April 4, 2015
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
pictured - Luca Signorelli "Resurrection of the Flesh" 1502
My name is Matthias. I just want to tell you the strangest, most wonderful story. Most people don’t seem to believe me, but I swear it’s true. I would swear on my grandmother’s grave, but as you’ll soon see that’s just not possible anymore.
My– my grandmother’s name was Anna. She was daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. Few people remember Anna. I used to think she was a crazy old bat when I was younger. When grandpa died, she started spending all her time in the temple courts and synagogues -- praying, fasting, crying out for the salvation of our people. Crying out for the salvation of her children, and even me, her little grandson Matthias. She called me her little man. “My little man,” she would kind of cackle. I was actually afraid of her, she was pretty intense, and wrinkly.
When I was 20, this was almost 30 years ago now, she grabbed me by both of my arms and stared straight into my eyes, and with a lucid clarity I had not seen in her for years, told me that had seen the Messiah. She said a young family presented their first baby boy in the temple for his circumcision ceremony. She said, “Matthias, God has fulfilled his promise to our people, I saw redemption in the eyes of a baby boy today. His name is Jesus. I know this like I have never known anything before in my life, my little man! When he comes to his own, you must follow him. You must follow him, my little man.”
I was shaken at the time. There are a lot boys named Jesus, probably 10 a day are circumcised in the temple. And about 10 years ago, my grandma Anna died. No amazing “Jesus messiah” on the horizon. But lately, over the past few years there have been troubling rumors surrounding a Galilean – yes, you heard me, a Galilean – backwoods pond scum – named, yeah, you guessed it, Jesus.
He recently came to Jerusalem and all hell broke loose. He was crucified. And then things got really strange.
I mean, things are always a bit strange at Passover time in Jerusalem. It’s crazy with thousands visiting the city for the holidays. But this was unusually unsettling. Most of the craziness seemed to center around this Jesus fellow. I admit, many of my friends had become his followers. From what they said he didn’t sound like a bad guy at all. It made me think about crazy grandma Anna. I heard the rumors, blind seeing, cripples jumping up, even stories about resurrections, a prominent citizen named Lazarus, who died just outside the city in Bethany, was supposedly raised to life from the dead. My Jesus following friends believed sincerely he was the messiah, and said he talked a lot about accepting the poor, and forgiving sins, and how we ought to learn to love each other – and even love Romans. That’s a bit over the top!
I almost went to one of the temple court sessions where Jesus was going to preach but my synagogue elders said his teachings were dangerous and contrary to the laws of Moses. So, I thought it best not to. And then, when Jesus was arrested, I figured two things. First, my rabbis were spot on. And second, on the off chance they were not, maybe my grandma Anna was right about a boy named Jesus who would become a Messiah.
After all, if Jesus were the Messiah, he would break free from jail, his followers would rise in insurrection and God and His angels would surely begin the reign of the Kingdom of David from Jerusalem again! That would be something! But when I heard the crowds shout “crucify him” it seemed clear no messiah was around. No thunder, no white horses from heaven, no Elijah calling down fire on the soldiers. Ha! Just another crank would be prophet claiming to be our leader. My grandma was crazy, my friends too. I was glad I never jumped onto the Jesus bandwagon!
When the earthquake shook Jerusalem, I was, needless to say, startled. We don’t get many around here. One of my Jesus freak friends said that the earthquake happened about the same time Jesus actually died, crucified as he was. I don’t know. I hate crucifixions. I’ve only been to one, when my uncle was executed for just talking against Rome. I hated watching it. It was more than horrid. I had to be there, though, for Uncle Saul. I can’t imagine it brought him any comfort. He may have felt shame knowing that I was there watching his degradation, but I hope knew I was there because I loved him. There is no comfort being stripped naked on a cross, hung on the side of the road for all to see, dying a long, slow death for nothing, nothing but a dream and the damned Roman bloodlust and hunger to remind us we are less than dirt to them. But my friends who knew about Jesus’ crucifixion said Jesus died quickly, just three hours – if that’s quick – and when he did the sky darkened – probably a sandstorm – and the ground shook something awful. So I guess we have Jesus to blame for the earthquake (ha!).
We all felt it though. Like I said, it caused major damage. But it was the Passover and Sabbath, and except for repairs that would save lives and prevent injury, we could not do work to start inspecting or repairing whatever had been broken. It was very odd to observe Passover these days. Even as our families celebrated with our seder, remembering the way God delivered our people from slavery in Egypt, we had mixed emotions. Every year it seemed to rekindle hope that our current occupation might end. Mind you, were are not slaves, but the foot of Rome was felt upon our necks every moment of every day, so neither are we a free people. So, when Jesus died, a possible messiah, a possible new Moses, another who would battle against the powers that be and give us the freedom and self-determination we long for … Well, our Passover meal seemed pretty hollow. God doesn’t do miracles anymore. Worse, he allows his chosen people to suffer. And now, to rub salt into our wounds, he brings darkness and broken walls upon our land as we celebrate “deliverance.” This Passover did not seem like God’s judgement was passing over us in any way at all. Maybe we should have gutted another sacred lamb and placed its blood on our doorposts! And if the new Moses – Jesus -- would have commanded it, I imagine many would have. Especially crazy grandma Anna, bless her crazy soul.
But now here is where things get stranger than strange. I’m a religious man, I take my faith seriously. But I’m not superstitious. I don’t believe in spirits and mediums, even though some our rabbis sure do. My rabbis have been Sadducees, and I have believed that God works differently now than he had in the past. Miracles are no more, or very rare. Our call as Jews is to fight for holiness of life through study and obedience to the Torah, and to fight for justice and freedom of our people from Rome – but fight smart. Not with swords, that’s suicide, but with our minds, with plans, with negotiation, with wisdom and patience. We take life seriously, because we know there is no life beyond the grave. When Uncle Saul was crucified for sedition, his life meant something to our cause, but it was certainly the last I would see of him.
