Dead.

A reflection for Good Friday on What Darkness Brings To Light

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

John 19:38-42

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

We are unable to marvel at Christ’s compassion as he pleads with the Father to forgive those who have treated him so unjustly, so horrendously. We cannot cheer for the criminal who sticks up for Jesus and so earns himself a place in Paradise. We are not moved by the agony of God-with-us thirsting, breathing shallower and shallower, questioning why he has been forsaken.

For he is dead.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes because it is nearly Passover and there are preparations to be made: houses to be tidied, meals to be prepared, tables to be set.

But isn’t that always the case with death? The rub, the salt in the wound; the final, unbearable agony on to of the already excruciating loss? How quickly life moves on ….

The flowers fade. The cards and calls stop coming. The last lasagne or chicken-pot-pie comes out of the freezer, is defrosted, and eaten. People get busy and conversations become awkward as you get the sense from what is not said that you should be moving on; when, really, its as a result of the guilt that they feel for not being there for you as they had intended that makes others unable to look you in the eye.

So you keep yourself busy – through the first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary. But you realise just how many firsts there actually are: the first holiday that you don’t take your usual camping trip, the first time you sit down at your favourite coffee shop alone, the first time something funny happens and you start telling it to someone who’s no longer there ….

So you’re stuck, as the firsts turns to seconds or thirds and the loss really doesn’t get much easier and you discover that a wave of tired can overwhelm you for no particular reason at all.

Death is final. Irrevocable. And – for those who loved its victim with all their heart – changes life completely.

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead – and with him, the hope of the world.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying away from the darkness of it all in case some taint should linger and be carried home with them.

And yet, it is in the darkest place that something quite unexpected, quite amazing happens.

In the absence of Jesus’s male disciples, two other men step up to deal with Jesus’s body: Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man and a member of the Jewish ruling council, who had vehemently opposed the decision to have Christ crucified; and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the rabbinic tribunal who we remember for that very confusing conversation about needing to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Both were secret disciples. As members of the religious and political parties that shared power with their Roman rules, both stood to lose much by aligning themselves with the crucified King of the Jews:

  • their position,
  • their standing in the community,
  • their creature comforts,
  • their freedom,
  • and, maybe even their lives.

But in the gravest of moments, at the darkest of times, when everyone else had abandoned the lifeless, useless, blood-stained body of Jesus and just a small handful of weeping women stood watch over it from a distance, wondering what to do next in the face of such an unexpected, unjust, tragic death – Joseph and Nicodemus declare their love publicly and practically as they petition Pilate for Jesus’s body, prepare it for burial with a lavish amount of myrrh and sandalwood, and lay it (as Isaiah had prophesied) in a rich man’s tomb. Tradition suggests that this may even have been Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb – freshly hewn into the cliff of a nearby, private garden.

Through the darkness shines
their courage,
their generosity,
their faith,
their love,
their commitment.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if they would ever have identified themselves as followers of Jesus if the story had not ended in this exact way. Without the darkness, would their relationship with Jesus ever have come to light? Without the tragedy and injustice of such a death, would the world have been prepared for Sunday’s truth: that Christ has come to life?

Today, our Gospel reading puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead.

The spectacle is over.

The dreams of his disciples lie in rubble and ruin.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes …

… homes which are lonely and quiet because there is no one else left in the family …

… homes which are fearful and bleak because daddy is a mean drunk or mommy’s new boyfriend is looking at me in an inappropriate way …

… homes which are filthy or bare because there’s not enough time or not enough money …

… homes which are cold and uncomfortable because there’s no love left there anymore …

… homes which are prison for the very old, the very ill, the very depressed …

… homes which aren’t really homes, just a rough, warm spot somewhere out of the wind and the rain ….

This Good Friday, as we encounter the courage, the generosity, the faith, the love, and the commitment of Joseph and Nicodemus in a place of darkness and despair – the place of Death – I wonder what their story may bring to light in our own lives and in our own understanding of what true discipleship might require in this dark world
into which Jesus came,
and suffered on the cross,
and died.

