You know those archaeological digs that you come across. People have to dig deep, have to get far down to discover things that were there many years and centuries before. They have to remove all sorts of soil and debris that has covered things up in order to get to the thing that they are looking for. It is a bit like that in the Gospels you have to dig deep to get a grasp, get a full understanding of what you are listening to, you have to dig deep.
Since the beginning of Advent we have been listening mostly to Matthew’s Gospel. The thing that we discover about it, the more we dig deeply, the more we find out how Jewish a Gospel it is. It is written or addressed to a community of predominately converts from Judaism. We know this because the internal evidence is so compelling. For instance it does not, like other Gospels who have Gentiles within their community, have to explain Jewish customs, traditions, feasts, scripture references, it simply takes them as read and known by all. Also it refers constantly to the Old Testament, that would have been know to these people like the back of their hand, and to the fulfilment of old Testament prophecies in Jesus, that again would have been well known to them. It has Jesus saying he is sent to the lost sheep of the house Israel, an appealing idea to them. It refers to Jesus as the son of David and the Son of Man, titles which can only be understood in their Jewish context and by a Jewish audience. It has a blistering attack on the scribes and Pharisees accusing them of bringing about the death of Jesus, of hypocrisy in killing the prophets, of abiding by the law but failing in justice and mercy, it accuses them of being like graves painted white on the outside but being dead within.
The account of the passion by St Matthew is again utterly Jewish. It starts with the Passover and Jesus’ re-interpretation of the meal. It tells of his arrest and his questioning by the religious authorities. It tells us also of the suffering and death of Jesus in a Jewish context. It tells us where they put his body, according to Jewish custom, and how it is guarded over.
Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus at his death the words of Psalm 22 from the Old Testament – My God, my God why have you forsaken me. This psalm is a lengthy psalm which would have been known to the Jewish people. It is a psalm of lament, in which the psalmist speaks of being surrounded by people who mock him, the words are desperate and dark but then the mood of the psalm suddenly changes in its second half to say that God will vindicate the one who suffers, that there will be light at the end, that his enemies will be scattered. In recording these last words of Jesus which seem, and are infact anguished, he also adds he gives up his spirit.
In recalling this psalm it would have been saying something clear to the Jews but not so clear to us, as if to say something that would have been understood by the Jewish community, namely he dies in anguish but his death will be vindicated and avenged by God. And as if to underline that result Matthew immediately says that when Jesus cry goes out – the veil of the temple is ripped in 2, rocks split and tombs open up – as if the Father is vindicating the sufferings of his son.
At the end of the Gospel Matthew is trying to tell his Jewish audience that instead of being malcontents, disturbers of the peace, heretics of Judaism, they are the real beneficiaries of the life and death of Jesus. They are the new Israel, they are recipients of the new law, Jesus is the new Moses. They are to be the light to the nation.
In an archaeological dig you have to dig down deep to get to see how things once were. On top has been laid layers and layers that hide and onscure what is below.
Today the building which is our faith is built on the foundations and on these things that lie deep below our feet. In uncovering this we are being put in touch with their situation, their concerns, the way the early Christians communicated their faith.
In those very first times there were small very small groups of people who had know the Lord and others who came to know him through the words that were proclaimed and written down in books that became known as the Gospels. Those people who shaped and moulded the story so that it could be understood by its listeners spins and emphasises the story in certain ways. Their concerns, their questions and maybe the things that they wanted to know are far from our questions – but maybe in another sense not so far. They are a group who are on what it seems is the verge of extermination, they are cut off from the synagogue, from family and everything they knew.
In listening to Matthew’s account we are not listening or watching some forgotten civilisation nor are we trying to piece together fragments of pottery or remains of building long destroyed. Instead what we are touching is something living and alive and vibrant and that has been passed on.
Namely that the Lord Jesus, saviour of the world, lived and died and rose again. We recall and relive these events in this week. It is the sold foundation that we stand on. Deep below our feet are Matthew and his community that knew the truth of these events. Deep below our feet are the words that we hang onto. Depp below our feet is the living testimony of those who knew what happened in that week, were there, heard it all and saw it all.
We stand not on ground that gives way before our weight, but on firm ground , strong rock to build our lives.