Yesterday’s reading brought us to the cross again. There, Jesus was subjected to a torturous and brutal death. We observed countless people taunting Him and hurling insults at Him during His ordeal. We also saw the helplessness of the few of His followers who stood by while He suffered. More than that though, we got to hear how, even while in excruciating pain, He cared for others. Today’s reading will tell us of the only care others could give to Him. They will care for what is left of Jesus; His body.
When we left our story yesterday, Jesus had just moments before, breathed His last. Pilate had sent word for the soldiers to break the prisoner’s legs to hasten their death. As Jesus was already dead, He was spared this added injury, but the centurion over His detachment pierced His side with his spear. Blood and water flowed from the wound, proving Jesus was truly dead.
Before we pick up our story again we need to step back in time a little. We need to look at Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus’ actions earlier in the day. These two men know one another and have found solace in each other’s company. Nicodemus is part of the religious leaders but also a secret follower of Jesus. Joseph is a very wealthy man and also a secret follower of Jesus. These men meet from time to time to talk about Jesus and the political climate.
Nicodemus was present when Jesus was being tried in front of Caiaphas. Out of fear for his own life, he kept his comments to a minimum. He did his best to protect Jesus, but Caiaphas was determined that Jesus would die. Nicodemus knew that when Caiaphas made up his mind about something, there was nothing anyone else could do to stop him. He was the High Priest; Israel’s highest authority.
As Caiaphas, Annas, and several members of the Sanhedrin took Jesus to Pilate, Nicodemus snuck away to see Joseph. Nicodemus pounded on Joseph’s door for what seemed like hours before a servant came to let him in. Joseph had to be woken from sleep to receive his insistent visitor.
Once Joseph and Nicodemus are alone, where no one would overhear, Nicodemus tells Joseph of the events that have just transpired and the fate that awaits Jesus. Nicodemus knows that Caiaphas will ultimately prevail, as he has seen the man’s determination first hand on many other occasions. Joseph, being a lawyer, recognizes the flimsy charges against Jesus. He believes Pilate will put a stop to this madness and turn Caiaphas from his murderous mission.
Joseph quickly dresses and both men hurry to Pilate’s home to observe the proceedings. They are in time to join the crowd awaiting Pilate’s annual prisoner release. Nicodemus points out several members of the Sanhedrin and some of the elders spread throughout the crowd. He suspects foul play but Joseph still has confidence in the law and expects justice to prevail.
Pilate steps out onto his portico and motions for Jesus and another prisoner to be brought out to face the people. Joseph recognizes Barabbas immediately, as he had helped convict this man before turning him over to the Roman authorities. Barabbas is the worst offender Joseph has ever met in his time as a lawyer. Joseph is confident Jesus will be released.
Pilate begins to speak. “You know it is the custom for me to release to you one prisoner during the feast. I have for you two choices. Tell me whom should I release? Do you wish Barabbas, the murderer, or Jesus, who is called Christ?”
Immediately the crowd cries out, “Give us Barabbas!” Joseph is so shocked by the crowd’s decision that he is forced to reach out and hold Nicodemus’ arm to remain standing. Nicodemus is surprised by the force of the crowd’s reply but not the decision of the people. This has Caiaphas’ hands all over it.
Pilate calls for quiet and tries again to impress on the people the right choice to make. “Barabbas is before you on several charges of murder. He killed several people in his mad push for power. If freed he will surely return to his ways and cost the lives of many more of your citizens. Jesus on the other hand has been reported to be healing the sick and other such good works. Which of these two men do you wish me to release?”
Again the crowd responds immediately and with more force than before, “Give us Barabbas! Barabbas! Barabbas!” This time Joseph is not shocked, he is angry! How could his fellow Israelites be so easily led to this decision?
