THE PRODIGIES WHICH HAPPENED AT THE DEATH OF CHRIST.
Mourning of all Nature – Darkness.
It is reported (as Cornelius à Lapide relates) that St. Dionysius the Areopagite, being at the time at Heliopolis in Egypt, at the time of the death of Jesus Christ exclaimed, “Either the God of nature is suffering, or the fabric, of the world is being dissolved.”1 Others, such as Syncellus and Suidas, relate the story differently, and state that he said, “God, unknown, is suffering in the flesh, and therefore the universe is hidden in this darkness.”2
Eusebius3 writes that Plutarch, being in the isle of Praxos, heard a voice say, “The great Pan is dead,”4 and immediately afterwards heard a cry of many persons wailing. Eusebius considers that Pan means the devil, who being, as it were, killed by the death of Jesus, was stripped of the power he had possessed over men; but Barrada5 thinks that it means Jesus Christ himself, because in Greek the word Pan means All, which Jesus Christ, being the Son of God, and truly God, really was; that is, all that is good.
What we have in the Gospels is, that on the day of the death of the Saviour, the whole earth was covered with darkness, from the sixth to the ninth hour. And when Jesus breathed his last, the veil of the temple was rent, and a great earthquake shook the mountains.6
Speaking of the darkness, St. Jerome says that this darkness was foretold by the prophet Amos in these words: It shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord, that the sun shall go down at mid-day; and I will make the earth dark in the day of light.7 On which St. Jerome remarks that the sun seemed to have withdrawn its light, in order that the enemies of Jesus Christ might not rejoice in it;8 and that the sun hid itself, because it dared not look upon the Lord hanging on the cross.9 But St. Leo more justly says that then all creatures groaned, when the Creator hung upon the cross.10 With this Tertullian agrees, saying that from the sixth hour the world was darkened, and celebrated the obsequies of the Lord.11
St. Athanasius, St. Chrysostom, and St. Thomas remark that this darkness was altogether miraculous, because it could not have happened as an eclipse of the sun, by the interposition of the moon between the earth and the sun, as this eclipse always takes place at the new moon, and not the full moon, as astronomers say. And, further, as the sun is much larger than the moon, the moon could not hide the whole of its light; while the Gospel relates that darkness was spread over the whole earth. Further still, even if the moon could have darkened the whole light of the sun, we know that the course of the sun is so swift that such darkness could only have lasted a few minutes, while the Gospel relates that it lasted from the sixth to the ninth hour.
This miraculous darkness Tertullian especially pointed out, in his Apology to the heathen, reminding them that in their own archives this prodigy of the darkness of the sun was recorded.12 Eusebius, confirming this statement, relates in his chronicle the words of Phlegon, the freedman of Augustus, an author of that period, who thus writes: “In the fourth year of the second Olympiad, the sun was completely darkened, more than at any other recorded time; and night came on at the sixth hour, so that the stars were visible.”13
The Rending of the Veil of the Temple.
In the Gospel of St. Matthew it is said, The veil of the temple was rent in two parts, from the top to the bottom.14 The Apostle writes15 that in the temple, as in the tabernacle, there was the Holy of Holies, where was the ark of the covenant, which contained the manna, the rod of Aaron, the tables of the law; and this ark was the Propitiatory. Into the first tabernacle, which was outside the Holy of Holies, and was covered with the first veil, the priests went to offer sacrifices; and the priest who sacrificed, dipping his finger into the blood of the victim that was offered, sprinkled the veil seven times.16 But into the second tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, which was always shut, and covered with the second veil, the high-priest went solemnly once a year, carrying the blood of the victim which was sacrificed by himself.17
The whole was a mystery: the sanctuary ever closed, represented the separation of men from the divine grace, which they would never have received but for the sacrifice of himself which Jesus Christ was one day to offer, and which was typified in all the old sacrifices; and therefore he is called by St. Paul, a High-Priest of good things to come, who by a more perfect tabernacle, that is, by his own sacred body, would enter into the Holy of Holies of the presence of God, as the mediator between God and men: offering the blood, not of goats and calves, but his own blood, with which he completed the work of human redemption, and thus opened to us the way of heaven.18
The Apostle says, he was a Priest of good things to come, unlike the high-priest Aaron, who obtained present and earthly blessings; while Jesus Christ came to obtain for us future blessings, which are heavenly and eternal. He says, also, that he came by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, which was the sacred humanity of the Lord, which was the tabernacle of his divinity; it was not made with hands, because the body of Jesus was not formed by the work of man, but by the Holy Ghost. Nor did he come with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood; for the blood of goats and calves effected merely a carnal purification, while the blood of Jesus effected the purification of the soul by the remission of sins. It is said, also, that he entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption; which implies that this redemption could never have been obtained by ourselves, nor expected except from the divine promises: it was the work of the divine goodness; and it is called eternal, because, while the high-priest of the Hebrews went into the Holy of Holies once every year, Jesus Christ, once only accomplishing the sacrifice of his death, merited for us an eternal redemption, which would be sufficient to atone for all our sins; as the same Apostle writes, By one offering He perfected forever those who are sanctified.19
