We just can’t get away from it, the Crucifixion, can we? Here we are on a nice summer day in July, having just had that mandatory day off to celebrate Independence Day, perhaps watched fireworks and ate hot dogs, or just hung out and relaxed. Of course, there is all that current political noise which threatens any kind of independence and liberty and justice for all. And now we are reading of another kind of independence and liberty and justice, the kind Jesus gave with his life’s blood. We have been reading the narrative of the trial and the way of the Cross. But now that we are at that tortuous moment when Jesus, the Son of God, the Light of the World, dies, the narrative is surprisingly short. Jesus barely says anything. He offers up his spirit and dies. The veil of the Temple is rent apart. And the world changes. We know that. The readers of Luke knew that. But those who stood near and afar probably didn’t fully comprehend what had just occurred. If the second coming happened today in some remote village near a gallows hill who would know? The coming and sacrifice of the Son of God, Son of Man, the Christ, took some time to sink in, and for those who few who saw the Resurrection in the following days to spread the word, and face not only criticism and imprisonment, but sometimes death. God is both insistent and patient.
But in the real world there were things to take care of. And we are immediately thrown into the funeral arrangements. Enter Joseph of Arimathea. A good and righteous man. We are told that he didn’t go along with the Jewish council when they planned and acted, starting this horror show of sending Jesus back and forth, the accusations and the political solution becoming more irreversible. But Joseph didn’t or couldn’t stop it. He was awaiting the Kingdom of God. Did he understand what was going to happen? Did he understand the necessity of this sacrifice of his teacher? We don’t know. We only know he was called a good and righteous man. Perhaps, like Nicodemus, a secret disciple, a man in a high position in the Temple, a man who had not been asked to give up everything and follow Jesus. Sometimes it is necessary to have the faithful in high places and with some political clout. And so he goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body to fulfill the Jewish burial rites almost immediately after death.
And Pilate gave up the body. As often as not, the crucified were left to be viewed as an example of what crossing Rome costs. Such displays continued even in the Christian world until relatively modern times when the heads of traitors were displayed in public places. Nothing like a little gory fear to keep the people in their place. But Jesus has been a problem for Pilate, and he may have considered getting rid of the body to his advantage. No body, no revolt of the people. Joseph takes the body, wraps it in a shroud, and places it in a stone tomb, the kind of tomb that the rich preferred before their bones were gathered and placed in an ossuary. It was probably Joseph’s own tomb.
For those of us who have had to serve our own parents, lovers, children, teachers, friends in this way, we remember calling the police (unless the death was in a hospital), waiting for the coroner, watching grandma or uncle carted away until the family decided how to proceed from there. This is not a happy time. It is sad and stressful and needs someone calm in charge to get the hard tasks done with respect. But I don’t think that is the only reason why Joseph is remembered as a good and righteous man.
When the rich young man comes to Jesus and calls him, “Good teacher,” Jesus corrects him saying that only God is good (Lk 18:19). And when questioned, the young man confesses to having kept the laws. By normal standards the young man was both good and righteous. He would seem to pray, fast, follow the law, and probably gave the required alms at the Temple. But he only lacked one thing, to sell everything and give to the poor. Joseph hasn’t been required to sell everything, quit his position on the council, and follow Jesus. But he is vital to the story, and called good and righteous.
Some words we encounter have the worldly meaning and their meaning in the Kingdom. Good, Righteous, Truth, Light, Life are a few. These words emanate from God, who is alone Good, Righteous, etc. God’s Truth is every word we hear from God in Scripture, and from the Spirit in us. Only God is Righteous. When Jesus is called Light or Life that is a direct reference to his divine state. We all try to offer life giving acts, services, and works in the Spirit in to each other. But we ourselves are works in progress as we wrestle with our humdrum lives, struggling to take in the mind of Jesus in everything we do. And I think that is what we see here with Joseph. He has been wrestling, seeking the Kingdom. Now he acts in a practical way, and, know it or not, he is fulfilling a prophecy in Isaiah. He is doing what is needed for Jesus. Jesus takes us where we are, with love, and a great deal of patience. Perhaps Jesus’ impatience with his intimate disciples, the Apostles, and even some of the women, were because of his lack of time in the world, and they were going to be vital to bring forth his teaching, his word once the Word was reunited with the Father. Joseph is us, perhaps a whole lot richer than most of us, but still us. And he does what he has to in order to honor the body of his beloved, if sometimes perplexing, teacher according to the rituals of his people. And he takes a big risk with the Roman authority and his own Temple authority to do it. He is, indeed, a good and righteous man, or at least working on it.
Sometimes I meditate on those important words, letting them mull around inside of me. Thinking of them in Scripture, and in life. What is life giving? Our jobs? Our families? How can our words be true and honest before God, and not twisted by shame, pretense, fear? We are all called in baptism to live faithful and righteous lives, good lives. And do it in the reality of the messy world, and our ever so messy lives among our own in our parishes, dioceses, committees, communities. It is hard work, but joyous work. The reward for me are those moments when some good has come of an act and my heart leaps within my breast, the joy of feeling my beloved in the Spirit within me working with me as I strain to listen and obey. And the peace and joy shared with those around me for our acts of kindness and compassion. That is being Joseph on that most terrible and wonderful day when he took up his cross and buried our Lord, not knowing how temporary that tomb would be. Simply acting in love.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.