Pilate’s frustration is obvious on his face and in his voice as he speaks. “Fine. I will release Barabbas. But what am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ?” Immediately the crowd yells out, “Let Him be crucified!” Pilate tries one last time. “Why? What crime has He committed?” The crowd starts chanting “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Joseph looks at Jesus’ face and sees no trace of fear or anger there, only calm resignation. Joseph then turns to look at Barabbas. He is wearing a smile, but it does nothing to disguise the hatred in his eyes. This is not a gentle man who will return to society better for the experience he has gone through. This is a madman who will surely make the people regret their decision today. How could these people be so blind?
Pilate performs one last act before releasing Barabbas and turning Jesus over to the will of the people for crucifixion. Pilate has a basin brought out and makes a show of washing his hands. “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to His death yourselves. I want no part of it.” Pilate retrieves the towel from his servant’s arm and begins drying his hands. The crowd, as if on cue, replied to Pilate’s statement by saying, “Let His blood be on us and on our children!”
Pilate turned to the guard holding Barabbas and said, “Release him to the people. Let his crimes be on their heads.” Pilate then turns to the guards holding Jesus and said, “Take Him and scourge Him in preparation for crucifixion. Let His blood be on their heads also.”
Joseph knows the process from here. There is no turning back. Jesus will be crucified. Nicodemus and Joseph watch as Jesus is removed and taken to the inner court where He will be flogged mercilessly by the well-practiced Roman soldiers. There is nothing more they can do here.
As the two men leave the assembly their hearts are heavy. Joseph has an idea he wants to run past Nicodemus. He knows they can do nothing to alter Jesus’ fate, but maybe they can at least offer Jesus one last kindness. Joseph pulls Nicodemus into a quiet side street to share his idea with him.
“Nicodemus, I would like to care for Jesus’ body.”
“What do you mean Joseph?”
“I intend to see to it that Jesus receives a proper burial. Or at least as proper of a burial as I can, once his sentence is carried out.”
“What do you need from me? I will help in any way I can.”
“I am going to go to the market and purchase enough linen and spices to wrap Jesus’ body properly. I need you to secure a cart on which to transport His body. I recently had constructed a tomb for myself in the graveyard near Gethsemane. This would be the perfect place to lay Jesus to rest.”
“I can think of no better place for Jesus than near His favorite garden spot.” Nicodemus doesn’t mention that this was also the place where He was arrested. He is grateful for Joseph’ help, no matter what bad memories are linked to the garden. At least there is something he can do to show his love to Jesus.
Fast forward to Golgotha where Jesus has just breathed His last breath. Joseph and Nicodemus have been in attendance since the Roman soldiers brought Jesus down the Via Dolorosa. They have not interfered in the process, as their actions would only result in their own deaths alongside Jesus.
As soon as Jesus takes His last breath and cries out, “It is finished!” Joseph sees the life leave Him. He has born witness to more than one death through his tenure as a lawyer. He is certain of the fact that His Lord will breathe no more. It is time to act. He quietly says to Nicodemus, “It’s over. We need to get moving. There isn’t much time left.”
The two quickly leave. Nicodemus goes to the merchant he met earlier. He needs to have the cart he hired brought to Golgotha now. Joseph goes to meet with Pilate. He will ask for Jesus’ body from him. He doesn’t trust Caiaphas.
Pilate has just sent word to the soldiers to break the prisoner’s legs. Not two minutes later, Joseph requests an audience with Pilate. Pilate knows of Joseph’s reputation and agrees to meet with him. Joseph, not caring about the ritual of being “pure” for the Passover meal, enters Pilate’s judgment hall.
“Honorable Governor, I respectfully ask for the body of Jesus, who was crucified this day on Golgotha.”
Pilate is very acquainted with the crucifixion process and the length of time it can take for a man to die. He has just called for the prisoner’s legs to be broken, but even after this has been done it can still take an hour or so before death occurs. “Your request is premature. I don’t want to appear like vultures, drooling over the Man during His last hours. We will discuss it when the time comes.”
“Respectfully sir, His time has already come. I want to provide for his burial before the start of the Holy day.”
