In Matthew’s Easter account opens with two women approaching the tomb and an earthquake. (The two events are only related because of Jesus, not the former causing the latter.) The women are there to witness if Jesus walks out of the tomb, but he doesn’t. The stone is moved and he is simply gone. There is an angel sitting there, matter-of-factly, to tell them that he has been raised and gone to Galilee, just like he said he would.
We do not get a reaction of the women to the earthquake or to the rolling away of the stone. Unlike in the other gospel accounts, we don’t even know why the women are going to the tomb this morning. They simply are. Of course, it is possible women were no longer able to be surprised, given the events of the past three days and the fact that Matthew inserts several earthquakes into his version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both seio (the Greek word for shaking and quivering) and seismos (the Greek word for earthquake or commotion) are used liberally in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days.
All of this quivering and quaking indicates that something deep is happening. This crucifixion, the betrayals, the death, and the attempt to prevent anything unusual from happening to the body cannot seem to occur without provoking a seismic reaction in heaven and earth. Everything is shaken and stirred.
What should we make of all this movement? Is this an attempt to give geologic proof to the story of the resurrection? It is not. Matthew wants to counteract despair*. When Matthew is writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel.
This kind of living leads to despair- the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.
The Christians in the time of Matthew had begun to despair. Thus, his resurrection account is written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.
This is a resurrection account in which Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
Which brings the story to us. We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain, which feeling frustrated in the momentum to create real change.
Nevertheless, we are the same community who needed to hear Matthew’s words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is a seismic event. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.
Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.
And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”
He is risen, indeed.
*This concept of despair is something I have adapted from a definition by Pastor Rob Bell.