What’s so strange about removing a corpse?
This is the station I have been worried about. What is there to say about it? Of course Jesus is taken down from the cross, that’s what we would expect, isn’t it? What more is there to say? What message can we take from this station? Well actually there might be more to this than first appears. The Romans used crucifixion, not only as an execution but as a warning to others. The bodies were usually left to hang on the cross, visible to all who travelled into the city. This would terrify anybody who was thinking about opposing the mighty Roman army. Anybody seeing the decaying corpses would think twice and probably keep their thoughts to themselves.
In this case the body of Jesus was released that very afternoon. He was not to be left hanging as a warning to others. This seems to break the tradition of Roman crucifixion. According to the Gospel of John,
After this, Joseph of Arimathaea, who was a disciple of Jesus – though a secret one because he was afraid of the Jews – asked Pilate to let him remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave permission, so they came and took it away. Nicodemus came as well – the same one who had first come to Jesus at night time.
John 19: 38, 39
I noticed that only John mentions Nicodemus in his account. The other three evangelists say nothing about him. I’ll come back to that later. If it was the custom to leave the bodies to rot on the cross why did Pilate readily agree to Joseph’s request? Why did the Jews not object? There’s more to this than meets the eye.
What happened at the death of Jesus that seems to have caused this change of heart? Looking back we see that when Jesus died on the cross there were great signs. Matthew recounts them.
At that, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked; the rocks were split; the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy men rose from the dead.
Matthew 27: 51, 53
I think it is fair to say that people knew that something terrible had happened. The centurion is quoted as saying “In truth this was a son of God.” Even the heathens knew that this was no normal execution. I wonder how those responsible felt about their part in this when they saw those signs? Pilate of course had been warned by his wife and was reluctant to become involved. His hand washing at the pavement was his attempt to avoid any blame.
Have you ever had an instance of a child breaking an ornament and then hiding it under the sofa, pretending it had never happened? I think the authorities were behaving like that. The removal of the body, hiding it in the tomb was their denial. They were anxious to have the whole business forgotten, swept under the carpet. Of course we know now that that is not what happened. Things took an entirely different course altogether.
The apostles seem to have been in shock. This was not what they had expected. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem a few days before seemed to promise a great future for Jesus and for them. Now they were in hiding and everything seemed to have come to nothing. Peter, who had been made the head of the Church by Jesus had denied his master and was riven with guilt. The ‘Church’ was in disarray.
This is where Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus come in. We met Nicodemus earlier in the gospel story. He had come to Jesus in the night. He was a prominent Jew who came to believe in Jesus. He came out of darkness into light. Joseph of Arimathaea is said to be a secret believer. He was afraid to show his belief for fear of what the Jews might do to him. In the story so far they are nobodies. They have no prominence.
Now, when it all seems to be falling apart, it is these men who step forward and take charge of the body of Jesus. It is they who place Jesus in the tomb. This would normally be something a family would see to. In a sense we are seeing a new definition of family. Joseph and Nicodemus step up and ensure that God’s plan will proceed.
The authorities would have expected the execution of Jesus to scare off any followers of Jesus and, as we see in the case of the apostles, it worked. Strangely enough it was the people who had been afraid before who now acted. We see a transformation in those who, like Joseph and Nicodemus, had been afraid but now put their fear behind them. The crucifixion had strengthened their faith rather than destroy it.
This is something I had not realised before. When the Church was in its first crisis it was not the apostles who pulled it together but just ordinary followers. That rang a bell with me. The Church in Scotland found itself in a crisis again recently when the Cardinal admitted some wrongdoing. The media appeared outside the cathedral in Edinburgh to ask the Catholics coming out of mass how their faith had been affected by the revelations. I remember two Edinburgh ladies explaining that their faith had not been shaken at all. Their faith was in God, not in any of the priests, bishops or cardinals of the Church. In the days that followed ordinary Catholics rallied and showed that the Church is still the Church started by Jesus no matter what foolishness we humans bring to it.
So the message for me in this station is in the nature of a question. What kind of follower am I? When things get difficult and the Church is held up to ridicule what is my reaction? Am I tempted to shut myself away from it all? Perhaps I’m the kind of Catholic who might like to distance myself from it all. Perhaps I’ll find myself saying that I’ve always had my doubts and now I can see how wrong we were.
On the other hand I might be the kind of Catholic who sees the Church as my home. Am I the sort of Catholic who sees the Church as something made up of people rather than an organisation that I can join while it suits me? I hope I see myself as part of the family that is the Church. I hope I’m the sort of Catholic who smiles when he listens to people who say the Church should share out all its wealth with the poor; a smile because the wealth of the Church is the faith of its people. I’ve been lucky enough to witness that treasure being shared out to the poorest people in the world by priests, nuns and many lay people. It is those who give of themselves, not those who only give some money who are sharing out the treasure of the Church.
The message in this station is easy to ignore. We can just Look up at the image of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, recite “I love you Jesus, my love above all things.” and then move on to the next station. Perhaps, though, we might pause and ask ourselves whether we would join with Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea and keep God’s plan on track. They found themselves in the most difficult of times and found their faith strengthened. Perhaps these difficult times will strengthen our faith.