The Tremors of an Old World Dying

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter Vigil
April 08, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: As Jesus was raised, there was a whole lotta shakin' goin' on.

Eight-year-old Dorothy awoke one morning to feel her bed sliding across the floor of her bedroom. The bed seemed to be moving of its own accord. The floor was shaking. The very walls of her room seemed to be moving.

The walls were moving. This young girl was experiencing one of the most devastating earthquakes in American history: the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. That quake measured 8.25 on the Richter Scale. By contrast, the most recent major quake to hit San Francisco - the one in 1989 - measured only 6.7.

The 1906 earthquake lasted only 140 seconds - just over two minutes - but it made a lifelong impression on young Dorothy Day. Later, in her autobiography, she would tell not only of her bed sliding across the floor, but also her impressions of the days that followed as this catastrophe unfolded:

The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on top of our roof.1

After the tremors subsided, Dorothy would tell of the wreckage that choked the streets ... the columns of smoke rising from uncontrolled fires ... the tears, the heartache, the pain. But Dorothy would also write of something else she witnessed: how an entire city of strangers joined together in recovery.

Suddenly, social distinctions didn't seem to matter. No one, rich or poor, was untouched by the tragedy. The men pitched tents and constructed lean-tos amidst the smoking rubble. The women cooked and lent their families' spare clothing to those who had none.

The earthquake taught Dorothy an unforgettable lesson: how human beings are actually capable of caring for one another when the need arises:

What I remember most plainly was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward, as the refugees poured out of burning San Francisco. Each person was a little child in friendliness and warmth; they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care in times of stress, unjudgingly [sic] with pity and love.2

Dorothy Day would become - in the estimation of many - a modern American saint. A devout Catholic, she would spend her adult life dwelling in voluntary poverty. Her politics were radical; not everyone agreed with her, but no one doubted her commitment to the people Jesus called "the least of these, my brothers and sisters." Her Catholic Worker Houses have become havens of hope to the disadvantaged.

It took an earthquake to plant that idea in her mind, the idea that life could be different from what it otherwise is: more loving, more caring, more Christlike.

The Christquake

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was just that sort of earthquake, according to Matthew. Alone among the four Gospel-writers, Matthew gives us an Easter earthquake: and not just a single quake, but three.

The first of these earthquakes isn't a physical disturbance at all - although he uses the same Greek word he later used to describe the trembling of the earth. In chapter 21, verse 10 he says that, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on his donkey, "the whole city was in turmoil." Literally, Matthew's saying the whole city was quaking. The Greek word is seis, the same word from which our modern words "seismic" and "seismograph" come. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem with the jubilant crowds waving palm branches, it's as though the whole social order is shaken to its foundations.

A few days later - at the very moment Jesus exhales his last breath on the cross - Matthew speaks of another, more literal earthquake: "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."3

That sounds a bit like Good Friday as told by Stephen King, doesn't it? Earthquakes, open graves, dead people walking around befuddled: Matthew wants us to know this death was unlike any other death. This was the death of the Son of God.

Matthew's third use of the Greek word seis, or earthquake, occurs in today's passage, the Easter story, as the two Marys visit Jesus' tomb: "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."

There's nothing peaceful nor beautiful about Matthew's Easter story. The rising of the Son of God is a profoundly disturbing, disorienting event. His death resulted in dead men walking. His resurrection leaves battle-hardened Roman soldiers writhing on the ground in terror. As for the women - who happen to be at the tomb when the earthquake hits, and the angel descends from on high to kick the heavy stone away - the angel's first word to them is "Do not be afraid."

Well, why should it be that way? Why should Easter - this festival of lilies and tulips, of spring fashions and baby parades, of family reunions and baskets of chocolate - be the stuff of fear and trembling? Matthew's Easter is not the sort of spring fling most of us have been taught to observe!

The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard understands this. He likens the good news of Christianity to a razor-sharp knife - one that can wound as easily as it can help, that must be handled with the utmost caution:

I wonder if a man handing another man an extremely sharp, polished, two-edged instrument would hand it over with the air, gestures and expression of one delivering a bouquet of flowers. Would this not be madness? What does one do, then? Convinced of the excellence of the dangerous instrument, one recommends it unreservedly, to be sure, but in such a way that in a certain sense one warns against it. So it is with Christianity.4

Hades holds no terror

For Matthew, Easter changes everything. To fully realize the impact of the dawning of this day of days, we must enter into the mindset of the ancient world, of the people who first heard the good news.

Remember, these are people who don't yet know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They don't believe there's such a thing as eternal life - not life abundant, anyway. Most ancient Greeks and Romans believed that souls migrate from the body, at death, into some shadowy underworld: like the Hades of their mythology. It's not the sort of place anyone wants to inhabit: a dark and haunted destination, populated by wandering, discontented spirits who pine for the life they've lost.

Every once in a while - by permission of the capricious demigods who guard the gates of the underworld - one of those spirits makes its way back up into the land of the living. Whenever this happens, it's not a good thing. When wayward spirits return to haunt the living, they warn of terrible calamity soon to follow.

The Jews of Jesus' day were of a divided mind when it comes to life after death. Some first-century Jews believed - like the Greeks and Romans - that this life is pretty much all there is, and the afterlife is a place of misery. A significant party within the Jewish religion had come to believe in a new idea: a general resurrection of the faithful at the end of time.

The bottom line is that if the typical first-century Jew or Roman were to hear rumors of a man rising from the grave, that person's response would likely be: "How can we get him back in?"

So that no one will miss the point, Matthew offers an earthquake as part of his Easter story: Jesus' resurrection is no haunting from beyond the grave - and no mere resuscitation, either. The defeat of death and evil occurs not with a whimper, but with a bang. The resurrection of Jesus is something utterly and entirely new: something that changes everything.

With fear and joy

Matthew finishes his account of the angel's message in a peculiar way: "So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples." Did you catch what he says here? The women departed with fear and great joy.

What a contradiction! If I asked you to describe the greatest, most joyful event that could possibly happen in your life, you wouldn't likely include fear in your description. Yet, isn't that often the way when it comes to the great milestones in our lives? What beaming bride has ever walked down a church aisle without feeling some measure of fear? Or what new father has stood in the delivery room, clad in hospital scrubs and surgical mask, filled with gladness at the new life he cradles in his arms - but also filled with a new and unaccustomed foreboding of what should happen if this life should be snatched away from him? What entrepreneur has ever opened a new business without an equal measure of joyful accomplishment and fear of failure?

Matthew wants us to know the resurrection of Jesus Christ marks both the dawn of a new and hopeful age, and the death of something old and familiar. Sometimes the familiar dies hard. That's what those earthquakes are all about. They're the tremors of an old world dying. Yet know this: They also mark the start of something new!

We, too - like those women of old - leave the tomb of Jesus with fear and great joy. We've felt the earth move beneath our feet. We don't understand everything we've heard and seen - especially not this wonder called resurrection, that greatest of all mysteries.

Yet we do know, somehow, that - having heard this good news - we can never return to the way things were before. The good news won't leave us alone. It demands something of us. Having heard the joyful tidings, and believed them, we've crossed a threshold we can never cross back over again!


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