Who will carry the light in the darkness?

Prayer

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
every home a safe haven,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

Amen.

Best and worst

*an opening prayer inspired by the story of David and his son, Absalom,
in 2 Samuel 13-18 and Ephesians 5:1-2*

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.

Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message

Praise to You O Suffering God.
You know the wounding of skin that was made to love,
the piercing of flesh with nail and thorn,
and the far greater rending of heart and of hope
through deception,
denial,
and desertion.

By humbling yourself in human form,
You have seen us at our best –
and at our worst.

You understand that love can lead to light and life
as easily as it can to death and destruction;
that a word spoken in anger can be an instrument of justice
or a wrecking ball of devastation;
that one day our family is a sanctuary, a source of strength and support,
the next, the people who we have given the most power
to drive us crazy or do us harm.

As we gather, this day, in Your holy presence
– our whole being hoping for Your faithful love
and great redemption –
we pray that You will gather together
both our beauty and our brokenness,
with Your infinite tenderness …

Graham Kendrick “O Lord, Your tenderness”

Day Twenty Seven: Extending Family

Psalm 148
Isaiah 49:5-15
Matthew 12:46-50

“The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy
in each other’s life.
Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof.”
Richard Bach

Maybe it was simply because it was our first Christmas away from home, but this year I found myself particularly aware of distance (both geographical and emotional) in relationships.

As I was talking on the phone to my youngest brother in the United Kingdom, even he remarked, “Well, now you know how it felt for me – that first Christmas in a strange country. Except, you cheated – your whole family moved with you.” 

As I ponder those words “your whole family” in light of today’s texts, I am amazed at how God has enlarged my capacity for love and my experience of joy through the blessing of an extended family accumulated over the years:
a family born not of blood;
but of shared belief and service,
of stories offered and received – some light with laughter,
some heavy yet somehow lightened by the telling;
of conflicts worked through and forgiveness offered;
of – as Richard Bach puts it – respect and joy in each other’s life,
no matter how far away we may be or when last we talked.

What were your thoughts, your feelings about “family” over this sacred season?

Who did you reach out to?
Who reached out to you?
Who did you long to hear from, but didn’t?
Who are you missing?
Who do you feel physically or emotionally distant from at the moment? 

At the height of Jesus‘ ministry, his mother and brothers try to visit him, but the room in which he is teaching is packed with people and there is no easy way for them to gain access to him.

So they send in a messenger with the news that they are waiting to see him; confident that when he hears about their arrival, he will wrap things up quickly to spend time with them.

Instead, what follows is a radical act of inclusion as Jesus stretches his hand out towards his disciples and commands,
“Look closely. These are my mother and brothers. Obedience is thicker than blood. The person who obeys my heavenly Father’s will is my brother and sister and mother”
Matthew 12:49-50 (The Message).

His declaration may well have hurt or offended the members of his “blood” family as they waited outside for him, yet it is a truly authentic statement for the Son of God-who-nurses-Her-people (Isaiah 49:15).

As we enter into a shared life with God, we enter also into a life shared with people who we may not know very well or (as sometimes sadly happens) who we may not even like very much but to whom we are bound by obedience to the God who has formed us and who uses us to “tell the prisoners, ‘Come out of your prison’” and  “tell those in darkness, ‘Come into the light’” (Isaiah 49:9) …

… and those newly liberated,
new to life in the light,
in turn, become brothers and sisters along life’s journey
for the extension of Christ’s kingdom is not a campaign aimed at conquest
but a grace-filled invitation into an ever extending family
formed by the Father’s own hand,
liberated by the love of the Son,
and held together by the Spirit of Truth who testifies to our belonging.

In looking towards the new year, who are the people that God is calling you …
… to love?
… to forgive?
… to journey more closely alongside?
… to invite into the family?