The Apostle adds, And therefore he is the Mediator of the New Testament.20 Moses was the mediator of the Old Testament, that is, the old covenant, which had no power to obtain for men reconciliation with God and salvation; for, as St. Paul explains in another place, the old law made nothing perfect.21 But by the new covenant, Jesus Christ, fully satisfying the divine justice for the sins of men, by his merits obtained for men pardon and the divine grace. The Jews were offended at perceiving that the Messiah had wrought the redemption of man by so shameful a death; saying that they had read in the law that the Messiah would not die, but live forever.22 But they were completely in error; for death was the means by which Jesus Christ made himself the Mediator and Saviour of men, since by the death of Jesus Christ the promise of the eternal inheritance was made to those who are called.23 Therefore St. Paul exhorts us to place all our hopes in the merits of the death of Jesus Christ: Having a confidence in the entering into the Holies by the blood of Christ, a new and living way which He hath dedicated for us through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.24 We, he says, have a strong foundation for our hope of eternal life in the blood of Jesus Christ, who has opened to us the new way to paradise. He calls it a new way, because it was trodden by no one before; while Jesus, by treading it, has opened it to us through his flesh, which was sacrificed on the cross, of which the veil was a figure; because (as St. John Chrysostom writes), as when the veil was rent, the Holy of Holies continued open, so the body of Christ, when torn in his Passion, opened to us the heaven which was closed. The Apostle therefore exhorts us to go with confidence to the throne of grace to obtain the divine mercy.25 This throne of grace is Jesus Christ, to whom, when we miserable sinners go in the midst of the dangers of destruction in which we stand, we find that mercy which we do not deserve.
Let us return to the text quoted from St, Matthew, Jesus, crying with a loud voice, yielded up His spirit; and behold the veil of the temple was rent in two parts, from the top to the bottom. This rending took place at the moment of the death of Jesus Christ, which, as was remarked by all the priests and the people, could not have taken place except as a supernatural. prodigy; for by the mere shaking of the earthquake the veil would not thus have been torn from the top to the bottom. It took place in order to show that God no longer desired to keep this sanctuary closed, as it had been commanded by the law, but that he himself desired to be henceforth the sanctuary opened by means of Jesus Christ.
St. Leo writes26 that the Lord, by this rending, showed us plainly that the old priesthood was ended, and the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ was begun; and that the old sacrifices were abolished, and a new law set up, according to what the Apostle says: A change being made in the priesthood, it is necessary that there should be also a change in the law.27 And by this we are assured that Jesus Christ is the founder both of the first law and of the second; and that the old law, the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the old sacrifices had regard to the sacrifice of the cross, which was to accomplish the redemption of man. And thus everything which had been obscure or mysterious in the old law, in the sacrifices, festivals, and promises, became clear through the death of the Saviour. Lastly, Euthymius says that the rent veil showed that the wall which divided heaven and earth was taken away, so that the way for man to reach heaven lay open without any obstacle.28
It is further said in the Gospel, The earth was shaken, and the rocks cleft asunder.29 It is reported that at the death of Jesus Christ there happened a trembling so great and universal that it shook the whole globe of the earth, as Paul Orosius writes.30 Didymus31 also says that the earth was then shaken to its centre. Further, Phlegon, as quoted by Origen and by Eusebius,32 says that in the year 33 after the birth of Christ, many buildings were thrown down by this earthquake at Nice in Bithynia. Pliny also, who lived in the time of Tiberius, under whom Christ was put to death, and Suetonius, attest that at this time twelve cities in Asia were prostrated by this earthquake; and thus the learned believe that the prophecy of Aggeus was fulfilled, Yet a little while, and I will move the heaven and the earth.33 Upon this St. Paulinus writes that Jesus Christ, though fixed upon the cross, to show who he was, even from his cross struck terror into the world.34
Agricomius35 relates that even to his day the signs of this earthquake were visible on the left side of Mount Calvary, where there was a fissure large enough to contain a man’s body, and so deep that the bottom could not be reached. Baronius,36 writing upon A.D. 34, says that in many other places the mountains were laid open by the earthquake; especially at the present time there is to be seen at Gaeta a hill of rock which, it is said, was split open from the top to the bottom at the time of our Lord’s death; and it is clear that the aperture was prodigiously large, for the sea flows through it, and another portion of the hill is enlarged in an equal proportion. The same tradition is attached to Mount Colombo, near Rieti; to Monserrat in Spain; and to several mountains in Sardinia near Cagliari; while still more remarkable is that which happened to Mount Alvernia in Tuscany, where St. Francis received the gift of the sacred stigmata, and where large masses of rock heaped one upon another are to be seen, of which it is said that it was revealed to St. Francis by an angel that these rocks were thus thrown together at the death of Jesus Christ, as Wading37 relates.
