Being faithful isn’t just showing up when you get to shout alleluia with a crowd. Being faithful is when you can’t fathom any truth. Being faithful is when you are left holding death in your arms and not letting go. Being faithful is to keep going, in spite of fear and grief.
The drama of the crucifixion has all but ended by the closing of this chapter 19 in John’s gospel. All that is left is a dead body and two members of the council who have asked Pilate if they can take Jesus to a tomb.
The crowds have dispersed, the disciples have locked themselves away, the lots have been cast for his clothing, and a lifeless, naked Jesus is all that is left.
The rule of law has trumped justice, and the oppression of the occupied has been secured by fear and violence. Hopes of revolution have been stamped out.
You can almost hear Pilate whisper to Joseph and Nicodemus when they ask his permission to take the dead body, Why not? Maybe in the recesses of his mind he thought, “Who cares? There is no way either of you can take this rubble from the last three years and cobble together meaning. Go ahead, take the aftermath of your hope for new life who dangled on rusty nails and do what you will with it.
So Joseph and Nicodemus, who have access to Pilate, but remain aligned with Jesus, perform one of the most intimate acts of the gospel. They remove the nails, take his body down from the cross, and adorn him with a hundred pounds of a lavish mixture of myrrh and aloes.
With honor, they wrap his body in linen cloth, according to the burial customs of the Jews. Finally, they carry the body to a garden near the place where Jesus was crucified and place him in a new tomb at their own expense.
Legendary stories were written about Joseph centuries later.
There are tales detailing how he is entrusted with the Holy Grail and in Arthurian legend. When Galahad receives the vision of the Grail, Joseph is standing at the altar dressed as a bishop. These romantized tales gained credence because Joseph was willing to defy the Sanhedrin because of his loyalty to Jesus.
Nicodemus, whom we first encountered in the third chapter of John, was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council, who came to Jesus at night asking how to be born again. He comes up again in the 7th chapter of John as he speaks to his fellow Pharisees against unlawfully seizing Jesus. Like Joseph, he is venerated in art, heralded as a saint, and as a faithful follower of Jesus.
Nicodemus and Joseph, both risking the wrath of their fellow Sanhedrin, stepped in
when it seemed love had died. Being faithful isn’t just showing up when you get to shout alleluia with a crowd. Being faithful is when you can’t fathom any truth. Being faithful is when you are left holding death in your arms and not letting go. Being faithful is to keep going, in spite of fear and grief.
Together, Joseph and Nicodemus bridge the story of love from the crucifixion to Easter.
I am trying to imagine what they said as they anointed, wrapped, and carried his body.
Did they recount the story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus or the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law? Did they whisper about his teaching in the temple forecasting his resurrection? Did they weep over the horrific injustice of it all and talk about how they wished they could still talk with Jesus?
And between all their questions, did they speak about a passing thought they had in the remnant of death that love still lived.
Dear Sisters and Brothers, death loses its tourniquet hold on our lives when we, like Nicodemus and Joseph, dare to whisper and act with radical faith.
The deepest faith proclaims, even at the graveside, love does not die. Everything else can pass and we can lay it down. What happened on the cross isn’t victory over death, because Jesus did die. That is what Nicodemus and Joseph show us. The cross became the crowning glory of love.
The truth that turns the table on death is that Love lives.
Love is the word John writes to begin his gospel. In the beginning was the Word he asserts, and that Word was love. Jesus is that word made flesh and even when that flesh was killed, the word of love lived.
That is why, even at our grave, we are called beyond all reason and personal fortitude to utter the word, Alleluia.
In this intimate, messy story, we remember that even in death, there is love. Love is all that we have that lives beyond death. Even in the crucifixion and death of Jesus, love triumphs.
Every single other thing in the gospel story died in the ensuing eras. The swords rusted. The kingdom dissolved. The occupation ceased. But love lived on and on and on. That is why we celebrate Good Friday. This is the day we look intimately at death and feel love calling us to whisper Alleluia.
Just last week in the weekly circle gathering at Thistle Farms, the global movement for women’s freedom that is rooted in Nashville, TN, where women who have faced death over and over, Ty professed, “I love all y’all.”
That was it and that was everything. Her four words felt like the most powerful force for change.
Ty was able to say those four words after enduring sexual assault since middle school which rolled out a red carpet for her to be imprisoned for a decade for selling drugs and prostitution. She was able to say those four words as a leader who has cared for hundreds of women at Thistle Farms.
Her words are what faithfulness on Good Friday feels like.
Nicodemus, Joseph and Ty, who in the face of death and oppression, manage to live with a spirit of “I love all y’all". If we can say that, we can make it to Easter.
Peace and love,
— Becca Stevens
Photo Credits: Larkspur Conservation, a natural burial and preserve, located in Tennessee, on which Becca serves as Board Chair.