This blog entry continues a series of meditations on the Three Days of Holy Week, guided by The Undoing of Death, a book of sermons for Holy Week by the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge.  This entry focuses on her sermon, The Third Sign: The Open Tombs.


Good Friday is replete with devotional themes – the Stages of the Cross, the Wounds of Christ, our Lord’s Last Words, among others – Fleming Rutledge’s Three Meditations on Three Signs of Calvary draw our attention to the events triggered by the death of Jesus.  These events include the darkness at noon, the tearing of the Temple veil, and the opening of the tombs described in Matthew 24.


50Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’


It is as if the cross, at the moment of Jesus death, is the epicentre of a disruption that radiates out with seismic force.   To say that these events are unnatural would scarce do them justice.  Creation itself is profoundly shaken, not just physically but in the case of those awoken and emerged from the opened tombs, metaphysically.   It is as if the paradox of the death of the one who was with God in the beginning, before all things were made, cannot be reconciled by nature.


Rutledge is I believe right to focus on these strange events and say they mark the start of something new. 


“The course of the world is interrupted here.  Things will never again be as they were before, and in the eclipse as well as in the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks, God calls forth his whole creation as witness to his divine intervention.  The universe is benched off its axis and sent spinning in another direction.  The turn of the ages takes place today” (190).


Rutledge puts these events in Pauline terms as signs of a new creation which interrupts “the present evil age” (Gal 1:4), reorienting away from its inexorable entropic decline and heralding a hitherto unknown future which “gives life to the dead and calls into being the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17).


As Rev. Rutledge writes, “God has not abandoned his creation to its own fate.   God in Jesus Christ places himself squarely in the path of this world’s careering course towards self-destruction and reverses it.  … We orient ourselves not to what we have been, but to what by the grace of God we shall be” (191-192).


There is trope in popular culture, now strip-mined to parody and exhaustion – of the undead rising from the graves, and I confess that as a child this Matthean detail of the dead appearing to many did creep me out.   However, the fact that these wakened sleepers are “the saints” should allay out fears.   These faithful ones are not the walking dead, but rather are the first fruits of Jesus’ conquest of death.


Rutledge again:  “Life is given to the dead through Jesus’ death.  … The opening of the tombs takes place, not on the morning of the Resurrection, but at the moment of Jesus’ last struggle for breath.   Matthew is telling us that “the powers of death have done their worst” and they cannot contain him.

And so the sign of the open tombs and the risen saints is this:  Jesus Christ did not enter death in order to give us an example of a good and brave death, nor even in order to come back from the dead himself, but rather, to unlock our prison doors and lead us free” (Rutledge 192).


In this new world, made possible by Jesus’ death, we are reoriented towards life, freedom, and possibility.  What will we find if we, the faithful, free from a story that leads inevitably to our decline and death, emerge from our open tombs?