When it comes to resurrection scenarios, St. Matthew seems to have taken a page out of the book of Cecile B. DeMille--maker of epic movies with religious themes of my youth.
By contrast, in St. Mark’s resurrection scenario, the stone is already out of the way when the women arrive. A young man in white seated quietly inside the tomb tells them Jesus is not there. The scene ends in dumbstruck silence with the women running away, afraid to tell anyone what they had seen.
But Matthew is all high drama. An angel in blazing white descends from heaven before their very eyes, single-handedly rolls a mighty stone out of the way… and triumphantly sits on it. The men on guard duty—not the women—the men… swoon at the sight.
Then the angel makes his magnificent proclamation, the women turn to go—according to Matthew, in fear and great joy… and suddenly… Jesus himself stands before them. The women fall at his feet and worship him.
But I left out a very important detail. Matthew puts his high drama in motion with nothing less than… an earthquake.
Can it escape our notice that just yesterday, at high noon, an earthquake punctuated the last breath of Jesus the Christ… on a cross… in a place of death called Golgotha?
Can we forget that in 2015, almost 9,000 people died in an earthquake in Nepal?
That in early March 2011, an earthquake in the Pacific sent a giant tsunami wave of destruction crashing into Japanese shores, killing almost 16,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 and leaving utter devastation in its wake?
Or that one year earlier, an earthquake leveled the capital city of Haiti, killing thousands and leaving millions homeless?
We are all too familiar with earthquakes, and the human tragedy they cause. So what in heaven’s name is one doing, here, right in the middle of our resurrection story?
Nora Gallagher is a novelist who has also written several books about her own spiritual journey. One of them is called Practicing Resurrection. It is an account of how the loss of a beloved brother throws her life into a tailspin, and of her return from walking straight down a wrong vocational path, dragging a failing marriage.
Gallagher’s struggle back requires her to re-examine everything: her call, her work, her marriage. It leads her finally to an exploration of nothing less than life after death. She finds that “experiences of resurrection are not believing six impossible things before breakfast.” Rather, she proposes, “Maybe resurrection, like everything else, needs to be practiced.”
We have all been there, in one way or another. Human existence is a series of earthquakes, large and small. Some are beyond our control. I have never experienced an earthquake of the natural kind, but I understand that little can be more terrifying than to feel the very earth move under our feet. It is the ultimate loss of control.
Other earthquakes are of our very own making. We march resolutely into dead ends and struggle to find a way back out again.
And as Matthew illustrates by putting an earthquake smack dab in the middle of the resurrection story, joyful events can also create upheaval in our lives. A baby is born, and mom and dad must create a new marriage out of the ashes of the honeymoon, a marriage in which gazing into each others’ eyes is replaced by advanced skill in “keeping an eye on” 16 things at once, from the shrinking pile of clean diapers to the toddler about to stick its finger in the puppy’s eye.
We don’t have to be “control freaks” to long for some control, some ability to maintain our balance as we face big challenges and small ones of daily life. But we have so very little. Fr. Richard Rohr defines human suffering precisely in these terms. “When are humans suffering?” he asks. “When they have no control.”
It often seems to me that it is precisely when we think we finally have it together, that we are finally on top of our game, that life hands us the most deadly, life-destroying blows. And we suffer.
Someone we love dies. A spouse or lover leaves us. A friend betrays us. We are downsized by our employer. Our company fails. An economic downturn takes much of our nest egg. Our politics turn nasty. Our children and grandchildren are sent half way around the world to fight a war that we are just not sure is worth the sacrifice of young, beautiful lives.
We aren’t in control, and much of the time it looks like God isn’t either.
But God chose to become human, to suffer and die on a cross in order to rise again in power over death. How do we understand that? As a one-time event? An economic transaction in which Jesus “paid a price” to God.. or was it to the devil? ..so that we can live happily ever after.. some day in some glorious future?
That kind of thinking certainly creeps into our religion, but it is wrong-headed. It diminishes the meaning of resurrection by making it a mechanical transaction trapped in history, and our lives something to be “gotten through” for some period of time while we await the coming of Glory.
As Fr. Rohr observes, it makes our religion a mere “evacuation plan for the next world.”
The fundamental story of our faith is that something always must die before something new, better, more beautiful can be born. And the thing that must die is typically our own beloved ego.
Earthquakes are destructive, but the human ego even more so. It is the human ego that leads us to destroy others in myriad ways, physically and emotionally, individually and as nations, with our need to be right, to save face, to feel secure, to divide the world into black and white, good and evil, us vs. them… to take sides and to believe that God is on ours.
About two weeks ago, the ULM Canterbury group I serve spent some time together examining our baptismal covenant—the one we are all about to witness and renew. We had no trouble with the first three promises. You know: Go to church. Confess your sins. Be a good example.
The last two promises we make—the ones about seeing Christ in all persons, seeking justice and respecting the dignity of every human being led us straight into a discussion of refugees from war-torn countries and our response to them.
I listened in awe as those young people spoke of their struggle to find balance between the heartbreak they feel for the people and their fear of consequences of people of different beliefs and values living among us. They want to be like Jesus, but the scary political rhetoric of the day plays on their very human fears. And so they struggle.
In Matthew’s resurrection story, the women fall down and worship Jesus. But in fact Jesus never once asked us to worship him. What he asks is that we follow him. And to follow Jesus the Christ, we must practice dying so that we can practice resurrection.
To let go of our need to be right, our need to be in control, to be safe and secure… not only feels like dying, but is a form of dying. And if we can do that, if we can follow Christ through the suffering and through the ashes of our hurts and losses and failures, if we can accept the healing that the infinite love of the cross offers us, the earthquakes of our lives become the very path to living our faith and sharing God’s love with a hurting world, which is to say, the very path to practicing resurrection.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.