After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
John 19:38-42 (NRSVA)
It reads like and anti-climax. Two highly connected secret disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus, ask permission to bury Jesus. Their connections – at best used subtly during Jesus’ trial and execution – now find a certain courage. Pilate’s people have done their worst. Yet when Jesus ‘gave up his spirit’ (19:30) they can do no more. The job is complete. There can inflict no further cruelty or damage.
The soldier’s barbaric role is limited. Fortunately, it is the same all violence. And sickness. And age. And accident.
I guess it is this limitation that death represents that lies behind Pilate’s willingness to hand over Jesus’ body. Perhaps it is a personal relief. What the crowd demanded is done. He can ease his hand. Show this much compassion.
So these two disciples go through the process of lowering the cross, removing imbedded nails from wood and flesh, lifting and lowering Jesus’ corpse. They expected this. The spices and cloths are evidence of preparation. They go through the ancient and practiced death rituals of their people. Wrapping. Laying. Leaving.
Somehow the repetition of the word ‘laid’ stands out. It is the most dignified possibility. Yet it remains a reminder that there is no life here. Even laying has to be done by another.
And there, in this new tomb, his dead body stayed.
Our text skips the sabbath, the Saturday. The next verse begins ‘Early on the the first day of the week…’ (20:1). It is a quick movement to resurrection Sunday. The text gives us enough, however, to know that there is a middle day. Joseph and Nicodemus undertook their final act of respect on ‘…the Jewish day of Preparation…’ which precedes the sabbath day of rest. It is enough to indicate a gap-day in their mourning: friends holding back the desire to visit the grave. Fear keeping family from completing the burial.
I once read a book called Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, by Alan E. Lewis. It was a theological reflection on the death of Jesus. Not the process of Jesus death – the scourge and crucifixion of Good Friday – but the fact that Jesus lay dead in a tomb. It was something of an eyeopener for me.
Strangely, Holy Saturday (and Lewis’ wonderful reflection on it) points to Jesus’ death as something of the ultimate in incarnation. It is the most profound identification of God with what is surely the most universal aspect of the human plight: death.
God so completely, so perfectly, human.
And so, if we can find the courage to dwell with Holy Saturday and allow the reality of the death of the Messiah to sink in, I suspect it will make the reality of Jesus’ resurrection all the more stark, potent – and relevant.
After all, the resurrection of Jesus points to a reality not only beyond – but through – the universal experience of death. It infuses even what is so final and beyond our control – death – with hope.
How final does death feel to you? If you have ever buried a loved did you experience a sense of death’s finality?
Why is it so important that Jesus identifies with humanity even in death? In what way is this a completion of incarnation?
Have you ever sat with the awful – and wonderful – truth of ‘Holy Saturday’ before? What new perspectives does this offer? What does it confirm in you?
In what sense does Holy Saturday call you to a deeper, more grounded, faith? In what way does it urge a faith that does not retreat into denial of the powerlessness we have over death?