When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who wasalso a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.' Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,' and the last deception would be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (NRSV)
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Magna Carta signed by King John in 1215 is the right of habeas corpus. This assures that law, not the will of a ruler, would determine whether a person could be detained or constrained. The most controversial use of this principle in current times has been with respect to prisoners held at Guantanamo. The basic law by which all of us are bound assures that anyone is entitled to be shown just cause why he or she should be detained. The argument against this has been that military situations are extraordinary ones and the rule of law does not apply. Who should get the body, the court or the prison? This is the current question for many in the legal arena.
It's interesting how today's text rings some very modern notes in this regard. Twice in the text, the question regarding who should get the body is put. And the answer, as in modern legal wrangling, is not so clear. This is especially true because the body in question is already dead and there are two political entities and two sets of laws involved. It's a good setting for a mystery story or a crime novel, although, because it's our text for today, the story has already been written.
Joseph and the body
The story begins with a deceased body on the cross. What should happen next? The Roman law leaves the body of a criminal on the cross as a warning to any that might consider lawlessness as a lifestyle. The vultures will ultimately take care of it. If taken down, it will be thrown on a nearby garbage heap and the roving dogs will make short work of it. I once had a very liberal teacher who said that that's what happened to Jesus.
A problem arose because the crucified one was a Jew and even if the Jews had no use for him, they had laws about such matters. According to Deut. 21: 22-23, a body had to be buried on the day the person died. This is practiced today in Judaism and in Islam. Even more serious was the fact that the next day was the Sabbath when no burial could take place. Enter Joseph Arimathea. According to legend, he was the uncle of Mary, the mother of Jesus. He requests the body and Pilate obliges. Joseph buries the body in an unused tomb.
That all sounds very final, yet it's interesting what people like to do with Jesus. He is of such importance that people everywhere want a piece of him. It's as if all around the world they are saying habeas corpus, "you shall have the body." And many are the places that lay claim to Jesus presence, both before and after his resurrection.
A really interesting one which involved Joseph of Arimathea is that Joseph was a tin merchant and he made frequent trips to the tin mines of Cornwall which had an ancient name, Marazion, or Market Jew, because a colony of Jews lived there. Upon one occasion, according to the legend (W. Barclay, The Gospel according to Matthew 2), Joseph brought his nephew, Jesus, on a visit to the dirty tin mining town of Cornwall. William Blake sets these thoughts in rhyme, and because the English love the idea, a musical version of it, the hymn Jerusalem, has become the second national anthem of the United Kingdom.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
In England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills,
Among those dark Satanic mills?
Another legend says that after Joseph placed Jesus in the tomb, he was revived in the cool tomb and set out for India where he taught for many years and today you can visit his tomb in Kashmir.
Some years ago when I traveled to Egypt, we visited a local Coptic church near the road to Alexandria. A leader of the church showed us a stone slab in a glass case in which there seemed to be a child's footprint. "This was made when Jesus visited here with his parents on the flight to Egypt." When I asked whether he was sure that was what it was, he said, "What else could it be?"
Some questions are best left unchallenged, and I didn't pursue the matter any further with the man. But I do understand that the importance of Jesus invites him to places in our imaginations and in our hearts, where ever we find ourselves.
We do live, after all, an intimidating, precarious and ambiguous existence and not to know the answers to everything can be disheartening and exhausting. The television commercials barrage us with medications that help us with our depression and anxiety. It is no longer legal to post similar ads for alcohol, although many believe it accomplishes similar ends.
This is why the story in today's text which ends somewhat cryptically nevertheless wants to address all of our ambiguity and despair with a word of comfort and hope. That comfort and hope is centered in the body that Joseph placed in the tomb, a body that God loved and glorified. But that's to get ahead of our text.
The Pharisees and the body
In the second part of our text, Pilate gets another visit, this time from the Pharisees. Apparently, Pilate dropped the matter of Jesus body once he handed it over to Joseph of Arimathea. Romans had a very nebulous view of the afterlife. On the one hand their myths talked about crossing the river to some kind of other side. On the other hand, their tombstones show mourners waving farewell perhaps in the hopes of some fond meeting. But Pilate probably assumed that dead was dead.
The Pharisees however believed in the resurrection. They shared that belief with Jesus. And while they told Pilate that they didn't want anyone making up stories if the body was in fact gone after the third day, they surely also feared that if it was gone, there might be more at stake here than a stolen body. If that would happen, no writ of habeas corpus would do any good. So Pilate obliges them with a group of soldiers to make sure that the body stays in the tomb. Roman law and Jewish anxiety meet.
Again, that all sounds very final. And this is the time of darkness for our Vigil when we remind ourselves how final it all seemed to be. There are wonderful stories in the Gospels about the disciples waiting in fear in an upper room and again about disciples eating grilled fish on a beach uncertain what the future held. There are stories about women trying to make sense out of an empty tomb and stories about disciples walking a lonely road to Emmaus pondering their destiny with a Messiah. There is Mark's final cryptic word, "fear." However, again, that's to get ahead of our text.
In the darkness of this Holy Saturday night, since at least the 300s, when we have records of the Armenian Christians having gathered at this time, Christians have for millennia gathered to light a new fire and an Easter candle. They have come together to welcome new catechumens as they are buried with Christ by baptism so that just as he rose, they to might rise.They have come to eat bread and drink wine and celebrate that the body is not gone, but is here among us. As we share it together, we become that body of Christ. Together on this night, the church has sung for centuries:
Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering.
Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Joeseph's stone and Pilate's guards did not secure the body, for Jesus is with us tonight.
This night, among all nights, is our time for celebration.