Over the next two reflections, we will meet two men, Joseph and Nicodemus, who were the ones responsible for the burial of Christ. Both were members of the Sanhedrin, the body of Jewish leaders that had been responsible for the delivery of Christ to Pontius Pilate, where they demanded that He be crucified. One could argue that both were cowards when Christ was alive. Both had positive thoughts about Christ but couldn’t act on them, for fear of losing their positions. And so, they stood silently by as Christ was unjustly condemned and killed.
Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four of the Gospel accounts. In Matthew 27:57, he is described as a “rich man from Arimathea,” “who was also a disciple of Jesus.” This reference to Joseph as a disciple could refer to Joseph following the teachings of Jesus but doing it in secret, or it could refer to Joseph as the disciple he became after the Resurrection. By the time Matthew wrote the Gospel, Joseph would have been a disciple.
In Mark 15:43, we read that Joseph was “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God.” The Gospel of Luke describes Joseph as “a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and he was looking for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:50-51) These verses imply that while Joseph was indeed a member of the council that pushed for the condemnation of Christ, he did not vote with them. Was he absent? Did he abstain when it was time for the vote? We don’t know. John 19:38 reveals Joseph as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews.”
It’s a good thing that God judges us more by how we finish than by how we start. Many times, in our lives, we lack courage to do the right thing. However, it is often some landmark or traumatic event that inspires us to do the right thing, that helps us summon the courage we didn’t previously have. Such is the case with Joseph. Perhaps he, like the centurion, saw all that had happened and realized that a mistake had been made in the crucifixion of Christ.
Realizing that the death of Christ could not be undone, but also convinced that something unrighteous had occurred, it was Joseph who we read in Mark 15:43, “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”
It is interesting in this brief passage of Scripture that there seems to be great intentionality about mentioning the death of Jesus. First Pilate wondered if Jesus was dead, he then asked the centurion if He was death, and the Gospel writer writes for a third time, that when Pilate learned that Jesus was dead, then he granted the body to Joseph. Throughout the history of the church, there has been those who have doubted the death of Jesus. Perhaps they have wondered if he were in a deep sleep, in a coma or in a trance, and therefore, if He had been laid in the tomb while still alive, the Resurrection isn’t really a miracle after all. The Evangelist makes the point that Jesus had indeed died, in the clinical way that people are determined to be dead.
Joseph was then given leave by Pilate to take the Body of Jesus down from the cross. This indeed would have been an act of courage, as no doubt there were both soldiers and Jewish leaders hanging around on Golgotha taking in the scene who would have seen Joseph’s care for the Body of Jesus. He took the Body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a new tomb. This is why at the service of the Descent from the Cross, we remove the figure of Jesus from the cross and wrap it in a linen sheet, in imitation of how Joseph wrapped the Body.
Joseph became a Christian after the Resurrection. He made his way to Great Britain where he helped to establish the church before dying of natural causes. Today he is recognized as a saint.
An interesting liturgical note about the above hymn, “The Noble Joseph.” Each time this hymn is sung outside of Holy Week, the following line appears at the end: “But, on the third day you arose, O Lord, and granted the world Your great mercy.” (From the Apolytikion, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes) Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that this line is omitted on Good Friday, as we remember how Christ laid in the grave, rather than how He rose from the tomb.
When Joseph of Arimathea took You, the Life of all, now dead, down from the Cross, he buried You in fine linen, after anointing You with myrrh. He yearned with desire, in heart and lips, to embrace Your Pure Body; but, humbly contained by awe, rejoicing, he cried out to You: “Glory to Your condescension, O merciful God!” (Aposticha, Descent from the Cross, Good Friday afternoon, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
Joseph of Arimathea is another example of someone who didn’t start off strong in the faith but ended up as a saint of our church!