Readings Matthew 27:45-54
Today we have another reading which stresses the strangeness and expansiveness of the Easter message. On a previous Sunday we had Jesus descending unto the depths of the earth proclaiming good news to those in their graves… well, now we have this:
Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After Jesus’ resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
What do we make of this scene – the supernatural tearing of the Temple’s curtain, the shaking of the very earth, and the awakening and resurrection of many saints? To get to that question, I think it might be helpful to contrast this feast of divine activity and miracles with what has preceded it in the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Those who passed by derided Jesus, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.’ In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
Jesus’ utter powerlessness on the cross is mocked and flaunted by those who have seemingly won the day. Those who in this moment must feel a vindication of their religious authority or imperial might. After all this rapscallion from backwater Galilee has gone around saying, see him here exposed: a fraud, a fake, a huckster powerless to save himself, unable to carry out any of his promises, futile and failing, severed from the very God he claimed to be one with. Truly, this man was no son of God.
And then, amplifying the dramatic tension and seemingly offering greater validity to the position of his opponents, Jesus cries aloud “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ding, ding, ding, we a have a confession! This man is no Messiah, no beloved son, no herald of God’s kingdom, no saviour of the people… the very God he said sent him is alien to him, the blasphemer has been forsaken, and now dies alone and exposed!
The scene is set for the most satisfying of dramatic reversals… and just so no one misses it, the reversal must be Dramatic with a capital D.
It begins with a loud voice (not unlike the voice that sounds over the primordial nothingness at the beginning of time). Christ “cried again with a loud voice” – which, when we pause to think, is a remarkable and miraculous event in its own right. Where could a man about to die from asphyxiation find the strength and breath to cry with a loud voice? This cry itself is the decisive turn of the crucifixion scene, Jesus calls into action all that follows with a voice of one who has the resurrection and the life within his grasp.
Following this miraculous cry, God acts. The One presumed absent, the One presumed satisfied with the execution of this heretic, the One presumably turning their back on this forsaken and marginal Jew, acts! God tears the Temple curtain, God shakes the foundations of the earth, God breaks apart the rocks, and God fills the dead with life. God responds to the death of Jesus with a tremendous display of power. In this response the truth is proclaimed, God was and is with this man Jesus, sent by God to save the world. God has not forsaken Jesus, but is vindicating all he said and did, and God will raise this man Jesus on the third day. And then, not to be missed, the mighty display of God’s power and presence is capped with an ironic twist: in a flip of the derision displayed by Jesus’ own people, a flip of the dismayed desertion of Jesus’ own followers… a lone centurion stands and beholds all that is happening and proclaims: Truly this man was God’s Son!
At Golgotha, Jesus mocked and misunderstood, suffers the indignity of imperial violence and the scorn of religious fear. Yet he withholds his power, commending his Spirit to God and a greater, more cosmic reversal to come. A reversal Jesus ushers onto stage with his last breath. And while we see the immediate impacts of this reversal in the moment of Christ’s death, this great reversal (in a kind of divine surplus) continues and continues. The reversal continues three days later in the resurrection (for where there was death, now there is life), in the ascension (where the one who wore a crown of thorns is now given all authority over heaven and earth), at Pentecost (where Christ’s body once pinned to the cross, now extends and expands across the earth and across the centuries) and will continue until that great and glorious day when Christ comes again (when the man of sorrows wipes every tear from our eyes).
The specific metaphorical or theological meanings of the particulars of this demonstration of God’s power and presence (the curtain, the earth, those in their tombs) while not being unimportant are not necessarily the point – yes they have something to say about the power of Christ’s atonement, the labour pains of the new creation, and the promise of the resurrection, but it is this display of tremendous and surprising divine power in its totality and dramatic surprise that teaches us the lesson today: Despite all worldly appearances, Jesus was not forsaken, his ministry was not a folly, his death was not the end. God fills the moment where God seems most absent with the reminder that at any moment all things can be upturned. God fills the moment of dereliction with majestic presence. And God fills Christ’s cry with the proclamation of good news which fills us all with hope: Christ was the Messiah, and through him redemption and reconciliation is achieved for the whole of creation, and in him is the resurrection and the life in which we all shall share.
And as those who share in the resurrection and the life, we are also called to participate in this great reversal. Called to not accept the appearances of a world where violence and fear have presumably won the day, not to accept that those condemned by religious and political power are thereby the god-forsaken. We are called to hold out hope that with God everything can be upturned, hold out hope that the kingdom where last are first and poor are blessed and the mighty are cast from their thrones can rise up within us and break into our world at any moment.
Image, "cracked rock" ID 2825090 - accessed here
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