step of the way. Yet there will be times when we are deceived by illusions of despair, and these illusions are obstacles that will hinder our progress if we don't learn how to set them aside. How can we set aside these illusions of despair? By ourselves, it would be very difficult if not impossible to do, but fortunately, we have help. God Himself wills that our doubts and despair be undone, and our loving elder brother Jesus will help us accomplish this: "Ask but my help to roll the stone away, and it is done according to His Will." (C-Ep.2:3)
As with the first passage discussed above, I think the meaning that this passage gives to "rolling the stone away" is pretty clear from its context. In this passage, the "stone" represents our illusions. I think it could refer to any illusion that seems to trap us in the darkness of the world and block our way to God (like the body, as we saw above), but in this passage it refers in particular to the illusory despair generated by our doubt that we'll ever make it home to God. The "stone" metaphor is apt, as doubt and despair on the journey can become seemingly huge obstacles to finding God. Fortunately, however, they are only illusory obstacles, and undoing the obstacles through recognizing their illusory nature is what "rolling the stone away" means here. This is what Jesus, who let go of every illusion in his earthly life, can help us see. Just as he rolled the stone of illusion away two thousand years ago, he can help us do the same today. And when this is accomplished, the reality of God's everlasting Love stands revealed.
"Rolling the stone away": a visualization
To get the full impact of this vivid and striking image, it may be helpful to visualize it. Let's do that now:
Imagine that you are trapped in a tomb hewn out of rock, completely sealed off from contact with anyone or anything. You are utterly alone. It is pitch black; you cannot see a thing. You hear nothing. The air is cool and musty, and an odor of decay permeates the place. You realize that this tomb is your life: a life encased in a separate body cut off from everyone and everything, beset with problems and pain (think of some specific problems and pains that you are facing right now), and marching inevitably toward death. You are trapped in the tomb of your life, and it seems that there is no way out.
Now, you see a faint light approaching. The light grows as it comes nearer, until you are at last able to recognize its source. It is Jesus, who is carrying a lantern. You ask him how he got into the tomb and why he has come, but he doesn't answer at first. Instead, he simply smiles and holds up the lantern to the wall in front of you. In the light, you see that it is the entrance to the tomb of your life, and that the entrance is sealed by an immense stone of solid, impenetrable granite—the stone that has trapped you in this dark, miserable tomb for years. Finally, Jesus turns to you and says, "I have come to help you roll the stone away."
You find it hard to believe that the two of you could possibly move that immense stone. You had tried to escape from this tomb yourself countless times in the past, but failed so utterly that you gave up in despair long ago. But now you look into Jesus' eyes, notice his smile and gentle laughter, and are filled with new hope. So, you take his hand, and the two of you walk to the edge of the entrance, place your hands on the stone, and together begin pushing. To your surprise, the stone is as light as a feather! The two of you roll it away effortlessly, and as you do, the tomb is slowly unsealed. Fresh air rushes in, fragrant with the scent of spring flowers. You hear the sound of birds singing, and serenely beautiful music. A shaft of warm sunlight from outside the tomb floods in and illumines everything.
Now you are standing hand in hand with Jesus, at the entrance to the tomb, looking outward. Briefly you look behind you, back into the tomb, and in the light you see that it is empty. The stone that had sealed it has disappeared. You look outward once again, and see nothing but light, a vast, limitless light that envelops you in a warm glow of love. In this light, you know you are not alone; you feel the presence of beloved companions surrounding you within its radiance. You turn to Jesus, and he says to you, "Our Father and our brothers are here. It is time to go home." With this, you walk together away from the entrance to the tomb; Jesus leads you out into the sunlight of God's Love. As you step out, the tomb vanishes completely, and the two of you disappear together into the loving light of God the Father and His holy Son.
The two passages we've examined are expressing the same basic idea, an idea that I find profoundly beautiful and reassuring. Both passages characterize "rolling the stone away" as undoing our seeming obstacles to God through recognizing their illusory nature. What a relief it is to be told that the massive stone that seems to seal us in the dark tomb of the world of death is really nothing! We may not recognize this just yet, but Jesus assures us that we will, and when we do, that stone will be rolled away. It will disappear into the nothingness from whence it came. When this happens, the light of God will shine away the darkness of the tomb, show it to be empty, and reveal the eternal life and Love of God that lies beyond. And once this is revealed, Jesus promises, "God will come Himself to take [us] home" (Absence from Felicity, p. 399).