The Opening of the Graves Embellishment or Reality?

A Sermon for Good Friday by Rev. Ian Arnold

“And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after his resurrection, they went into the city and appeared to many.” Matthew 27:51-53

hen we really – really – stop and think about it we cannot be surprised that this statement has had the Bible scholars scratching their heads and coming up with suggestions and explanations as to what it is actually saying to us. This is incredible. But is it embellishment or reality? Is it a flight of fancy or something that actually happened?

We rightly ask such questions! After all, none of the other Gospels make mention on this happening. There is no known outside verification that it did. There is no supporting documentation whatsoever.

Ifit happened, think of the stir it would have caused. Can you imagine it? Surely there would have been a wholesale flocking to Golgotha and, subsequently, to the Christian cause. This is amazing. Presumably the “saints” is a reference to Moses and other leading Old Testament personalities. In truth it doesn’t seem possible that something as impressive as this would have been ignored by the other Gospel writers or quickly forgotten, as it seems to have been.

“And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after his resurrection, they went into the city and appeared to many.”

For years now these words and this amazing event that is being claimed to have happened has been dismissed as an embellishment. For some it tends to be bracketed along with the Lord’s post-Resurrection appearances, stretching credibility too far. “Come on” the scholars are inclined to say, “It just can’t have been so.” One respected commentator writes, “the passage has elicited various explanations…The approach currently most popular: these verses are a midrash, a symbolic representation of certain theological ideas about the triumph of Jesus and the dawning of a new age. But apart from questions of literary genre one wonders why the evangelist, if he had nothing historical to go on, did not invent a midrash with fewer problems.” (D. A. Carson, “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, on Matthew, page 581)

Since we are focusing on these events, all to do with Easter, it is valuable and helpful to bear this in mind:

We have teaching given in the Writings, or Heavenly Doctrines for The New Church, that from time to time there can be, and often has been, to all intents and purposes an unconscious “cross over” from events actually taking place in this physical world to things seen with the eyes of the spirit, or in the spiritual world. And this is one such instance of it happening. Someone saw this happening and reported it to Matthew, or Matthew saw it himself. It was as real as anything could be. But the crossover was unconscious. It wasn’t realized that what was being seen was being seen not in this world but in the spiritual world. It was a reality, but it was a reality on another level.

The question then arises, ‘What was this reality on another level?’

In a sense we will always find it difficult to get our minds around how it was, spiritually, for people 2000 years ago. We know this much from the Gospels, that outwardly, there was a dreadful sense of deadness about everything. We have only to think of how tradition-bound the Church of those times had become. It was all a matter of parroting the Scripture and going through the motions. Real, living, faith and goodness had been killed off. We can think back to a people caught up in dead, self-gratifying thinking and attitudes. Even if they wanted a way out, they couldn’t find it.

We in our day talk of people being pretty dead when they sit around and watch television all day.

Worship is itself dead if all it involves is repeating old worn out phrases and the mindless observance of rituals. Thinking is dead if all we are doing is repeating what others say. So, here is the picture; the spiritual picture; of those times.

It was as the result of His work on earth, successfully carried out, that the Lord changed all this.

He came to make it possible for people to think for themselves again. He came to restore the beauty, appeal, power and relevance of Divine Truth. He came to rekindle spiritual love in people’s hearts and to reawaken their confidence in a God who cared. He made it possible for Divine light to penetrate even to the natural and outermost level of human awareness and consciousness.

It wasn’t done easily. The very reason why the Lord became incarnate was so that He might confront the forces of darkness from hell so much in control and so casting their shadow over everything at that time. He confronted them and engaged them in temptation combats, one after another. He felt their influence; knew in Himself how powerful and alluring they could be; saw the extent of their grip on human nature; and yet overcame them and established His ascendancy over them. We hardly know of or read about what was going on within, but this is how it was. On the cross He gained His final and fullest victory. And, as He did so,

“behold, the veil of the temple was torn in tow from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

Let yourself feel what is being said here. What we need to get in touch with is the over-rising sense of people being liberated; set free; and coming back to life.

“It is recorded in Matthew that after the passion of the Lord the tombs were opened, and many bodies of those that slept came out of their tombs, went into the holy city, and appeared to many. (Chapter 27:52, 53). The tombs being opened, and many bodies of them that slept appearing, has a similar signification to what which is stated in Ezekiel, where it is said that Jehovah would open the sepulchres and cause them to come up out of the sepulchres, namely the regeneration of the faithful and their resurrection unto life; not that the bodies themselves, which lay in the tombs, rose again, but that there was the appearance of this in order that both regeneration and resurrection unto life from the Lord might be signified.”(Apocalypse Explained 659:15)

How it was then it very much as it is with you and me today. There are attitudes, thoughts, feelings and yearnings we all have that are encased with grave clothes and laid in a grave.

Our yearning to relate better to others around us can be encased with mistrust because of bitter experience.

Our sense of usefulness and self-worth may be just about dead because of withering criticism of our foolish mistakes in the past.

Our thoughts and hopes for the future may have the shadows of fear falling heavily across them.

Our sense of purpose and meaning in life is so often laid to rest by cynicism and disappointment.

Let’s ask ourselves: how many saints – or saintly things – are buried in the grave-yards of hopelessness or disappointment or bad experience generally?

But now these can be liberated and set free. Now they can be brought back to life and vitality.

The thing is, the Lord overcame the powers of darkness then and He can overcome those same powers of darkness in us now.

What, then, of Good Friday?

It is all about the things of the Lord within us brought back to life; being raised out of the graves to which old hurts, cynicism, disappointments and bad experiences have consigned them. The Saviour of the world can become the Saviour of our world, restoring to life what was once dead.

“And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after his resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”

Amen.

Welcoming all people to be part of a living community serving the Lord and encouraging personal development