Mark’s presentation of the death of Jesus is devoid of all embellishment. Quite simply, in Mark, Jesus dies in a cry of sheer fright.
Luke has softened this: in Luke, Jesus dies praying for the ignorant ones who kill him, and forgiving them. He hands over his spirit to the Father.
John has turned the event of Jesus’ dying into the final act of a Master of death. While death is made peaceful, everything is consummated. Jesus, in his last breath, gives his Spirit to his own at the foot of his cross.
What about Matthew (our gospel this year)? He follows closely his source, Mark, in telling us about the lead-up to the death of Jesus, and the death itself. But he adds to it.
He says that darkness fell upon the crucified Jesus (Mt 27,45). It is an allusion to Amos 8, 9-10. ‘On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight….’ [There were legends that were associated with the deaths of significant persons, like Julius Caesar, and there were celestial signs too…]
Then, when Mark says no more, and Luke and John meditate on the mystery of it all, Matthew puts in a series of disconcerting postmortem events. Up till now, Matthew has tended to say what happened in a natural and human and realistic way. Now, he surprises us.
The first of these events concerns the soldiers who crucified Jesus and remained near the cross. They know a great fear, with great violence to their emotions, and they (the whole group of them) confess: ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’ In Mark, I suspect the words are ironic: the centurion is saying, well, look, that’s how a son of God ends up… Matthew has softened Mark, and uses the words with a positive spin – indeed, he says, that’s the way a real son of God dies. [This often happens in Mt’s use of Mk.] Pagan Romans pronounce a complete Christian confession of faith. Or do they? Are they in panic for having offended some pagan deity by killing his son? Are they indeed Roman soldiers – or are they the same temple police permitted by Pilate to go on and guard the tomb?
The second event is the behavior of many women (the group of them) who look on the scene from some distance, and, far from confessing faith, say – absolutely nothing! These women, in Matthew’s account, are new persons in the story. They have not been mentioned before. They come from nowhere. There is obviously a literary contrast here: men, and women; close by, and distant; one unnamed centurion, and a number of women – including three who are named, Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the Mother of the sons of Zebedee. Perhaps a muted standing there was the more appropriate response to it all.
The third event is the tearing of the temple veil. Is it the veil inside the temple, separating the ‘holy place’ from the ‘holy of holies’? (If so, is access to God now open to all?) Or is it the external curtain separating the sanctuary from the pavement? (If so, is the destruction of any separate place for the holy foreshadowed?)
If it was the former, it was large. It was ‘as thick as a man’s hand’ ( = 4inches ?). It was 40 cubits ( = 60 feet) long and 20 cubits ( = 30 feet) wide. Legends say that horses tied to each side could not pull it apart. It barred all but the high priest from the Presence. It was like an embroidered Babylonian curtain, with strands of blue, flax, purple and scarlet – the blue was for the air, the flax for the earth, the purple for fire, and the scarlet for the sea. It was a symbol of the universe. Clearly, not even an earthquake could tear it in two…
The fourth event is the rising of many (a great number of) buried holy ones from their tombs in Jerusalem, perhaps on the slope of the Mount of Olives. They came from their tombs and showed themselves to very many people. Did they rise before Jesus did, or after his resurrection? What happened to them after that? Why do the other gospels ignore such a thing? Is this why the centurion and his soldiers were so deeply afraid?
People will ask: historically, did this happen? I have to say, probably not. It reads like a crafted set of symbols, and we seem to be asked to decode their meaning, not check out their existence. Parallels to such events are to be found, if you seek them, in the Hebrew Scriptures (think of Ezechiel 37) and even more in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Was there perhaps such a hymn that put some of these items together? Is it a free meditation on Psalm 22, 28-32? Matthew doesn’t seem to care about the sequence of such events and lets diverse nuances superimpose on one another.
It is more interesting to read this in an overall way. One way of doing so, is to focus on space and time in the account.
Look at space first. There is the rending of the veil, removing the (vertical) separation between heaven and earth. There is the rising of the dead, removing the (horizontal) separation of the dead from the living in the Holy City. The separation between the alive and the dead is taken away. The tombs are empty, the city is full again, with all its people, past and present. There is no space between the visible and the invisible.
Look at time. Perhaps there was a hint that the old way of measuring time was gone, when- in Mk and then Mt - the darkness (tenebrae) filled the sky at the dying of Jesus. In the postmortem events, there is no rational time sequence at all. Time divisions are gone. There is a literary telescoping of all the events.
What we are given, is a spatial fracture that corresponds with a temporal rupture. A fracture. It symbolizes birth. All the figures symbolize giving birth. It is possible to think, then, that the whole scene is that of a birth. Jesus’ death was a parturition. In that sense, it is interesting that Matthew names the function of the women, rather than their personal names: they are women, they are mothers. That is why they are there, to do what women, what mothers, do. To give birth. Look at the sequence of it all: the veil is rent, the earth is shaken, the rocks are split, the tombs are opened, the bodies are awakened, they come out, and are seen…. Dying is not the end any more, it is the place and time of a birthing. [Note that at the beginning of Mt, the birth of Jesus was the occasion of the death of Bethlehem children…] Jesus in dying has become the ‘first born from among the dead’. Perhaps there is also allusion to the birth of believers from the ‘death’ of non-belief in Jesus.
For Matthew, Good Friday evening is not the time of the death of Jesus. It is the feast of his birth, and of ours.