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‘The earth shook. . . the rocks were split’

03 March 2010

Paula Gooder considers St Matthew’s earthquake

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 his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

I AM a remarkably unobservant witness. On the few occasions when I’ve been asked to act as a witness to something that has happened, I’ve been near-useless: “It was two men, or maybe three; they were quite tall — but then to me most men seem tall — one had a black, no, blue hoodie, or maybe jacket on.” I nor­mally end up feeling sorry for the poor police having to take the state­ment down, who have to cross out what they have written so often that it is a mass of black — or was that blue? — ink.

Matthew’s account of Jesus’s death and resurrection leaves no doubt about the im­portance of what has happened (even for some­­one as unobservant as I am): the ripping of curtains, the shaking of earth, the splitting of tombs, and the resurrection of some of the dead is enough drama to catch even my absent-minded attention.

Matthew wants to make sure that we un­der­stand the significance of Jesus’s death. Every­thing that takes place is there to rein­force the mes­sage that this is a moment of revela­tion (as we saw in Mark’s Gospel), but also that something in the world has shifted irrevocably. Tombs are split open ready for a resurrection of the holy ones to take place, when Jesus himself rises from the dead.

This is a detail that reinforces as clearly as it can that Jesus’s death is about to change the world signifi­cantly; the end times are about to begin — although not completely: for that we must wait until the end of all times. Jesus’s death marked the brink between the old and the new: the world now waited poised for the resurrection to take place and for glimmers of the end times to be found in the world.

The shaking of the earth, the splitting of the rocks, and the break­ing open of the tombs are all features that would have persuaded Matthew’s audience that what had happened was a moment of divine revelation. Although the irony is that the very thing that Matthew knew his readers needed to convince them of the importance of what had happened is precisely what makes it hardest for us — a modern audi­ence — to believe.

Most people can just about cope with the splitting of the curtain in the temple, darkness falling over the whole land, and Jesus’s resurrection, but add in an earthquake, rocks exploding, and a more general resurrection of the dead, and we really begin to struggle.

There is no easy solution to the problem. Questioning the historicity of the Matthaean account is a little like pulling on a thread at the top of your jumper: you may get rid of that annoying loose end, but you then dis­cover that you’ve unravelled the whole lot, and find yourself left with just a tangled heap of wool. On the other hand, insisting implac­ably that Matthew must be believed in every last detail feels, for some people at least, too much like swallowing camels. So what are we to do?

My own solution is to ask what Matthew was trying to tell us by including these details. In other words, what did he want his audience to believe about Jesus and the world once they had read this passage? This is quite clear. For Matthew, Jesus’s death was the signal that the world now stood on the brink of something entirely new: God has already begun to inter­vene in the world.

For me, asking questions of this kind avoids our getting caught down the cul de sac of historical questions that, though im­portant, often lead us to miss the whole point of what the New Testament is talking about. This is a solution that works for me, but I recognise that it won’t work for everyone.

And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

Matthew 28.2-4

For further reading: Matthew 28.1-8

MY FAMILY really enjoy corny jokes.

“What begins with a ‘c’ and sounds like a parrot?”

“A carrot.”

“What looks like an elephant and flies?”

“A flying elephant.”

  What makes these jokes funny — or at any rate mildly amusing — is that they state the obvious. We, particularly as adults, try to think of fancy and complex answers, and most of the time we are caught out by missing the blindingly obvious answer right under our noses. Matthew’s account of the resurrec­tion asks one of those blindingly obvious ques­tions (although not here in the form of a joke). If you feel an earthquake and see a being whose appearance is like lightning and whose clothing is as white as snow, who is it?

Our problem, of course, is that we have no idea. Matthew was speak­ing to an audience many of whom would have known immed­iately what and who he was talking about. We, however, are slightly bemused. Matthew has told us it is an angel; so we accept what he says, but do not really know why.

Matthew gives a whole tool-kit of clues about what he is talking about, which someone well-versed in Old Testament imag­ery could spot. The first clue is the earth­quake. Throughout the Old Testament, the presence of God was signalled by natural phenomena such as wind, lightning, thunder, hail, fire, and earthquakes. For someone who saw the world through first-century Hebrew eyes, the mention of an earthquake might immediately sug­gest divine presence.

The appearance of the angel is also sig-nifi­c­ant. There are sugges­tions of Jesus’s transfig­uration, because at the transfiguration Jesus wore a white garment (see Matthew 17.2), but there are also links to the book of Daniel, where God is described as having clothing that was “as white as snow” (Daniel 7.9-10), and the man who appeared to Daniel had a face “like lightning” (Daniel 10.6).

Matthew’s audience would have known that this was a being who had come directly from the presence of God. In this context, the response of the guards was appropriate: being even this close to God’s presence was highly dangerous. The Hebrew tradition, which stated that people who saw the face of God could die, was one that was still current at the time of Jesus, and, in fact, became even stronger in the centuries immediately follow­ing Jesus.

In the light of this tradition, such strong hints of divine presence would have been ter­rifying for any­one who was present. The only sen­sible response was fear, something that was underlined by the words of the angel to the women: although the wording is lost in most English translations, the angel said to the women “You, do not be afraid,” that is, they, the guards, do well to fear, but you should not. This is because straying inad­vertently into God’s presence was dangerous, but being there because you were invited to be, as the women were, was not.

Just like Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah before them, the women survived their experience of being in God’s presence because they were invited into that presence before being sent onwards to proclaim God’s message as he commanded them to. The irony of the guards’ response, though, was that this was a place in which Jesus, who was dead, had now come alive; the guards, who were alive, became as though they were dead. In the face of over­whelming, transformative life, the guards became like corpses (the Greek word is the word used simply for a lifeless, breathless body).

I can’t help wondering whether their re­sponse is, sadly, typical of our own responses to the news of the vibrant, risen, transforming Christ. Overcome by fear, do we become lifeless and unresponsive to the whirling, challenging, inspiring presence of the risen Christ? Or can we allow ourselves to be open to the transforming — albeit unsafe — de­mands of the God who brings the dead to life?

This is the fourth edited extract from This Risen Existence by Paula Gooder, published by Canterbury Press and the Society of the Faith at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-85311-996-5.

Order this book through CT  Bookshop

This is the fourth edited extract from This Risen Existence by Paula Gooder, published by Canterbury Press and the Society of the Faith at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-85311-996-5.

Order this book through CT  Bookshop

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