That’s what I learned from men like Rabbi Alpheus. So when Rabbi Alpheus told me about what the high priests saw in the temple after the earthquake, I was shocked. Some of the walls were cracked, easily repaired, no major damage. The temple was built to last forever, after all. But the high priest came out of the Holy of Holies to inspect the damage and was white as a ghost. He claimed that the temple curtain had been ripped in two, sort of. The bottom was still connected, it had been torn from top to bottom. He said it was like the hand of Adonai had ripped the curtain. It had to be something, because, while I’ve never been permitted to see the veil, the rabbi’s say it is 60 feet tall, 40 feet wide and as thick as a man’s hand -- and a team of horses could not rip it asunder. Well, my rabbi exaggerates a lot, but he was simply undone about the state of the temple. He literally did not know what this would mean – the temple veil was meant to keep the holy presence of the Holy One of Israel away from we sinful humanity lest we mere mortals be destroyed, or worse – abandoned by the Lord. Other friends of mine reported that the damage was so severe that several family tombs had been disturbed, some cracked right open.
All of this is to paint the backdrop for what happened next. Because let me tell you again, I thought my grandma Anna was crazy. I assumed my friends who decided to listen to Jesus were following a pipe dream, and just like Rabbi Alpheus said, were going to be disappointed and possible even find themselves crucified. He sure nailed it with Jesus. I was no believer.
But I am now.
Don’t judge me. I know what I’m about to tell you sounds crazy. I’m not given to the supernatural. I’m a stonecutter by trade, I work with my hands but I’m not brain dead or given to fantasies. I’d like to think I’m a practical man. But on Sunday, the third day after Jesus died on the cross, the third day after the land went dark and an earthquake ripped even the temple veil, on Sunday I saw something that changed my life forever.
I saw Anna. Yes. My grandma Anna. My crazy old bat grandma Anna. Who grabbed me 30 years ago and said I needed to look for Jesus when he came into his own. Not in a dream. No! Not a vision, either. And not a ghost. At least I don’t think so. I can’t say for sure. It was so strange.
It was evening, and my wife and I had just sat down for supper. I had quite a busy day, being a stonecutter I was called upon for many repairs to damage throughout the neighborhood. There would be work enough to keep us well fed for months. Then, I heard a knock on the door, and we both got a happy feeling that maybe one of our children had chosen to drop by for the evening.
But it wasn’t the kids. It was a young woman.
She said, “Hello Matthias, may I come in?” At first I didn’t recognize the woman, she didn’t look poor or appear to be a beggar, but that’s all I could assume. Didn’t know how she knew my name. But my wife reminded me that we are not to turn away strangers in need, and quickly ushered her in.
She thanked us, and said she was famished, and had a story to tell.
Sapphira, my wife, quickly set a third plate, poured some wine and welcomed the guest.
Our guest immediately launched into her story. She asked if we had heard about the events that had taken place over the past few days. “Yes, of course,” we replied. There was a public execution, horrifically not too uncommon, but one of the so called criminals was a rabbi who didn’t fit into any of our categories – not Pharisee, not Sadducee, not Zealot, not Essene … a young man named Jesus. And a terrible earthquake hit, and now I’ve got my hands full trying to piece things together. “Fortunately,” I winked at her, “that means I can afford to have a surprise guest drop by for dinner.”
She smiled, and her smile looked familiar, it stirred a recollection. This young woman went on to tell us about how the law and prophets, the songs of David and wisdom of Solomon all pointed to a day like this. I stopped her after about an hour, fairly stunned at her knowledge of scripture, and asked how she knew these things.
She laughed, “I’ve had a long life of study, and have served as a prophetess. Don’t you know me, my little man? Remember, what I told you?”
Then she reached over and kissed Sapphira and the cheek, thanking her for a kind heart. She reached for the bread and began to pull the pita from top to bottom. She said, “This is his body, and as he was torn and bled upon the cross, the veil between life and death, between we broken human beings and our loving God, has been torn to as well. Jesus did this for us, Matthias. He did this for me. He did this is for Sapphira. He did this for you. I believed in him when I first prophesied to Mary and Joseph and about little Jesus. I told you. Do you really not know who I am?”
She reached across the table, and grabbed both of my arms, and with the most alive, most dazzling, clearest eyes I have ever seen in my life, said, “Jesus lives! You must follow him to have eternal life.”
She was gone.
If Sapphira had not seen this, I would have not had the courage to tell anyone. But she saw Anna too. My old, crazy, lost-her-mind grandma Anna. Restored, complete, transformed, and for an instant, and in an instant, I knew. There is life after death. Life is found Jesus, who surely must, as Anna proclaimed, be alive, too.
I can’t explain this. I don’t know if any others had a similar experience. But since seeing Anna, I have also heard that in fact Jesus has been by others. He really did rise from the dead. What was it Anna said as she spoke with us? She something about Jesus being the first-fruits from among the dead, and more would follow at the proper time.
I’m not sure who I can safely tell about Anna. But many have seen Jesus. And rumors have started that several other Christ followers who had died before the crucifixion were seen by their families. I can’t explain it. But I know what I’ve heard. And I certainly know what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears.
There is eternal life, and eternity unlocked through faith in Messiah Jesus. He is risen, and more will follow. I can only believe now, all who follow him in faith will follow him to resurrection.