St. Ambrose on this exclaims, “O Jewish hearts, harder than rocks! the mountains are cleft, but the hearts of these men are hardened.”38
Resurrection of the Dead, and Conversions.
St. Matthew goes on to describe the prodigies which happened at the death of Christ, and says, The graves were opened, and many bodies of the saints that had slept arose; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, came into the holy city, and appeared to many.39 Upon this, St. Ambrose says “What else is meant by this opening of the graves, but the resurrection of the dead?”40 Thus the opening of the graves signified the discomfiture of death, and the restoration of life to man by the resurrection. St. Jerome, Venerable Bede, and St. Thomas say that though the graves were opened at the death of Christ, yet the dead did not rise till after the resurrection of the Lord.41 And this is conformable to what the Apostle says when he calls Christ the first begotten of the dead, and the first of them that rise.42 For it was not fitting that any man should rise before Him who had triumphed over death.
It is said in St. Matthew that many saints then arose, and, leaving the graves, appeared to many. These were the just, who had believed and hoped in Jesus Christ; and God desired thus to honor them, as a reward for their faith and confidence in the future Messiah, according to the prediction of Zacharias, Thou also, by the blood of Thy testament, hast sent forth Thy prisoners out of the pit, wherein is no water;43 that is, from what is called Limbo by the Fathers, in which there was none of the water of joy.
St. Matthew goes on to say that the centurion, and the other soldiers who were under him, who had put the Saviour to death, though the Jews continued obstinately to rejoice in his death, were themselves moved with the miracles of the darkness and earthquake, and recognized him as the Son of God.44 These soldiers were the first-fruits of the Gentiles, who embraced the faith of Jesus Christ after they had put him to death, though, through his merits, they had grace to understand their sin and to hope for pardon.
St. Luke adds that all the others who had either taken part in or applauded the death of Jesus Christ, when they saw the prodigies, smote their breasts in sign of repentance, and returned home.45 And then, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles, many other Jews, being touched by the preaching of St. Peter, asked of him what they should do to be saved; and St. Peter bade them repent and be baptized; and they who received his words and were baptized were about three thousand.46
The Heart of Jesus is pierced.
The soldiers then came, and broke the legs of the two thieves; but when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead, and abstained from doing the same to him. One of them, however, with a spear pierced his side, from which immediately came forth blood and water.47
St. Cyprian says that the spear pierced straight into the heart of Jesus Christ; and the same thing was revealed to St. Bridget.48 From which we understand that, as both blood and water flowed forth, the spear, in order to strike the heart, must first have pierced the pericardium.
St. Augustine says that St. John used the words opened the side, because in the heart of the Lord the way of life was opened, whence came forth the sacraments, by means of which we enter upon eternal life.49 Further, it is said that the blood and water which came from the side of Jesus were figures of the sacraments; the water, of baptism, which is the first of the sacraments; and the blood, of the Eucharist, which is the greatest.
St. Bernard further says that, by receiving this visible stroke, Jesus Christ wished to signify the invisible stroke of love, by which his heart was pierced for us.50
St. Augustine also, speaking of the Eucharist, says that the holy sacrifice of the Mass at this day is not less efficacious before God than the blood and water which flowed on that day from the side of Jesus Christ.51
Burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We will conclude this chapter with some reflections on the burial of Jesus Christ.
