Holy Saturday - Matthew 27:51-66

Artwork by Kirsten Borne   

Artwork by Kirsten Borne   

The created world was the first to grieve. 

The earth shook.  The rocks split.  And no wonder.  The course of history had just turned upside down like a tectonic plate.

But what was most surprising to everyone concerned was the curtain, torn in two from top to bottom.  There were two curtains in the temple.  The first separated Jews from Gentiles; the other quarantined the Holiest of Holies.  We can’t be sure which curtain was split, but either way, the dividing walls that separated humanity from the holy presence of God and from one another were coming down.  Jesus’ death meant new access to God and to each other.  He put sin to death, shame to death, death to death, so that we all might forgive and be forgiven and live into the connectedness we were designed for.

For as far back as anyone could remember, only certain priests and only at certain times could go into the Holiest of Holies.  Priests had to wash a certain way, be a certain way, wait a certain amount of time.  The temple was known for its particulars.  Tradition said that a priest entering the high holy place should go with a rope tied around his ankle, just in case he did something wrong, dropped dead, and had to be dragged out.  

But now times had changed.  Now everyone was invited in, Jews and Greeks, men and women, slave and free.  The veil is torn and we can peer inside.  

Solomon said it best when he dedicated his temple to the Lord: “the heavens, even the highest heaven cannot contain you.   How much less this temple I have built!”  

Rip.  Because no temple could.

Welcome, Friends, to the Holiest of Holies.  You can now approach your God with confidence.

The centurion and the guards have now witnessed all these things too.  They’ve seen the earth shake, the tombs open as if Jesus had mastered all of death, the veil torn in two.  The Gospel of Matthew mentions multiple witnesses; one eyewitness just wouldn’t do, not when you’re describing the Son of God.  

The Son of God.  

It is the same declaration the disciples made when they saw him walking on water.  But those who were declaring it now were Romans.  They had Roman gods.  What did they mean?  This Jesus, born in the boondocks without a penny to his name to parents who were not yet wed, the carpenter’s boy, from Nazareth of all places.  How could he be the Son of God?

At his trials, he is accused of being the Son of God, mocked for agreeing.  Some scholars have speculated that the Romans were simply declaring that he must have been divine or especially good, maybe.  But I think that these guards were declaring what they could now understand for the first time, that this was the real Son of the real God, as many Gentiles would come to after.  They were finally coming to realize that Christ was exactly who he said he was.  

Sometimes the earth has to shake underneath us before we’ll recognize God.

For others, though, he was still just a body among the crucified and the crucified were seen as cursed, so cursed in fact that Romans typically denied them burial, preferring to leave their bodies exposed to decay and wild animals as a warning.  If they were buried at all, they were hauled into mass graves; there would be no dignity for them.

Enter Joseph of Arimathea, an important counselor, himself a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin.  At some point, he’d become a follower of Christ.  

It takes some gumption to become a disciple of someone when all your peers are condemning that someone to death, and even more gumption to come out with it to a Roman governor with a bad reputation, just after he’s been backed into a corner.  But come out as a disciple he did, and asked for the body.  Jesus had to be buried quick so as not to be left out on the Sabbath, which wasn’t allowed by Jewish law.  And surprisingly, Pilate gives the body to Joseph.

Matthew doesn’t give details about everything in his story, but he gives details about this.  

He didn’t want anyone to make any mistake about it.  Jesus, he wanted us to understand, was actually, really, truly dead.  There were no half-jobs with Roman crucifixions, and if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross, we can bet that Pilate would have made sure that someone else would have made sure he died some other way.  No, Matthew insists.  It was finished.  Jesus was finished.

The burial rituals would have been observed as quickly as possible before the sun went down.  The body would have been cleaned if they’d had the time, wrapped in linens and spices, and laid in Joseph’s own new tomb.

The newness of the tomb was an interesting note here.  Most Jews at this time were buried in caves or under houses.  When all the flesh had decomposed, family members or those claiming them would collect the bones, pile them up in a limestone bone box, and stick them on the shelf alongside other limestone bone boxes.   But Jesus gets put in a tomb with no other bodies in it yet.

Grave robbery was common in those days, so if they could afford it, these tombs had huge stones placed in front of them to protect the dead.   You can see stones in front of tombs like these to this very day.

Meanwhile, the chief priests and the Pharisees gather with Pilate.   And they do it on the Sabbath, a day reserved for feasting and celebration and making whoopee, a space in the week to celebrate and reorient one’s self toward God, a day free from work and quarreling and co-conspiring.  

These groups had watched Jesus heal on the Sabbath.  They’d accused him of breaking Sabbath Rules.  But instead of observing the Sabbath themselves on this day, they call a meeting...with a Roman governor.  Apparently, Jesus’ death was not enough to silence him and they were still afraid of what his reputation could do, even from the grave.  It was, apparently, worth breaking the Rules for.

Funny.  Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection, not usually.  But just in case...

They knew Jesus had told his disciples he would rise again.  They believed the disciples were just as conniving as they were, and might steal the body.  So they got a guard of Roman soldiers from Pilate and sealed the stone to make sure it wasn’t moved.  Their allegiances are clear; never before in Matthew’s account has anyone but Jesus been called “Lord.”  Here, they transfer the title to Pilate.  Lord Pilate.  And they give Jesus a new name: “Deceiver.”  

Pilate concedes to their requests, not surprisingly.  Conceding was starting to be his M.O.

And so, they seal the tomb shut to keep out grave robbers and disciples alike.  The chief priests want to keep the disciples from doing the very thing that they’re doing - denying the truth.

Pastor Brynn Harrington

Consider:

How do you grieve? In moments of deep sadness, do you tend to turn to God or away from him? What does Christ’s death mean for you right now?

Pray: 

In Jewish tradition, the Mourner’s Kaddish is prayed twice a day, in community, for the entire year after a family member has died.  Lauren Winner makes these observations:

“The Kaddish is a curious mourner’s prayer, because it says nothing about mourning. It is rather a prayer about God...even in the pit, even in depression and loss and nonsense, still we respond to God with praise. This is not to say that the mourner should not feel what he feels...You do not have to feel praise in the intense moments of mourning, but the praise is still true, and insisting upon it over and over, twice a day every day, ensures that eventually you will come to remember the truth of those praises.”

If you get the opportunity, try and pray this in the morning and in the evening today with someone else.

"May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of God, swiftly and soon. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life upon us. He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us. Amen."

Embody:

Today is a day to “sit shiva.” After a loved one has died, Jewish bereaved sit on low chairs for the first seven days of mourning. Today, remove your shoes, light a memorial candle, and sit in silence for seven minutes to remember Christ’s death and anticipate Resurrection Sunday.  

Pastor Aaron Engler


Endnotes: 

  1. 1 Kings 8:27.
  2. Hebs. 4:16.
  3. Winner, Lauren, Mudhouse Sabbath.