The title quote is actually from the Gospel of John (Jn 19:30), but it was with a sigh of relief to read today’s Revised Daily Office Gospel reading (Mark 15: 40-47). Jesus is dead, the women watch, and Joseph of Arimathea is wrapping the shroud and laying the body in his tomb. Although the actors in the scene do not yet know that it is not over, but just begun, we do. And we have been going through Mark chapter and verse for a while, and inevitably working up to the Crucifixion, a little Lent at the end of summer. And it is finally over. Although, to be honest, Holy Saturday is a day of despair for me. He is gone. Only reserve Sacrament left to feed his sheep. And we know he is coming back. These people at the tomb didn’t.
The women stood far off. Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James and Joses, Salome, and others. And except for Mary Magdalene we know practically nothing about them other than that they provided for Jesus. And now it is finished, or so they think. And mourning is probably less of a strain than the anticipation of arrest and persecution by the Temple elite, the puppet King Herod, and the Roman overlords. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, awaiting the Kingdom, asks Pilate and gets permission to take down the body. And he buys a new length of linen for a shroud. Taking down and transporting the mutilated body of a friend, a teacher, a prophet at the least, had to have been a grim job. It was an act of love, respect, decency. He was under pressure to do what he had to before sundown and the Sabbath began. Jewish law is pretty particular about that. Joseph is a good Jew. Jesus might have pointed out that decency is more important than the Sabbath, as healing on the Sabbath was more important than the Law. But Jesus is gone. And with Jesus safely tucked away in a sealed cave, Joseph can go and pray and mourn.
While the women as a group come back to anoint the body, and hear of Jesus’ resurrection from an angelic figure, they run away terrified. This is not Mary Magdalene’s encounter in John, where she seeks the body with passion and encounters the Gardener and fulfills his orders to tell the others of his rising. It is Mark’s description of Joseph, his initiative and generosity, that is central here. He is more like John’s Mary, making his personal pilgrimage, using his special talents, and doing honor to his fallen Teacher. What Joseph does is an intimate thing, wrapping the human body of the dead Messiah. And Joseph was not one of the Twelve or a traveler on the road. And like John’s Mary, in Mark’s Gospel he acts alone, going boldly before Pilate. Purchasing the linen. Wrapping the wounded corpse. Using what we are told was his own tomb, never used before. Generosity as well as love and veneration.
Did Peter and the others know? The cryptic comment that Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Joses, saw where the body was laid puzzles me. Is that how they knew where to bring spices to anoint the body after the Sabbath? Did they tell any of the Apostles, even James the Younger, whose mother was there? Did Joseph tell them? How would Peter have felt, reacted, behaved towards a member of the council, his social better, who couldn’t stop this from happening? Not well, I suspect. I doubt Joseph got a thank you note for his service. So, no, Joseph probably didn’t seek approval or consensus from the now Eleven. Joseph took his own initiative, although the Gospel of John says that Nicodemus, another secret disciple on the council, aided him. By now Joseph was probably pretty unpopular with the more politically correct council members. A 4th century non-canonical Gospel, the Gospel of Nicodemus (The Acts of Pilate), contains a narrative of Joseph’s imprisonment by the council and his miraculous liberation from prison and vision of the risen Christ.
All in all, the days after the Crucifixion were ones of not only sorrow but confusion, doubt, questioning, disbelief. Are we again in those days? We say, “Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” but how much do we really wrap our hearts and minds around that proclamation? I know the mainstream liberal churches are losing members by the bushel, a kind of grim reversal of the harvest. Fantastic tales are more popular than ever, but they seem to focus on caped superheroes. Or vampires. In fact, Satan gets more airtime on popular TV than does God. So we know there is a hunger for something beyond us. It seems that unless Jesus appears to us, grilling fish, shoving our hands into his side, blinding us, we have trouble seeing him.
While the modern Church has refocused on the Beloved Community, the ekklesia, two or three (or more) bound by the Spirit, basically our choices and our sins are ours alone. They can be whipped up by a group, or a group can offer wisdom and comfort, but like Joseph, at some point we have to decide to be bold, to show up, to act in accordance with the lessons given by our Teacher in Scripture. While there is strength in the group, there is danger. It doesn’t take very many to start a rumor, foment violence, turn an adoring crowd into a murderous mob. Take for example Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem vs. Give us Barabbas. We hold our faith in balance between our relationship with God and our trust in our community.
What does Joseph of Arimathea teach us? Rich and high status, nevertheless Joseph was a true disciple, just as much as was Peter. He was barely part of the Body which clung to the Eleven after the Crucifixion. Yet he awaited the Kingdom, a believer. He stood against his own community, his own Body, one which was bound by God’s covenant. Never breaking God’s Law, he stood against his brothers when he discerned that they were wrong. Sometimes we have to speak out. It is dangerous, but it is righteous. It was Jesus’ time to fulfill his task, not Joseph’s time to sway the council. But Joseph did what he could and risked all for a proper burial. Hard tasks are hard but need to be done. Alone if need be, although one trusts that Joseph did ask Nicodemus’ help. That would have been a great comfort as well as aid. Even if Joseph had unnamed servants to help, a brother disciple would have eased the heartache of the task.
These are confusing times. The daily news cycle brings new reasons to doubt, to run away. It is getting harder to stand up to evil without creating yet more evil through violence and societal fracture. We need our faith and each other as much as we ever have. In our communities we have to remember we are not burying Jesus. We don’t live in a perpetual Holy Saturday. We have risen with him. Now our boldness, our righteousness, is uplifted by the risen Christ. And no matter how our life unfolds, we are never alone. We are guided not only by the Spirit, but by Jesus’ words in Scripture. We are all called to face Pilate, to bring spices to the tomb, to give up our place to another who needs it. And Easter always comes.
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