“And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it”. Matthew 28:2
An earthquake – the word Saint Matthew uses is “seismos,” it is a noun, the verb is “eseisthe” meaning “quaked” or “stirred”. “Quake” is a word that can help us think about Easter.
In the prophet Isaiah, quaking, trembling at the word of the Lord was a mark of those faithful to God, “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word”, says the Lord in Isaiah Chapter 66 Verse 2. The people standing in Jerusalem on that Sunday morning would have expected to have felt such a reaction to the arrival of Jesus, as the crowd shouted their “Hosannas”, they would have remembered all the stories they would have learned since childhood; they would have remembered the accounts of Moses meeting with the Lord, they would have remembered the story of Elijah; they would have remembered the story of the people of Israel and God’s dealings with his people. They would expect to be shaken by the blessed one who came in the name of the Lord.
The first time Saint Matthew uses the word “seismos” is in Chapter 8 Verse 24. He writes, “Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping’. The storm on the lake is a “seismos”, a quake, in Saint Matthew’s account of events; a moment that made physically tremble. Had we been in their situation, faced with drowning, we would also have trembled, cried out with fear at what seemed to be about to happen. It would not be hard to have imagined how they would have woken Jesus, with great vigour and great urgency. Then Jesus stills the storm and they are amazed—the quaking fear that filled their hearts would have been replaced with a quiet sense of awe at what they had seen happen.
There is a physical response to the situation in the boat—hearts would have been racing, hands would have shaken, and they would have gone pale with fear. In that extreme situation, they call to Jesus for help.
If we are honest, we will admit that we are like the disciples in the boat, that when we face moments that are terrifying, that make us physically shake, we will look to God for aid. Sometimes, it is only when we physically quake, that we are shaken spiritually, that we are prompted to ask what it is that we really believe.
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday Saint Matthew said the city was “eseisthe” it was stirred, it quaked. The city had quaked when Jesus arrived. The tremors of the arrival of Jesus were felt across the city; people quaked in anticipation of Jesus. The reaction to Jesus was one which meant people could not be indifferent; you could not be so shaken by someone that you did not ask yourself what you made of this man; you could not ignore him. Jesus’ arrival demanded an answer; it asked people to decide, for him or against him..
The city quaked on Palm Sunday and it quaked again on Good Friday. Saint Matthew Chapter 27 Verse 51 says, “The earth shook, and the rocks were split”. The earth “eseisthe”, the death of Jesus was something that caused the earth itself to quake. Anyone, present at that moment would have felt its power; they would have known this was something more than a time one could describe in words, that it was a moment to tremble before the Lord. Do we ever have that sense of God? Do we ever have a sense of his presence that is so powerful it feels like a physical force?
The earth quaked again on Easter morning. Saint Matthew uses ‘seismos’, in Chapter 28 Verse 2, it is translated straightforwardly as “earthquake”. On that first Easter morning, says Saint Matthew, “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it”. It is the moment that shook not just the place around it, but shook the whole of history.
If the disciples have quaked with fear at the violent storm on the lake, they will shake with excitement and joy at what happened in the garden early that Sunday. When we hear the story of the resurrection, how do we respond? It would have prompted the friends of Jesus to literally jump for joy, do we even get excited at such astonishing news? The word “quake” asks us questions about how we listen to the story and how, in our hearts, we react to what we hear. What does the story really mean to us? Do we really engage, with the events, or do we let them pass us by, like a television programme we are only half watching? What is it that makes us quake?
If the story of Jesus dying and rising again, if the story of the power of death itself being destroyed is not sufficient to move us, then what do we believe? What else is there that can have such power?