Gifts from the Dark Wood, VIII: Thunderstruck: Dancing to the Sound of the Earth

Matthew 26:57–75

The Shadow of Betrayal
While Jesus was still speaking,
Judas, one of the Twelve, came.

With him was a large crowd
carrying swords and clubs.

They had been sent
by the chief priests and elders of the people.

His betrayer had given them a sign:
“Arrest the man I kiss.”

Just then he came to Jesus and said,
“Hello, Rabbi.”
Then he kissed him.

But Jesus said to him,
“Friend, do what you came to do.”

Jesus said to the crowds,
“Have you come with swords and clubs
to arrest me, like a thief?

Day after day, I sat in the temple teaching,
but you didn’t arrest me.

But all this has happened
so that what the prophets said
in the scriptures might be fulfilled.”
Then all the disciples left Jesus and ran away.

The Courtyard Scene

The Shadow of Death
From noon until three in the afternoon
the whole earth was dark.

At about three Jesus cried out with a loud shout,
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,”
which means,
“My God, my God, why have you left me?”

After hearing him,
some standing there said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

One of them ran over,
took a sponge full of vinegar,
and put it on a pole.
He offered it to Jesus to drink.

But the rest of them said,
“Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”

Again Jesus cried out with a loud shout.
Then he died.

Look, the curtain of the sanctuary
was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth shook, the rocks split.

Holy God, the earth shakes and our hearts are torn as we hear again your sacred story. Let us hear again the promises of your love made known on the cross this night. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be holy and acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In 1906, the United States suffered what was once called the worst natural disaster in the country’s history—on an early April morning, an earthquake shook all of San Francisco to its core, killing over 3,000 people and causing damage to over 80% of the city. Fires blazed for days afterward and 300,000 people were displaced or made homeless.

Then, in 1989, the United States experienced its first-ever televised earthquake at the start of the third game of the World Series. Thousands of people had already gathered at Candlestick Park and reports suggest that the high number of people out and about in the city that day, ready to watch the two home town rivals compete, prevented numerous deaths that might have otherwise occurred had those fans simply been in their cars on a typical Tuesday evening commute. Knowing all this, when Ken Goldberg first moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, his first question to neighbors and colleagues was, “So, what do you keep in your earthquake kit?” to which the most common response was, “What? What are you talking about?” Earthquake kit, indeed.

The unseen threat of an earthquake was just too much to be prepared for. It was invisible. Goldberg had moved to California to be a professor of engineering, but he couldn’t stop thinking about earthquakes. Soon, he met a seismologist who agreed to give him access to data on the earth’s movements. Not every tremor or shake or movement under the earth’s crust can be felt by humans in everyday life—which is maybe why 5 out of 6 people in California do not have earthquake insurance, or, much to Goldberg’s surprise, an earthquake kit—but the seismologist’s equipment picked up every vibration of the earth—even the 2011 quake in Turkey could be felt in California and seen on his graphs.

So, the way the story is told, Goldberg found himself using his engineering prowess and some artistic sensibility to make the invisible visible—to show, to all the world, the tremors of the earth. Goldberg ended up with two famous art installations—one called Memento Mori—translated from the Latin as “Remember, you will die”—which uses artistic expression to document the everyday tremors of the earth with a little white mark on a digital black canvas, looking not unlike a heartbeat monitor —though if an earthquake and not just the everyday tremors were to appear across the digital canvas, there would be nothing minimalist about it. Memento Mori “Remember you will die” was hoping to make visible that invisible threat hidden beneath the earth, while naming that same invisible threat hidden beneath each of our lives. Earthquakes and mortality, tied together on a digital screen.

The second exhibit was more involved. Goldberg, in an odd twist of fate, met a dancer, well the dancer from the San Francisco Ballet, Murial, their principal dancer, who after hearing about Goldberg’s project, agreed to try to express the tremors of the earth, not on canvas, but on stage. Using sound engineering, Goldberg turned the seismologist’s data this time into sound waves, and on the 100-year anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, in the famous, now-rebuilt Opera House that was destroyed in said earthquake, Murial danced to the sound of the earth.

She danced across stage, intentionally improvising to the sounds of the earth shifting below her feet. And, because the earth’s tremors were being translated into sound waves in real time, the sound designers were legitimately concerned that, if there were a surge in seismic activity during the performance, the sound coming from the speakers could be dangerously loud, risking not just ear drums but also shattering chandeliers and endangering the audience.[1]

When the invisible becomes visible, there are risks. When the invisible becomes visible, we improvise to the sound of the earth shifting beneath our feet.

Dancing to the sound of the earth
Remembering that you, too, will die.
Making visible the invisible.

These are Lenten themes, Good Friday themes.

Dancing to the sound of the earth.
Remembering that you, too, will die.
Making visible the invisible.

 These are gifts of the darkwood.

Today’s gift of the darkwood—the gift that doesn’t seem like a gift, but contains within it gift upon gift—is being Thunderstruck. Quite literally, it could mean being struck by thunder, but it also means to be amazed or astounded, surprised or startled, shocked or taken aback, stupefied, dazed or made speechless.

You’ve been there, yes? Thunderstruck.

