Saturday, March 26, 2016


The story of Jesus’ passion and death is filled with characters who are cowardly (Peter, the rest of the disciples, and Pontius Pilate), conniving (Judas), ruthless (the high priests and elders), or sadistically cruel (the soldiers). So it’s a relief for us to meet a pair of men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who act nobly and bravely in the middle of this sorry mess.


Let’s look first at Joseph of Arimathea.

Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea and was awaiting the kingdom of God. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. After he had taken the body down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried (Lk 23:50-51).

Luke gives us just a single glimpse of him earlier on: he was a disciple of Jesus, but “secretly, for fear of the Jews.” So he was cautious, even timid, by nature. Yet here we see him approaching the Roman procurator and boldly asking for the corpse of a man that Pilate has just executed. He must have been wealthy and comfortable, and so avoided the trouble that open discipleship of Jesus would have caused a man of his position.

Yet he boldly overcomes his nature and his fears, and declares himself to be Christ’s follower and friend -- and proves it by being the first to approach Pilate, willing to face the consequences. It would be unfair to him, I think, to say that he faced the consequences unafraid; I imagine that he must have been very much afraid, but did it anyway. And he did so after Peter had denied Jesus, the rest of the apostles had fled, the movement had been crushed, and Jesus had proved, it seemed to everyone, to be just one more false prophet. And in the face of all that, Joseph approached Pilate to ask for the body. What a beautiful, brave thing! And we hardly notice it, overshadowed by the account of the horrors of the crucifixion.


"Nicodemus came to Jesus at night"
Joseph was joined in his daring venture by Nicodemus. Nicodemus has been slipping in and out of the John’s gospel since chapter three.  “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him…. (Jn 3:1-21)”

Here’s a pharisee and a “ruler of the Jews” coming to Jesus, under cover of darkness in order to preserve his reputation, convinced that Jesus had “come from God.”
Four chapters later we see him bravely standing up to the chief priests and his fellow Pharisees who were planning to get rid of Jesus a quickly as possible:  

So the guards went to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why did you not bring him?” The guards answered, “Never before has anyone spoken like this one.” So the Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law, is accursed.” Nicodemus, one of their members who had come to him earlier, said to them, “Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing? (Jn 7:45-51)”

Nicodemus was no longer skulking about by night. Imagine the raised eyebrows when he took Jesus’ side in the debate!  What must have happened to him since that first meeting in the dark? His faith must have been slowly growing and maturing, and along with it, his courage.

"The Entombment of Christ" -- Titian 

John links the two men in his account:
After [Jesus had died], Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom (Jn 19:38-40).

Matthew tells us that the tomb they used belonged to Joseph. I would imagine these two naturally cautious and timid men must have each drawn strength from the courage of the other.

I wonder why they did what they did, even at such great personal risk?

In any case, they teach us that Jesus the conqueror, can make us more than conquerors ourselves; helping us, in the most hopeless of situations, to do what we could never do, and be what for us would otherwise be utterly impossible.    

As we celebrate the Easter Mystery again this year, we might keep in mind these two brave men who doggedly kept some sort of relationship with the Lord even when there was no sign of hope, no glimmer of a future.



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