Pilate calls his fastest runner, the one he uses in times of emergency. “Go to Golgotha and confirm for me the state of the prisoner known as Jesus of Nazareth.” The two men wait as the runner accomplishes his task.
Fifteen minutes pass before the runner returns with his report. “Yes your lordship, the Man called Jesus is dead. The centurion assigned to him even confirmed this by thrusting his spear into the Man’s side. The telltale sign of death ensued.”
Pilate turns his attention to Joseph, who has been waiting nervously, and speaks. “It has been confirmed. Do with Him as you see fit.”
Joseph quickly leaves Pilate’s judgement hall and practically runs back to Golgotha. He meets Nicodemus at the base of the hill and the two of them quickly ascend the small knoll. Joseph approached the detachment of soldiers assigned to Jesus. Joseph asks for their assistance in removing Jesus from His cross. They initially resist the idea, but agree to help once Joseph produces a small pouch of coins for their labor. Their centurion instructs them to take care when removing Jesus, as he has recognized the great wrong done to the Man at their own hands.
Joseph quickly spreads a linen sheet on the ground and Jesus is lowered by the soldiers onto it. Nicodemus has the cart brought next to the sheet. Joseph carefully folds Jesus arms against His chest, and then wraps the sheet over Him from each side. The soldiers lift Jesus onto the waiting cart. As soon as they finish, Joseph hands the bag of coins to their centurion. He will be responsible to divide it among them.
Mary of Magdalene and Mary of Cleopas have been watching from a distance. They are determined to follow Jesus to wherever they are taking Him. They too want to be able to provide a proper burial for their Lord. They do not currently have the necessary materials, but once they see where Jesus’ body is taken, they will return and anoint Him properly for burial.
Nicodemus and Joseph bring the cart as quickly as possible to their destination. They need to hurry because of the approaching holiday. Upon reaching Joseph’s own tomb they remove Jesus from the cart and carry Him inside. All the supplies wait beside the stone slab where Jesus will lay. Quickly, but with the greatest respect, Joseph and Nicodemus wash Jesus body. They don’t have time to do a thorough cleaning, as would accompany a regular burial, but at least they can remove much of the blood covering Jesus body.
Once clean, Jesus body is then wrapped in a clean linen bandage, starting from His shoulders and ending at His feet. Spices are massaged into this bandage and then a second layer of bandaging is applied over the first. Finally Jesus head and face are encased in a separate cloth and spices sprinkled over it. This is the best they can do with the time they had.
Joseph has arranged for two men to meet them at the tomb twenty minutes before the beginning of the new day. Together the four men roll into place the stone created specifically to cover to opening of this tomb.
Ten minutes remain before sundown and the beginning of the day of Passover. Nicodemus runs with the now empty cart back to the merchant from whom he hired it. Joseph pays the two men for their service. The two Mary’s memorize this location in their minds and plan to return on the first day of the week.
For now, everyone returns to their homes. Each will grieve during this Passover, rather than celebrate. This will be a Passover that none of them will ever forget. All they can do now is wait.
Father God, being on this side of the promise, I can only imagine what Jesus disciples were feeling. They have just witnessed Jesus’ death. Two of the women from the group have observed the place of His burial. They have listened to Jesus speak of His resurrection whenever He spoke of His death. Did they hold onto this hope or were they so mired in grief that they didn’t look to the future? We know that they stayed hidden in a home during their wait. I’m certain none of them joyfully partook in the holiday celebrations. Caiaphas was elated to have Jesus out of the way, but even he had a cloud hanging over his Passover celebration. He remembered Jesus’ words, and they terrified him.
Thank You that this is not the end of the story. I’m looking forward to Sunday! Thank You for the hope You provided, even if Jesus disciples didn’t remember it at the time. Thank You for Your promise to end all sorrow some day. I’m looking forward to the fulfillment of that promise. And I know You keep ALL Your promises.