Sometimes God opens our ears to hear something we’ve missed dozens of times before. Last Sunday morning our church choir’s cantata included part of the Good Friday narrative from Matthew 27 and I heard words from verse 52 that I do not remember hearing before. Matthew describes three world-changing signs at the moment of Jesus’ death, and for some reason the second one has escaped my notice for all of these sixty plus years I have been observing Holy Week.
That verse says, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” That seems like a rather significant event for me to overlook, but I feel better after discovering that none of the other three gospels mention it either. My next thought was, “Why would anyone be surprised that Jesus arose from the dead on Sunday if all these other people had already done it on Friday?” Matthew answers that question for us in verse 53: “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that this way: “Since Matthew wants to connect the raising of the Israelite saints with the death of Jesus… but also wants Jesus’ own resurrection to be primary this results in the peculiar picture of the saints’ being resurrected on Good Friday but remaining in their tombs (or in the open country) until after the Easter appearances of Jesus. That we have theology in narrative form, and not in bare historical reporting is clear.” (Vol. VIII, p.493)
I have not had time to do any other serious research on this, but since I wanted to share it on Good Friday, here are my thoughts about this on the day when Christians remember the gruesome death and suffering of the Christ and reflect on what his life, death and resurrection mean for us today.
First, I have to move beyond the literal, historical filter my mind wants to use to understand this story. If a lot of once dead Jewish saints were walking the streets of Jerusalem, I’m sure someone would have made a zombie movie about it by now. So, there must be a deeper, symbolic meaning to this startling detail that only Matthew includes.
The other two signs Matthew describes before and after the tombs being opened may help; so here’s the three in context:
“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
The curtain of the temple refers to the barrier in the temple that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple. This imagery foreshadows the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE which Matthew would have known about by the time these words were written. Symbolically they show how the death and resurrection of Christ destroy the barriers of the law and religiosity that separate the omnipresent spirit of God from human kind. God is not confined to the temple but is everywhere and always available to us all. The opening of the tombs shows that not even the final barrier of death itself can stop the life-giving eternal power of God.
And then, the more familiar third sign is the conversion of the Roman Centurion, the part of this narrative that is included in Mark and Luke’s gospels as well. That this Gentile is the first Christian believer to be liberated, not just by Christ’s sacrificial death, but by the faithful, calm, confident way he accepted and overcame his cross tells us that no false human barriers of race, creed, ethnicity, ideology or lifestyle can stop the love and power of God.
Jesus lived and taught and died and lives for all of God’s children. No matter what exactly happened on that hill far away 2000 years ago, the spirit of grace, love and mercy for us all lives and reigns for any and all who hear, see, and feel the power of resurrection and believe.
May whatever barriers are holding you back this day, whatever walls divide you from God or from your fellow human beings be blown away this Good Friday.