There Was A Great Earthquake
Matthew reports that on the first Easter morning “there was a great earthquake.” It ripped open the tomb and scared the living daylights out of the Romans guards who “shook with fear and became like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
Matthais Grunwald (1470-1528) imagined that moment in the Isenheim Altarpiece. You can feel the earth vibrate and hear the earthquake rumble. The tomb is broken open. The guards tumble to the ground. The Risen Christ soars out of the grave like the Space Shuttle lifting off from the Florida coast. His smiling face dissolves into the brilliant sun that penetrates the pitch black darkness. He raises his nail-scared hands saying, “Be not afraid! I am going before you!”
A 17th Century mystic wrote: “The earth which trembled with sorrow at the death of Jesus leaped for joy at his resurrection.” (Cornelius Lapide)
Shaking in the Darkness
It was the second earthquake in Matthew’s gospel. On Friday, when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the sky turned black and “the earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:51)
That’s where Matthew left the women on Friday night. They felt the earth shake as they watched Jesus die. They saw Joseph place his battered, bloody body in the tomb. They heard the stone roll across the entrance with a heavy, funereal thud. They watched Pilate’s guards put the seal of Rome on it and settle in to make sure that the body stayed where it belonged.
But then, the unexpected happened! The earth itself leaped for joy with the good news that God had not forsaken Jesus. God shattered the all too predictable power of death with the unexpected power of new life. It means that God has not forsaken this world to go on being what it’s been and God has not forsaken any of us to go on living the way we’ve always lived. The same God who breathed life into dusty chaos on the first morning of creation, breathed new life into the lifeless Jesus and brought forth a whole new creation.
What Was God Doing on Saturday?
Between the two earthquakes, there is the stoney, cold silence of Saturday, when Jesus battered, lifeless body lay motionless in the tomb. What was God doing then?
Here’s the way Wendell Berry described the way God was at work to bring new life out of death in the tomb.
What hard travail God does in death!
He strives in sleep, in our despair,
And all flesh shudders underneath
The nightmare of His sepulcher.
The earth shakes, grinding its deep stone;
All night the cold wind heaves and pries;
Creation strains sinew and bone
Against the dark door where He lies.
The stem bent, pent in seed, grow straight
And stands. Pain breaks in song. Surprising
The merely dead, graves fill with light
Like opened eyes. He rests in rising.
(A Timbered Choir, p. 25)
Perhaps the silence of Saturday is the reminder that beneath the surface, God is still at work in every dark, deadly, lifeless place to break through the darkness and bring new life. The resurrection means that tomorrow is never just another day!
May the same power that broke open the tomb on Easter morning shake us with new life preparing us to shout, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!”
P.S. We’ve just completed work on a devotional guide and small group study on “Easter Earthquake”. It will be released by The Upper Room later this year.