The earthquake, the angel descending from heaven and rolling away the stone, the guards collapsing like dead men — all of these details are unique to Matthew’s account of the empty tomb and are rich with possibilities for interpretation and preaching.
In Matthew, an earthquake occurs at the moment that Jesus breathes his last, splitting open rocks and releasing the bodies of saints from their tombs (27:51-53). So also, an earthquake accompanies the descent of the angel from heaven to roll away the stone, witnessed by Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 28:1; see also 27:55-56; 27:61). The shaking of the earth is an appropriate parallel for the way that the events of Good Friday and Easter morning shake the very foundations of everything once thought to be secure.
We have grown so accustomed to celebrating Easter with beautiful flowers and joyful music that we tend to forget what an unsettling, confusing, frightening day it must have been for those who first experienced these events. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (Matthew 27:55-56; 27:61), and now come to his tomb at dawn. Matthew does not say that they came to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, but only to see (theoresai: see, look at, consider, contemplate) the tomb (28:1).
They had no hope of entering the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body because of the guards posted there. What were they expecting, then, to see or to do — simply to keep silent, mournful vigil? Or is it possible that Jesus’ words about rising from the dead on the third day gave them a glimmer of hope and that they wanted to see what would happen on this morning of the third day?
In any case, it is probably safe to say that they were not prepared for what did happen. A great earthquake shakes the ground beneath them, and an angel of the Lord descends from heaven dazzling like lightning and rolls back the stone (Matthew 28:2-3). The angel tells them not to be afraid, that Jesus is not in the tomb but has been raised, “just as he said” (kathos eipen) (28:5-6). The angel invites the women to see the place where Jesus lay, then commissions them to go tell the disciples that he has been raised and is going ahead of them to Galilee, and that they will see him there (28:6-7).
Probably still shaking, but with a promise and a message to deliver, the women leave quickly to carry out their mission “with fear and great joy” (Matthew 28:8). Then their world is rocked once again, as Jesus himself meets them on the way. The women hold onto his feet and worship him, and Jesus echoes the words of the angel in telling them not to be afraid, but to go and tell his “brothers” (or “brothers and sisters,” as the masculine plural adelphoi can refer to a mixed group) to go to Galilee, where they will see him. Although the announcement of the women to the disciples is not narrated, we can assume that they were faithful in their mission, as in 28:16, the “eleven” go to Galilee and indeed see Jesus.
Let us return to the detail of the guards, an element of Matthew’s narrative which is rich in irony. Even though Jesus was dead and buried and his disciples scattered, the chief priests and Pharisees were still a little nervous. They had asked Pilate to make the tomb “secure,” so that Jesus’ disciples would not steal the body and try to claim that Jesus had risen (27:62-64). Pilate tells them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can” (27:65).
Make it as secure as you can (literally, “as secure as you know how”). Perhaps Pilate says more than he realizes. The guards seal the tomb with a stone and stand watch to keep death in its place. Yet when the earth shakes and the angel appears, the guards are so frightened that they themselves shake and become “like dead men” (Matthew 28:4).
It seems that eventually, the guards woke up from their death-like state, because some went to tell the chief priests what had happened. The chief priests and elders, faced with their failure to “secure” the tomb from divine intervention, nevertheless try to control the situation. They bribe the guards to say that Jesus’ disciples came while they were sleeping and stole his body (Matthew 28:11-15).
What do we make of all these details that are unique to Matthew’s story? The earth-shaking news of the resurrection is unsettling, even frightening; it shatters all our human attempts at security and jolts us into the unfamiliar territory of God’s new creation. In Jesus, the reign of God breaks open everything that seemed fixed and immovable — even death and stone-cold tombs.
Yet for all the impressive special effects of this resurrection story, the resurrection is not merely an exercise of power on God’s part. It is that, but more importantly, it is an act of love. It is an act of love on the part of God, who will not abandon Jesus to the grave, and will not abandon us to sin and death and despair. It is an act of love on the part of God, who took on the worst of our violence and brutality and refused to respond in kind. Instead God responded with an act that made all things new.
No wall of stone is large enough to keep Jesus in the tomb. So it is with the life-giving power and love of God. No show of force, no contingent of guards or security police can stop it. The resurrection is an earth-shaking, unsettling event. But as Jesus himself tells us, we need not be afraid. The One who shakes the earth with the resurrection is the One who holds our future, who promises to meet us and to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Receive our unending love and devotion as we celebrate today the undeserved gift of your love. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Jesus Christ is risen today ELW 365, H82 207, NCH 240
Now the green blade rises ELW 379
O sons and daughters, let us sing ELW 387
This joyful Eastertide, arr. Charles Wood
A Repeating Alleluia, Calvin Hampton