Jesus came into the world, not only to redeem us, but by his own example to teach us all virtues, and especially humility and holy poverty, which is inseparably united with humility. On this account he chose to be born in a cave; to live, a poor man, in a workshop for thirty years; and finally to die, poor and naked, upon a cross, seeing his garments divided among the soldiers before he breathed his last; while after his death he was compelled to receive his winding-sheet for burial as an alms from others. Let the poor be consoled, thus seeing Jesus Christ, the King of heaven and earth, thus living and dying in poverty in order to enrich us with his merits and gifts; as the Apostle says, For your sake He became poor, when He was rich, that by His poverty you might be rich.52 For this cause the saints, to become like Jesus in his poverty, have despised all earthly riches and honors, that they might go one day to enjoy with Jesus Christ the riches and honors prepared by God in heaven for them that love him; of which blessings the Apostle says that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive what God has prepared for them that love him.53
Jesus Christ, then, rose with the glory of possessing all power in heaven and earth, not as God alone, but as a man; wherefore all angels and men are subject to him. Let us rejoice in thus seeing in glory our Saviour, our Father, and the best friend that we possess. And let us rejoice for ourselves, because the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for us a sure pledge of our own resurrection, and of the glory that we hope one day to have in heaven, both in soul and in body. This hope gave courage to the holy martyrs to suffer with gladness all the evils of this life, and the most cruel torments of tyrants. We must rest assured, however, that none will rejoice with Jesus Christ but they who are willing to suffer in this world with him; nor will he obtain the crown who does not fight as he ought to fight. He that striveth in a wrestling is not crowned unless he has striven lawfully.54 At the same time let us be sure of what the same Apostle says, that all the sufferings of this life are short and light in comparison with the boundless and eternal joys which we hope to enjoy in Paradise.55 Let us labor the more to continue in the grace of God, and continually to pray for perseverance in his favor; for without prayer, and that persevering, we shall not obtain this perseverance; and without perseverance we shall not obtain salvation.
O sweet Jesus, worthy of all love, how hast Thou so loved men that, in order to show Thy love, Thou hast not refused to die wounded and dishonored upon an infamous tree! O my God, how is it that there are so few among men who love Thee with their heart? O my dear Redeemer, of these few I would be one! Miserable that I am, for my past life I have forgotten Thy love, and given up Thy grace for miserable pleasures. I know the evil I have done; I grieve for it with all my heart; I would die for grief. Now, O my beloved Redeemer, I love Thee more than myself; and I am ready to die a thousand times rather than lose Thy friendship. I thank Thee for the light Thou hast given me. O my Jesus, my hope, leave me not in my own hands; help me until my death.
O Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me.
1“Aut Deus, nature Auctor, patitur, aut mundi machina dissolvitur.”
2“Deus ignotus in carne patitur; ideoque universum hisce tenebris obscuratur.” – Enc. B. Dion.
3Præp. ev. l. 5, c. 17.
4“Magnus Pan mortuus est.”
5T. iv. l. 7, c. 21.
6“A sexta autem hora, tenebræ factæ sunt super universam terram usque ad horam nonam. Et ecce velum Templi scissum est in duas partes a summo usque deorsum; et terra mota est, et petræ scissæ sunt.” – Matt. xxvii. 45, 51.
7“Et erit in die illa, dicit Dominus Deus: occidet aol in meridie, et tenebrescere faciam terram in die luminis.” – Amos, viii. 9.
8“Videtur luminare majus retraxisse radios suos, ne impii sua luce fruerentur.” – In Matt. xxvii.
9“Retraxit radios suos, pendentem in cruce Dominum spectare non ausus.” – In Am. viii.
10“Pendente in patibulo Creatore, universa creatura congemuit.” – De Pass. s. 6.
11“A Beata hors contenebratus orbis defuncto Domino lugubre fecit officium.” – De Jejunio.
12“Eodem momento diei, medium orbem signante sole, lux subducta est. Eum mundi casum relatum in archivis vestris habetis.” – Aplog. c. 21.
13“Quarto anno Olympiadis 202, factum est deliquium solis omnibus cognitis majus, et nox facia est hors diei sexta, ita ut stellæ in cœlo conspicerentur.” – Chron. l. 2.
14“Et velum Templi scissum est in duas partes a summo usque deorsum.” – Matt. xxvii. 51.
15Heb. ix. 1.
16Lev. iv. 6-17
17Lev. xvi. 13, 14; Heb. ix. 7.
18“Christus autem assistens Pontifex futurorum bonorum, per amplius et perfectius tabernaculum non manufactum, id est, non hujus creationis: neque per sanguinem hircornm ant vitulorum, sed per proprium sanguinem, introivit semel in Sancta, æeterna Redemptione inventa.” – Heb. ix. 11.
19“Una enim obiatione consummavit in sempiternum sanctificatos.” – Heb. x. 14.
20“Et ideo Novi Testamenti Mediator est.” – Ibid. ix. 15.
