The Dawn of a New Age

Matthew 27:32-66

MatthewAs they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.

They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama --which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? When some of those standing there heard this, they said, "He's calling Elijah." Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to save him." And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 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!"

Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's sons. As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."

"Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
Commentary by Donald Senior, C.P.

The climax of Matthew's passion narrative is filled with drama. His cross carried by Simon the Cyrenian, Jesus is led to Golgotha for crucifixion. The executioners fix a placard to the cross: "This is Jesus: the King of the Jews". They obviously intend the words to ridicule this messianic pretender as he is defeated in death. Similarly, a stream of passersby mock Jesus' claims to authority over the temple and to taunt him by reminding him that he could apparently save others but not save himself. Even the two rebels crucified with him join in the chorus of revulsion.

In describing this terrible moment, Matthew once again reaches back to the Hebrew scriptures for his inspiration. As in Mark's gospel, Jesus' final prayer will be taken from Psalm 22, the great prayer of lament. In that powerful text, a faithful Jew prays in the midst of abject suffering and isolation. He is surrounded by people who ridicule his trust in God. Feeling abandoned even by God, the psalmist utters a prayer of raw faith: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" It is that honest, unadorned prayer that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus as the sky darkens, God's faithful son encounter death.

But just as the lament psalm turns unexpectedly to a hymn of triumph and praise (see Psalm 22:23-32), the crucifixion scene transforms into an explosion of triumph. It is as if God responds to the lingering sound of Jesus' death prayer: the veil of the Temple is torn in half, the earth shakes, the rocks split and the tombs are opened. In a triumphant procession the saints who had been trapped in death enter the holy city of Jerusalem. The Roman soldiers who had kept the death watch over Jesus are astounded and acclaim Jesus as the true Son of God.

Matthew's Gospel anticipates in this triumphant scene the glory of the resurrection. Evoking Ezekiel's great vision of the dry bones (see Ezekiel 37:1-14), the evangelist proclaims that God has responded to the obedient death of Jesus by raising him and all the saints of Israel from death to new life. Earthquakes, the raising of the dead--these were all biblical signs of the end of the world. And in a very true sense Jesus' death marked the end of a world without hope and the beginning of a new age of God's Spirit.

Still to come in the gospel story was the reverent burial by Joseph, the futile attempts of Jesus' opponents to contain him even in death, and the visit of the faithful women disciples to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body. But in Matthew's Gospel these are almost anti-climactic because resurrection breaks out on Golgotha itself, at the very moment death seems to have the upper hand. The trust of Jesus even in the face of mockery and abandonment is met immediately by God's abundant life and immortal embrace.

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