Probably none of us have had an experience in our lives that quite matches the scene depicted in today’s readings. The events of this day were incredible – literally even earth-shaking. It is, after all, the account of the moment in time when Christ died – when he accomplished the “cross words” that we have highlighted in this series.
Beyond the cool little earth shake that we felt here on the east coast last year, I’ve never experienced an earthquake. From those who have, I gather that a major earthquake is quite a frightening experience. Coming out of seminary in 1982, I spoke as a candidate in a church in central California (Scott’s Valley to be exact), in a truly beautiful area abundant with redwoods, etc. I said to my host family, “Having never experienced an earthquake, do you think you could conjure up a little shake for me while I’m here?” The looks on their faces told me that I had just asked a very inappropriate question.
During that same season of life while living in Dallas, I remember one particular Spring day. April in Texas is simply a delightful season of the year – until a storm comes along. On this particular day, the sky became so dark around lunchtime that all the streetlights came on. The wind continued to crescendo into a total fury, rain and hail flew parallel to the ground, sirens began to sound, and there was no doubt that the basement of the seminary library was the place to go if one didn’t want to end up with Toto in Kansas. It was a tornado that blew just overhead without quite touching down. It was very impressive – something I’ll never ever forget.
Either of these stories may give us just a bit of a feel for the experience of those witnesses of Christ’s crucifixion. It was a day like no other. There were three hours of darkness; there was an earthquake; the temple veil ripped from top to bottom and exposed the most holy place. This veil was no little curtain or dainty drape. It was 30 feet wide, 60 feet high, and 3 inches thick with 72 woven plaits of 24 threads each! It took 300 priests to move it. If it was to rip on its own, the weight of it would cause it to tear from the bottom up. Rather, it was from the top down – signifying that God had opened the way to himself through the atonement of Christ … reconciliation had been accomplished! This was quite a day.
But notice the varied reactions to the event. There were scoffers, particularly among the soldiers. Yet one of them – a centurion – was able to see beyond the events to grasp the undeniable hand of God directing the entire scene. The masses of the people were not sure what to think. Many were simply frightened by the whole experience. Those who had followed Christ were confused – their faith shaken along with convulsions of creation. And why should their faith have not been rattled to the core? There they stood, and in that moment they saw their belief in the Messiah plunge with his head dropping to his chest upon that Roman cross.
Which person would you be if you were standing there on Golgotha’s hill? Well, you don’t have to answer that because you are standing where you are today some 2,000 years later. But you still do have to answer the question, “How do you respond to Jesus?” We may put ourselves in the sandals of those witnesses in some fractional manner of imagination. But in reality, though we are not eyewitnesses to these events, we possess the written words of these and other witnesses who proclaim that Christ has risen and offers life to all who believe. We see the testimony of this reality as well in the changed lives of people who have met the Savior of the world. And our hearts tell us it is true – yearning from a God-shaped vacuum to know the filling only possible by the Lord Himself. We have the cross words; the atonement is paid; reconciliation with God is possible as we believe and trust in him. Do NOT delay to do just that if you never have before; and for those who know God through Christ, pause to give thanks today for this great gift.
(Note – along with the posted reading for today in Luke 23, I have also included a parallel passage from Matthew’s Gospel.)
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
From earlier in the passage:
35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”
36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” 38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews.
39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph,and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.