That physical response to something either so wondrous our dreadful that there’s the catch in your throat, the pounding in your heart, the risk of tears streaming down your face. Tonight, we are thunderstruck. Tonight, we risk tears streaming down, heart pounding, the catch in your through. Tonight is a night to be thunderstruck. When Jesus died, the whole earth was thunderstruck. When Jesus died, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook. It as if the earth was crying out.

Acknowledging that when Jesus died, something came undone, something was fractured, something ruptured, something came apart. It is as if the earth was sensing what the people would soon know, that when Jesus died, something snapped, something cracked. Even the holiest of holy places in Jerusalem, the omphalos mundi, the spiritual center of all things in Jesus world, knew that when Jesus died, there was a tear, a rip, a slash in something bigger and beyond what was seen. The invisible was made visible as Jesus died, and so the world torn asunder.

Sometimes, Jesus’ death is so expected, so reiterated, so rehearsed and restated and retold that we become out of touch with this rupture, this fracture, this sense that something was torn asunder when Jesus breathed his last. Maybe it is easier for us to touch that same sensation when we think about our own losses—the death of a loved one, the erosion of our bodies, the disappearance of our freedom, the demise of our minds, the causalities of our wars, the mortality of our own lives; when bombs are dropped or chemical weapons are used, when the innocent are imprisoned, or the truth becomes lost amid the chaos.

Something snapped in me, we might say. A part of me broke when…. It was if the whole world fractured when I lost what I lost. It was as if the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom and the earth shook and the rocks split. Today, as we consider what was torn when Jesus died, and we enter the darkest places of the darkwood, to wonder what gift might be there, in this thick dense forest of shadows.Is there a gift here? Is there a gift at the heart of the cross?

It is so easy to say yes—the yes is already written across the canvas of Christian history—ancient theology is quite concise on this point—we call tomorrow Good Friday, the day of Christ’s death. And yet, these are the darkest places in the darkwood, where all is shadow and doubt. From that place of shadow, as he dies,

Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli, Lama sabachthani” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And at his death, the whole earth quakes. Is it quaking in sorrow? Is it quaking in hope? Is the earth, too, thunderstruck? Does the earth, too, experience that sudden flash of awareness, that “seeing the light” or “a lightbulb turning on” in which the whole world sees that God was hanging there on that cross?

On Palm Sunday in the gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “If these people were silent, even the rocks would cry out.” But in Matthew, the earth itself does cry out… the whole city shakes when Jesus enters town. And now, here, the whole world shakes again, the temple curtain is torn in two, and the rocks split in response to this day of shadow where all is darkwood, thick and entangled.

And, if you’re paying attention on Easter morning, there is a third earthquake—go home and read it—the Gospel of Matthew reiterates that it is not just those few disciples who are impacted by Jesus’ death, it is not just his small circle of friends, it is not just this small cultural enclave of Jesus’ followers who are torn apart by his death—but the whole world quakes at this mystery of God on the cross. As one person puts it, God shouts out to us in our pain. As another person puts it, here we see that God is a God of wounds, where the road to redemption passes directly through suffering.[2] And here, the earth cries out, shaking, trembling, torn asunder by the suffering of God on the cross.

When I was in seminary, I had the chance to study in Egypt. I traveled with my class to the ancient remains of holy places across the country—ancient temples to Egyptian and Roman gods, early Christian churches, and early Muslim centers of worship. They all had one thing in common—the Holy of Holies. Architecturally, the Holy of Holies is a place set aside—often with a physical barrier preventing entry—where only those who were ready, who had prepared to go there, could go, to meet God. The Holy of Holies.

We have remnants of that architecture here, too, in our holy place—these steps leading up to that altar, with that curtain there, symbolic of what might be called a place most holy, a place nearest to God. The curtain that was torn on Good Friday was like that—a physical barrier that separated those who were ready to meet God from those who were not ready to meet God. It was there to separate the people from God.

And, as Jesus breathed his last, the curtain was torn, revealing that we are no longer held captive by the human boundaries that we set up to keep us separated from God. The whole earth responded to Jesus’ death, and in the same way, so did our theology, our practice, our way of thinking, our way of meeting God. The curtain separating us from God, the curtain holding us back from the Holy of Holies, that place set aside, where only those who were ready, who had prepared, could go to meet God, that was torn asunder, destroyed, fell apart.

In Christ’s death, all were made ready to meet God, no matter who we are or where we are on life’s journey. As it says in Romans chapter eight, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing, not life, not death, not powerful people, not the things that hold power over us, nothing can separate us from God’s love. In Jesus Christ, the invisible is made visible, and we are welcome to be thunderstruck, to dance to the sound of the earth, that quakes and shifts and knows that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Amen.

 


 

 

[1] The narrative about Goldberg is from two articles: (1) Dancing to the Sound of the Earth (making art out of earthquakes)

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/03/making-art-out-of-earthquakes/274345/ and (2) The Spectical of Seismicity: Making Art From Earthquakes http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/leon.2010.43.2.133

[2] Peter Wehner, After Great Pain, Where is God? New York Times, March 25, 2017 www.nytimes.com/2017/03/25/opinion/sunday/after-great-pain-where-is-god