You Who clothed Yourself with light as a garment, Joseph with Nicodemus, brought down from the Cross, and seeing You dead, naked and unburied, felt deeply a sympathetic lament, and in grieving said: “Woe to me, sweetest Jesus! Whom, but a short while ago, when the sun beheld You hanging on the Cross, enshrouded itself in darkness, and the earth quaked in fear, and the veil of the Temple was rent asunder. But lo, I now see, that You willingly underwent death for my sake. How then shall I array You for burial, my God? Or how shall I wrap You in a shroud? And with what hands can I touch Your Sacred Body? Or what dirges shall I chant for Your funeral, O Merciful One? I magnify Your Passion; I praise in hymn You burial, with Your Resurrection, crying aloud: Lord, glory to You.”
~Doxastikon from Aposticha, Descent from the Cross, Good Friday Afternoon, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas
After this Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the Body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to Him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the Body of Jesus, and bound It in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
John 19: 38-42
As we discussed in the last reflection, Nicodemus, like Joseph of Arimathea, had a respected position on the Sanhedrin. And like Joseph, he stood silently by as Jesus was unjustly condemned and killed.
There are three distinct differences between Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. First, not much is known about the life of Nicodemus after his mention in the Gospel. We commemorate Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and the myrrh-bearing women on the third Sunday of Pascha (two weeks after Pascha). However, unlike Joseph, who went to Britain and died of natural causes, we do not know where Nicodemus ended up, and there is some speculation that he was martyred.
The second difference between Joseph and Nicodemus is that while Joseph is mentioned in all four of the Gospels, Nicodemus is only mentioned in the Gospel of John. Which leads us to the third distinct difference—Nicodemus is mentioned on three different occasions in the Gospel of John, two of them being before the crucifixion.
John 3:1-21 is a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, who is presented in John 3:1 as “a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” He came to Jesus by night, respectfully addressing Him as “Rabbi” in 3:2, where he says “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do, unless God is with Him.” That statement itself is stunning, the addressing of Jesus as Rabbi and saying that He is a teacher come from God. The Pharisees most certainly would disagree on both accounts. This encounter includes the well-known sayings of Christ in John 3:5-6 that “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (which serves in part as the Scriptural foundation for the Orthodox Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation) and John 3:16, one of the most well-known verses in Scripture that gives a summary of God’s plan for salvation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The second appearance of Nicodemus is in John 7. The chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest Jesus. Jesus had been preaching to the people, and the audience included the Jews and now these officers. We are told there was a division among the people over whether Jesus was the Christ. The officers went back to the Pharisees without arresting Jesus. They told the Pharisees, in response to why they didn’t bring Jesus in, that “no man ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46) Nicodemus then addressed the Pharisees, asking “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (7:51)
Nicodemus had taken some degree of risk in meeting Jesus at night and sticking up for Him in front of the Pharisees. However, at the trial of Jesus, he stood idly by. These characters of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are actually refreshing characters, because they are so real. How many times we know what the right thing is to do, and we even want to do the right thing; however, from fear of reprisals, we don’t do the right thing. The popular Christian series “The Chosen” did a great job in capturing the agony of Nicodemus, a righteous man who wants to do the right thing and deep down he believes in Christ, but who cannot walk away from his wealth and status for Christ.
Nicodemus got it right at the end. He came with Joseph of Arimathea, and brought “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.” (John 19:29) This was a lot more than what would have been put on a normal person at burial. This was the amount that would have been used for a king. In the end Nicodemus understood that the “King of the Jews,” was indeed the “King of Glory,” Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.
The hymn highlighted in this reflection is a lament from Joseph of Arimathea to the dead Christ. Obviously, it is not in the Scriptures, but was created by the hymnographer to illustrate in song the reverence that Joseph and Nicodemus ended up having for Christ. These men who stood by while their peers condemned Christ, ended up worshipping Him and believing in Him.
When You, the Redeemer of all, were placed in a new Tomb for us all, Hades, the respecter of none, crouched when he saw You. The bars were broken, the gates were shattered, the graves were opened, and the dead arose. Then Adam, gratefully rejoicing, cried out to You: “Glory to Your condescension, O Merciful God. (Aposticha, Descent from the Cross, Good Friday afternoon, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
Christ tells us that in order to be His disciple, we need to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow. Joseph and Nicodemus denied their positions as Jewish leaders and were willing to risk their own crucifixion to take Christ off the cross from His.