In the last post, I asked us to insert ourselves imaginatively into the story Matthew tells: Jesus is on the cross; the sky goes dark; the ground begins to shake; tombs burst open. From a distance, one can describe these events with a certain amount of detachment. Had we been there, however, the likelihood is that we would have reacted strongly, probably with fear.
Consider one of Matthew’s details:
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54, NIV)
There are, as usual, some differences between the gospel accounts. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention the centurion, but only Matthew includes the rest of the guard. All three agree that at least the centurion (and perhaps his companions as well) was convinced that Jesus was someone to be reckoned with. Mark says that the centurion was impressed by how Jesus died (15:39). Was it because Jesus seemed to die with dignity? Because he thought to take care of his mother’s needs? Because he held out hope to another crucified man? Because he committed his spirit to God? We can’t say. But Luke says the centurion “praised God” and called Jesus a righteous man (23:47). And despite the earlier jests of the crowd, Matthew and Mark both say that the centurion was convinced that Jesus must truly have been the Son of God.
But only Matthew tells us that this group of manly men was terrified. It must be true, they thought as the earth rumbled beneath them. Because obviously, some god somewhere is royally displeased.
The crowd had mocked Jesus for claiming to be God’s Son. It took a Gentile–and a representative of the despised authority of the Roman Empire–to state the obvious, to acknowledge what all who had seen the miraculous works of Jesus should have already concluded. (Indeed, given that the gospels were written decades into the life of the early church and the mission among Gentile nations, I have to wonder if this little episode had special resonance.)
At the time of their frightened exclamation, the centurion and his soldiers would have known nothing of the torn curtain in the temple, nor of the opened tombs, nor of the resurrected saints. All they saw was a dying man who somehow stood apart, and the acts of God that accompanied his death. They blurted out the obvious: “This has to be the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54, The Message).
Theirs was not a deep theology, but a spontaneous response of awe that skirted the surface of a much deeper truth. My hope for this Lenten season is that whatever our settled convictions about the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we would again be amazed, even dumbfounded, by what God has done. For the one whom we celebrate was truly the Son of God.