21“Nihil enim ad perfectum adduxit Lex.” – Ibid. vii. 19.
22“Nos audivimus ex Lege, quia Christus manet in æternum.” – John, xii. 34.
23“Et ideo Novi Testamenti Mediator est, ut morte intercedente in redemptionem earum prævaricationum quæ erant sub priori Testamento, repromissionem accipiant, qui vocati sunt, æterna hereditatis.” – Heb. ix. 15.
24“Habentes itaque, fratres, fiduciam in introitu Sanctorum in sanguine Christi, quam initiavit nobis viam novam et viventem per velamen, id est, carnem suam.” – Heb. x. 19.
25“Adeamus ergo cum fiducia ad thronum gratiæ, ut misericordiam consequamur, et gratiam inveniamus in auxilio opportuno.” – Ibid. iv. 16.
26De Pass. s. 10.
27“Translato enim sacerdotio, necesse est ut et legis translatio fiat.” – Heb. vii. 12.
28“Scissum velum significavit divisum jam esse parietem inter cœlum et terram. qui inter Deum erat et homines, et factum esse hominibus cœlum pervium.” – In Matt. c. 67.
29“Et terra mota est, et petræ scissor sunt.” – Matt. xxvii. 51.
30Hist. l. 7, c. 4.
31Fragm. in Job, 9.
32Chron. l. 2.
33“Adhuc unum modicum est, et ego commovebo cœlum et terram.” – Agg. ii. 7.
34“In cruce fixus homo est, Deus e cruce terruit orbem.” – De Ob. Celsi.
35Jerus. Descr. n. 252.
37Ann. 1215, n. 15.
38“O duriora saxis pectora Judæorum! finduntur petræ, sed horum corda durantur.” – In Luc. xxiii.
39“Et monumenta aperta sunt, et multa corpora Sanctorum, qui dormierant, surrexerunt; et exeuntes de monumentis, post resurrectionem ejus, venerunt in Sanctam Civitatem et apparuerunt multis.” – Matt. xxvii. 52.
40“Monumentorum reseratio quid aliud nisi, claustris mortis effractis, resurrectionem significat mortuorum?” – In Luc. xxiii.
41“Tamen, cum monumenta aperta sunt, non antea resurrexerunt quam Dominus resurgeret, ut esset primogenitus resurrectionis ex mortuis.”
42“Principium, primogenitus ex mortuis, ut sit in omnibus ipse primatum tenens.” – Col. i. 18.
43“Tu quoque, in sanguine Testamenti tui, emisisti vinctos tuos de lacu in quo non est aqua.” – Zach. ix. 11.
44“Centurio autem et qui cum eo cram custodientes Jesum, viso terræ motu et his quæ fiebant, timuerunt valde, dicentes: Vere Filius Dei erat iste.” – Matt. xxvii. 54.
45“Et omnis turba eorum qui simul aderant ad spectaculum istud, et videbant quæ fiebant, percutientes pectora sua revertebantur.” – Luke, xxiii. 48.
46“Qui ergo receperunt sermonem ejus, baptizati sunt; et appositæ sunt in die illa animæ circiter tria milia.” – Acts, ii. 41.
47“Sed unus militum lancea latus ejus aperuit, et continuo exivit sanguis et aqua.” – John. xix. 34.
48“Lancea attigit costam, et ambæ partes cordis fuerunt in lancea.” – Rev. l. 2, c. 21.
49“Ut illic quodam modo vita ostium panderetur, unde sacramenta Ecclesiæ manaverunt, sine quibus ad vitam non intratur.” – In Jo. tr. 120.
50“Propterea vulneratum est, ut, per vulnus visibile, vulnus amoris invisibile videamus; carnale ergo vulnus vulnus spirituale ostendit.” – Lib. de Pass. c. 3.
51“Non minus hodie in conspectu Patris oblatio illa est efficax, quam die qua de saucio latere sanguis et aqua exivit.”
52“Propter vos egenus factus est, cum esset dives, ut illius inopia vos divites essetis.” – 2 Cor. viii. 9.
53“Oculus non vidit, nec auris audivit, nec in cor hominis ascendit, quæ præparavit Deus iis qui diligunt illum.” – 1 Cor. ii. 9.
54“Nam et qui certat in agone, non coronatur, nisi legitime certaverit.” – 2 Tim. ii. 5.
55“Id enim quod in præsenti est momentaneum et leve tribulationis nostræ, supra modum in sublimitate æternum gloriæ pondus operatur in nobis.” – 2 Cor. iv. 17.