written by Mary B Thorpe
The thing we sometimes forget about Joseph of Arimathea, whom we remember today, is how much he resembles many of the people in our pews. He’s serious about his religion – with Nicodemus, he is believed to have been a member of the Sanhedrin, a council of rabbis who formed a tribunal of sorts. He’s reasonably well-off, since he can afford to offer his own freshly-cut tomb. He wants to do the right thing, even if it means some personal risk. A pretty bold move, after all, to go to the authorities and claim Jesus’ body for burial. The rest of the disciples are in hiding. Joseph is the one who stepped up and did the honorable thing.
Sounds like some of the people around us on Sunday morning, doesn’t it? The ones who volunteer to attend to something no one else wants to do. The ones who write a check when something breaks, but don’t want a fuss made over them. The ones who say to a cranky fellow parishioner who is complaining to the Rector, “now, I know you wish we could go back to the ’28 Prayer Book, Fred, but that train has left the station and isn’t coming back. Let it go.”
In our righteous zeal for social justice – I’ll stipulate for the record that this is precisely as Jesus has commanded us – we sometimes forget the quieter expressions of that love and respect for others that the Josephs of the world demonstrate. Marching in protest may not be their style, but they may be an ESL instructor for a newly arrived immigrant. Or they may serve as a reading tutor to a little child who attends a poorly resourced public school. Or they may quietly notarize documents for a refugee family whose children are US citizens and who fear the parents will be swept up in an ICE raid. They may do this even if they aren’t entirely in alignment with certain progressive policy stances, but because children are children, and parents are parents, and someone’s got to be able to take care of them.
In a parish I attended many years ago, I got to know a Joseph. This Joseph was in his seventies, a retired senior military officer, an imposing and strong personality. Theologically and politically much more conservative than I, we often had conversations where we had to agree to disagree. But put a small child in front of him, and he was transformed. More often than not, during coffee hour, his 6’2” body was scrunched down into a ball as he talked with a little one. Acolytes would seek him out and ask his advice about high school courses they were thinking about taking. Third graders would tell him about their aggravating younger siblings. He’d remember their stories and their concerns, and he opened himself up to their world and gave them what they sought – wisdom, experience, a new way of framing what they were experiencing. He wasn’t going to get any applause for it, he sometimes had to hear about hard things that he’d carry away with him, giving him some sleepless nights, but this is what he did. He served. He honored. He respected. He did the right thing.
I expect that many of Joseph of Arimathea’s colleagues on the Sanhedrin would not have approved of his actions. I expect that a few of my Joseph’s friends wondered why he’d waste all that time on what they might call “rug rats.” But I imagine that my Joseph, bending down to talk, listening carefully and respectfully, expecting nothing in return, was very much like the more ancient Joseph, reaching up as the body of Christ was lowered from the cross, helping lay that body gently on the slab, doing what he could despite the risk.
When you look around your church on Sunday morning, look for the Josephs. They’re the less obvious saints, but I think you know who they are. Say a prayer of thanks for them, and for their particular flavor of witness.
Image credit: By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1268963
The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Virginia, a wife, mother, grandmother, iconographer, writer, knitter, and lover of opportunities to see old things in new ways. Her prior career as a lobbyist has caused some to wonder if she has gone from the profane to the sacred as a form of repentance. She blogs sporadically at Rev Mibi, and is in the midst of writing two books.