“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.”
The fact that there is an earthquake at Matthew’s account of the resurrection leapt out at me this year—considering earthquakes has been something of Lenten discipline for all of us, since the Japan quake happened on the first Friday in Lent. But when we have just seen 29,000 people lose their lives to that earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and where recovery continues in Haiti from the earthquake that claimed 300,000 lives 18 months ago, it would be incredibly insensitive to describe earthquakes as benign or as a sign of God’s presence and action in the world. But we read tonight of God’s creation of the earth, and affirmed our belief that the creation is good… and if we needed more reason to think so, yesterday was Earth Day in addition to Good Friday.
So the earth shakes in the Gospel tonight—in more ways than one, and maybe it can offer us some hope, along with some wisdom, especially since there are actually two earthquakes in Matthew’s Gospel. The first one is when Jesus dies on the cross: “Then 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.” At Jesus’ death, the very earth mourns and cries with its shaking. But the earthquake of tragedy and grief and pain is also explicitly linked to new life: the earth quaked, and the dead were raised.
The other earthquake here, at the tomb, is upon the arrival of the angel. It is, in Greek, a “seismos megos”; a “mega-earthquake”. It also brings forth new life: the tomb is shown to be empty, and the angel announces the resurrection. And that earthquake and its causes cause another shaking at the tomb that is even more interesting to me: the guards also have a “seismon”: “For fear of [the angel] the guards shook and became like dead men.” What the guards have witnessed—an earthquake, an angel, an empty tomb—is so shocking that they collapse.
There are 500,000 earthquakes per year. Most of them, we cannot feel; the ground just shifts beneath our feet and we continue to walk on, oblivious. But they’re a witness to the living nature of our planet in its continuing process of creation. Nothing is static on Earth; plates are shifting, continents are drifting, mountains are growing and shrinking. Creatures are living and dying, and that is part of the goodness of the creation.
When have you felt the ground shift beneath your feet, literally or figuratively? The figurative earthquakes are just as numerous as the physical ones—things change and move all around us, but as long as we don’t feel them ourselves, we’re not aware of them. When we are at the epicenter, it can be overwhelming; when we are further away we feel only a gentle shake—or nothing at all. But do not give in to the illusion that just because you don’t feel it, change isn’t happening: remember, 500,000 earthquakes per year, of which about 100,000 big enough to be felt. But those other 400,000 are still going on, still shifting, still bringing the earth along in its journey of creation.
Shifting ground happens at all levels of our lives—in our faith, in our relationships, in our vocations, and in the world. Who would have thought a year ago that a revolution would be taking place in Libya—or that mostly peaceful protests would bring down the governments of Tunisia and Egypt? Closer to home, what are the earthquakes awaiting us with Social Security and Medicare? What resonance will be felt for years from budget cuts to education programs and school? Perhaps you’ve found renewal in the past year; or perhaps you’ve suffered. Changes are big and small, positive and negative, and contribute to our own growth and maturation—if we do not respond with utter fear and become like those who are dead.
But sometimes there is a mega-earthquake; a seismon megon, and it absolutely changes the way we see the world. The resurrection is a seismon megon. That Jesus died and rose from the dead, and appeared to Mary and the other Mary and then the disciples, fundamentally altered how at first a few people, and then more and more saw the world and hoped for something different after we ourselves die, until there are 2.1 billion Christians around the world today celebrating this empty tomb.
Bishop Sisk began his sermon on Tuesday at the Mass of Collegiality by calling attention to a news story the earthquake and tsunami tablets that have dotted the coast of Japan for the last 600 years. In the village of Aneyoshi, there is a stone hundreds of years old with the following inscription on it: “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants…. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” The village heeded the wisdom of their ancestors, and so when the tsunami came, their homes were above the flood. Bishop Sisk pointed out that the tablet is not overly alarmist—it’s not instructing people to panic or to give up their way of life. Just to respect the reality that they live in a place of earthquakes and tsunamis, and that the wisdom and experience of those who have suffered them before can be a help to us today.
We are in effect reminding ourselves of the Christian equivalent of such a stone tablet today on behalf of the children we’ve just baptized. We have said to Tyler, Lila, Vivian, and Cora that God created everything—and it was good. We have said that people who were slaves had to go through the wilderness before they reached the promised land—but they made it. We have said that wisdom seeks out all people, not just the intelligent. We have said that sin is real, but so is forgiveness; that Jesus saves; and we have pledged as the Christian community to help form them as witnesses to the Good News of Jesus Christ who lived, who died, and who was raised and promises us eternal life in the resurrection. When the earth shifts beneath their feet, they will not become as “those who are dead”; they will be grounded. They will know that forgiveness and love are strong than sin; that suffering is horrible, but not eternal; and that life follows death. And there will be evenings, and mornings, and God will see them and smile, and say that they are very good.