Matthew’s version of the gospel story – the one we heard this morning – has been referred to as the ‘fireworks’ version. Here we find a great earthquake… an angel descending from heaven… rolling gravestones… lightening… the guards shaking and fainting in fear… Can you imagine this scene! No wonder the first words from the angel’s mouth are, “Do not be afraid.”
Each one of those things are frightening. We have had this year, on the 6th February, the Türkiye and Syrian earthquakes, causing 57, 658 deaths and leaving 1.5 million people homeless. And closer to home we have seen rivers burst their banks, hillsides slip away, and tonnes of mud deposited in people’s homes.
I am not exactly sure what an angel looks like, but if they are anything like lightening that is fairly terrifying. Did you know that while the intensity of lightening makes them look like bolts in the sky (did you see some on Good Friday?) the actual width of lightning is only 2-3 centimetres, but the charge they carry is so intense their temperature reaches 30,000 °C – five times hotter than the surface of the Sun!
Interesting fact for you! Until the late 18th century it was believed that ringing church bells repelled lightning. Many church bells bore the inscription fulgura frango, ‘I chase lightning’ and, during storms, bell ringers would run to the high tower, the high tower with the large metal bell… Can you see where this is headed? It was, in fact, the worst place to be and in a 33-year period in France (1753 to 1786) 103 bell ringers were killed by lightning and so the custom was banned. OH&S at work!
And then there is the fear of death and the grief that will become part of our lives, part of who we are, when those close to us die.
And yet, reading this morning’s passage – as Mary Magdalene and the other Mary run from the tomb and as Jesus also greets them also with the words, “Do not be afraid” – a command we hear over and over in Scripture – it seems to me more frightening for the women than earthquakes and rockslides and 30,000 °C angels or even than death and grief is life!
Life that overcomes death and the fear of death. Life that pours itself out for others,
Life that is found by being lost. Life that changes every part of our lives.
Life is the most terrifying thing of all.
I think if we are honest, we might admit we’d rather avoid this kind of life. We’d rather live quiet – contained – risk adverse – (not climbing the high tower with the metal bell!) – safe and comfortable kind of lives.
I think I have referred to a wonderful book, The Inextinguishable Symphony, before. It is written by Martin Goldsmith, a classical music programmer in the US, and tells the story of his parents in the Jewish Kulturbund, the organisation formed for Jewish performers banned from German orchestras and theatres in the lead up to the war. He writes:
Picture two young people in their twenties, holding instrument cases in one hand, their life partner by the other, as they walk quickly down a dark and dangerous street. (To risk riding a streetcar or subway would be foolhardy.) At any moment they may be stopped by a uniformed policeman or a plain-clothes partisan of the secret police. Failure to produce Aryan identification will mean immediate incarceration and once their identity as Jews becomes known they will be sent to Sachsenhausen or Buchenwald or Dachau. They know the penalty. And they take the risk anyway.
My heart goes out to them as fools, fools for love, fools for the love of music – music that could cost them their lives, but music they cannot live without. As movie-goers cry out uselessly to the screen to warn the celluloid hero and heroine of imminent danger, I beg my mother and father to be careful, please be careful, as they navigate their way through this sixty-year-old vision. And I am so proud of them and so grateful to them for showing me what is truly important, for showing me that you must love the people and things that are important to you and that you must sometimes risk everything for that love…
Like the women at the tomb, we may still feel afraid. Courage, they say, is not the absence of fear, but the decision that something else is more important.
The life and death and resurrection of Jesus reals to us what is genuinely important. It reveals to us that real life is lived, real love is found, real joy is experienced, when we share our lives, rather than saving them; when we love the people and things that Jesus loves; when we risk everything for that love…love that first loved and first gave and first changed everything for us.
Emboldened by the reassurance, “Do not be afraid”, from the angel and from our Lord, let us embrace the life Jesus shares with us, and let us go and share this life with others ‘in fear’, perhaps, but also ‘in great joy’.