Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, "This Man is calling for Elijah!" Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink. The rest said, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him." And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
Then, 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. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, thy feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!"
- Matthew 27:45-54
In our current readings, it is Holy Week, and Jesus has been convicted of blasphemy by the Council. He has been denied three times by Peter, and Judas has committed suicide. He has appeared before Pilate, and been rejected by the crowds. He's been scourged, mocked and spat on by the Roman soldiers, and taken for crucifixion. Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, Place of a Skull, they gave Him sour wine mingled with gall to drink. But when He had tasted it, He would not drink. Then they crucified Him, and divided His garments, casting lots, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet: "They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots." Sitting down, they kept watch over Him there. And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS - THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and another on the left. And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, "He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'"
Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" Some of those who stood there, when they heard that, said, "This Man is calling for Elijah!" Immediately one of them ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and offered it to Him to drink. The rest said, "Let Him alone; let us see if Elijah will come to save Him." And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. From the sixth hour until the ninth hour is approximately from noon to three o'clock in the afternoon. This darkness in the brightest times of the day reflects prophecies found in Jeremiah and Amos. When Jesus asks, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" He is beginning to pray Psalm 22, which prophesied even details of the Crucifixion. Without knowledge of the psalm, this could be taken for a cry of despair. He took on our nature, explains my study bible, and so experiences in His humanity our alienation from God -- He fully knows our suffering and distress. But there is not despair here. These words can be spoken in the name of humanity, completely identifying with us in our condition. But in His divinity, He's never forsaken by the Father. In fact, the words seem to be a signal that He knows the time to go to the Father has arrived. The text tells us He's yielded up His spirit. This is a voluntary death. My study bible says that even on the Cross, His life could not be taken from Him against His will. He accepts death on the Cross not to receive punishment instead of us, nor to satisfy a need for blood-justice (God does not need nor demand such). Rather, by entering human death as divine Son of God, He destroys the last enemy, which is death itself (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
Then, 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. So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, thy feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!" The veil of the temple separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple. It was a symbol of the separation between God and man. Christ's death opens the way into the presence of God for all. Through Him, we have access to the most holy of all: God Himself. In many Orthodox churches, there is a curtain between the altar and the nave which is drawn open during the liturgical services; this emphasizes that communion with God, at one time sealed off from humanity, is now available to all who approach in faith. My study bible says that the completeness of the salvation won by Christ is seen in the resurrection of the saints from the Old Testament. It is a guarantee of the promise given to Ezekiel that God can and will open the graves of all mankind (Ezekiel 37:1-14). This image in Jerusalem is an icon of the resurrection of all humanity entering the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 11:10, 12:22-23; Revelation 21:2-22:5). The centurion is a Gentile who recognizes that Jesus has dominion over nature through witnessing these events, calling Him the Son of God. By tradition, the Church knows him as St. Longinos.
It's, to say the least, a strange time described here. Christ is killed on a cross, mocked and ridiculed and reviled by everyone, even the robbers crucified with Him. It is an absolute bottoming out of all one could wish for in life, not just 'the end of the road,' so to speak, but one of complete humiliation. This is a total self-emptying. But here, at the time of His death, with His remarkable prayer of prophesy in Psalm 22, we have an image of heaven and earth turned upside down: there is first darkness from noon to three, and after He gives up His spirit, the saints walk as if alive again on earth and we have an icon - like a superlain image - of the heavenly Jerusalem in the time of eternity. Here at the Crucifixion, the human Jesus' entire community joins in His humiliation. But it is first a Gentile soldier who recognizes His divinity. Just after His death, the crisis is past and a sudden clarity is here. The events of resurrection are stirred, and His death happens voluntarily, even as He prays the Psalm that prophesies what is happening and ends with praise and confidence in God and God's kingdom for all posterity. It seems to me that we would do well to remember that these events may go unnoticed by the world at the time they occur. Crucifixions were not one-time events at this time in Jerusalem. Surely many knew of Jesus, but the violence and upheavals of this time period characterize its history. Those who mocked Jesus or sought to have Him put to death do not immediately understand the effects of what they do. And that is somehow what life is like: the holy isn't something that screams out at everyone. It doesn't "prove" itself with effects that are available or understood by all. Those whose hearts and minds are not open to it will rarely perceive or receive it. And even that perception is a great mystery; the depths of the heart work in strange ways that are not really known to us or up to us. All of this is to say that tremendous and world-shattering realities may be hidden and contained in the most mundane of times and circumstances, and their effects and truths realized only much, much later and perhaps by those who can understand them. In our lives, the one way to take this lesson to heart is to know His words to the disciples before being betrayed and taken away, and that is to "watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation." These words have the effect of telling us, perhaps warning us, that it's always going to be our job to be aware and alert (the word for "watch" in Greek is also about wakefulness, being roused from sleep). Coupled with prayer, it's an admonition that we're always to know what we're about, where we are spiritually, where we stand with God. Events we're going to encounter or be surrounded by in life may ask us for all kinds of things -- and if we're not aware of where we are and who we are, we may be blind to what we enter into and blind to their temptations for us. As such, Jesus calls us always to a consciousness of the spiritual realities of our lives, not to be asleep, not to be just drifting along with 'the world,' but to make the effort to know what we're about, and to serve in our ways as disciples. These events may go unnoticed by all kinds of people and unknown by humanity everywhere. But to watch and pray is to be reminded that we're here for a purpose, that our lives are not meaningless, that this great drama of Passion, Crucifixion and death is one played out for us -- and that His very life is something in which we, too, participate via our own existence as His followers and disciples. That participation is what we do when we watch and pray, when we follow His commands (such as participation in the Eucharist, for example). We commune in His life; we live our lives with Him. Let us be aware that we need His life, and live as if every single moment were important.