Saturday, April 11, 2009

Holy Saturday

Have you ever seen anyone prepare a body after death? When I was a hospital chaplain, I was sometimes privy to the small rituals that nurses perform after the death of patient, especially when the family is coming in to view the body. They close the eyes and arrange the mouth, adjusting the angle of the bed if necessary to let gravity help. They wash the body with professional tenderness--in the ER, this is particularly important. Sometimes they arrange the hair or the hands so that the person appears more natural, less ravaged by the disease or the trauma that took her life.

I have long been fascinated by the story recorded by John (19:38-42) about the treatment of Jesus' body after his death. It seems that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (both well-respected and probably affluent religious leaders) were concerned about what would happen to a common criminal's body after it was removed from a pagan cross. Even though he was a heretic and a traitor to his religion, they wanted him to be treated in a way that would reflect his Jewish heritage and life. They asked for his body, prepared it for burial with spices and oils, and then laid it to rest in Joseph's own family's tomb.

This intrigues me. We know almost nothing about how closely they followed him during his public ministry but we know they were not in his inner circle. What, then, gave them the courage to identify with him after his execution? When his true friends were absent with fear, what made them want to keep following, doing the only thing that was left to do? When the story of Jesus had apparently ended in the most disillusioning way possible, why did these two men care whether he at least had a proper burial?

We can safely assume that these two men had never prepared a body for burial before. For one thing, that was the work of women (as we see when the women come to the tomb the next day.) For another, touching a corpse made a person ritually unclean and these were two religious leaders. In fact, this story almost certainly takes place during the Sabbath. This act of friendship is also a subversive act, an early skirmish in the revolution of grace that is about to begin.

Can you see them working together in awkward, mournful silence? Can you picture the intimacy of their ministrations as they use herbs and spiced oils to soften the skin of the broken body of their friend, now heavy in death? Can you imagine the breaking of their hearts, the tears running silently into their beards, their occasional sighs full of loss and grief? Can you see their love?

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