Coming forth from their tombs

January 5, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:51-56.

And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

As usual, this passage is filled with symbolism.

There were two veils in the temple in Jerusalem. One covered the entrance to the Holy Place and the next within that space veiled the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, a day for repentance. The high priest entered to offer the blood of sacrifice, the blood of a bull for himself and his family, and the blood of a goat for the people. In the tabernacle in the desert which God instructed Moses to build and in the first temple built by Solomon rested the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies holding the tablets of the ten commandments. This is where God dwelt among his people.

The New American Bible notes and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary hold that the veil torn upon the death of Jesus was the one covering the Holy of Holies, the one that separated God from His people. With the death of Jesus God tore up His covenant with his chosen people. He had commissioned His prophets including John and even become flesh himself to inspire people to return His for them by submitting themselves to His will and by loving one another. But they were a proud and stiff-necked people who persecuted and murdered those to whom He gave His voice and authority.

The earth quaked and tombs opened, the apocalyptic event prophesied of old came to pass. From the book of the prophet Joel: “Let all who dwell in the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; yes it is near, a day of darkness and of gloom, a day of clouds and somberness!…Before them the earth trembles, the heavens shake; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withhold their brightness.” The prophet and priest Ezekiel during the Babylonian exile prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and the promise of a new covenant; “Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them.” Earlier the greatest prophet Isaiah prophesied, “But your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise; awake and sing, you who lie in the dust.” Nahum prophesied the coming judgment of God, “The mountains quake before him and the hills dissolve; the earth is laid waste before him, the world and all who dwell in it.” The apocalyptic writer of the book of Daniel foretold, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.” The happenings on this day would evoke these images that were so well known to the Jews. Here were the signs that the Pharisees, the scribes, the chief priests and elders repeatedly demanded.

Who is the first to recognize what this all meant, though? A Roman centurion and his soldiers — Gentiles, pagans! They knew nothing of the scriptures and were justifiably frightened by the darkened sky and the quaking earth beneath their feet. It was certainly a shock to realize that the sign over Jesus’ head, King of the Jews, was a true testament, not a false and blasphemous charge. It was the Gentiles, not the Jews, who first came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They had all made a dreadful mistake and now it appeared that God was going to punish them all. Yet even in their fear, they believed.

Last we have these woman who had followed Jesus from village to village, taking care of him all the way. Women had no legal status; they were a liability not an asset. They represented all those who were marginalized, dispossessed, disrespected, and abused. In Jesus they had come to have hope; they believed in his message of forgiveness of love. They followed him everywhere, even to Golgotha.

In his death, Jesus made it clear to all who witnessed it that he was the Son of God. A new age was upon them. What did that mean? I don’t think anyone had any idea yet. They didn’t know the rest of the story as we do. It was simply a fearful time, a time of shock — grief for some, remorse for others — a time of confusion and uncertainty. I’m sure they must have thought to themselves, “What now? Where do I go from here?”.

Those are the questions I struggle with still. What now? Where do I go from here? What am I supposed to do with all of this? The answers seem daunting and I keep trying to scale them down to my size. I think that’s the problem. I’m trying to diminish my responsibility to participate in building the kingdom of God here on earth. I’m reading Jesus Before Christianity by Dominican priest Albert Nolan. He wrote, “Jesus relied upon faith. The only power that can heal and save the world, the only power that can do the impossible, is the power of faith. This faith is obviously not the same as subscribing to a creed or a set of doctrines and dogmas….Faith is a good and a true conviction. It is the conviction that something can and will happen because it is good and because it is true that goodness can and will triumph over evil….The power of faith is the power of goodness and truth, which is the power of God….The opposite of faith is therefore fatalism….Fatalism is the prevailing attitude of most people, most of the time. It finds expression in statements like ‘Nothing can be done about ti.’ ‘You can’t change the world.’….’You must accept reality.’ These are the statements of people who do not really believe in the power of God, people who do not really hope for what God has promised.”

The power of faith is the power of God. That’s why I struggle with these questions. My faith is not up to the task that God has given me. I used to think that I could change the world in some small way at least. But now I’m not so sure anymore. It seems so damn hard, even impossible! That’s what my head says, but my heart still sings when I’m inspired to be part of something good that is greater than myself. The power of goodness is the power of God. That’s what I need to hold on to and draw determination from to get going. To do what it is He made me for! To be resurrected and come forth from my tomb.



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