Bible Note #45: Nicodemus & Joseph of Arimathea at the Cross–A Lenten Meditation


His old bones ached under the weight of his burden.  Still, he thought, his pain was nothing compared to the pain of dragging a cross through the streets especially in that appalling condition.  The weight of that rough wood grinding on the shredded flesh of the man’s back must have been near unbearable.

Stained Glass at North Presbyterian Church, Elmira, NY; photo by GAC

The old man trudged on in his sumptuous robes with that heavy sack on his shoulder.  What a sight he must be!  A rich old man bearing a large burden on his shoulder!  Such a thing just wasn’t done.  What must people be thinking?  He could see them gawking at him.  Well, let them gawk.  Who could blame them?  One of the “teachers of Israel” trudging through the streets with a large sack of spices and ointment on his luxurious robed shoulder.  Why had he not thought to change into less showy clothes?

But, of course, there’d been no time to think.  He’d heard that they’d made the arrest and were conducting a trial under cover of night.  The old man had dressed hurriedly, dressed in his usual clothes for the council meetings, clothes that showed his high status as one of the preeminent teachers of Israel.

He’d hurried to the temple through the dark streets, hoping to interrupt this trial.  A trial under cover of night!  It was forbidden.  They all knew that perfectly well.  He had hoped that he might derail the proceedings or at least slow them by protesting on this point.  Trials were to be open and honest procedures, done by the light of day.

Under cover of darkness—that had been his own ploy some two or was it three years earlier when the old man had first spoken to the young Galilean rabbi.  He remembered it vividly.  That night he had slipped—skulked really—through those dark streets, trying like a frightened rabbit to stay in the shadows, fearing that someone might see him, might recognize him.  As he slid from the shadows, he had tapped timidly at the door where he’d been told he would find this strange country rabbi.

There had been something about this unsettling Galilean.  The old teacher of Israel had stood on the outskirts of a crowd listening to him teach.  The old man had stood with several others from the council.  He remembered hearing the other council members snort and grumble their disdain for this uneducated so-called rabbi.  These others from the council had gone away sneering at this carpenter rabbi from the boondocks of the Galilean countryside with his heavy bumpkin accent.  But the old teacher of Israel found that the young teacher’s word had haunted him long after.

Ever since the old teacher’s night meeting with this young rabbi, the old man’s world had begun to crumble.  No, not crumble.  That wasn’t right.  That young preacher from Galilee hadn’t caused the old man’s world to crumble.  He had simply disassembled everything the old teacher had thought he had known about God and the world.  Then as if by some invisible hand in his mind, all the pieces had begun to be reassembled into a new, truer, clearer, more beautiful vision of God and God’s world than the old teacher in all his years of study could ever have envisioned.  The old teacher of Israel had suddenly realized that he was being born again.

When he had reached the temple in search of the night trial, he was told that the council was not there.  Instead, they had gathered quite irregularly at the high priest’s palace.  By the time the old man had arrived at the palace, sweating and tire, the gray dawn was breaking, and there was no one about except a few tired servants.

Confused and weary, the old man had leaned against the cool stones of the entryway.  Glancing across the gateway, his eye caught the familiar face of his old friend and colleague on the council, not on of the teachers but rather one of the elders of Israel, a man of enormous wealth and standing, named Joseph.  He came from the little town of Arimathea.

Through the dim gray light, Joseph looked back at him with anguish.  There were tears on his cheeks.  Then he had spoken, his voice strained and cracking.  “I didn’t get here in time.  They’ve taken him to the Romans.  Pilate has him now.  He’s beyond our reach.”  These words had, it seemed to the old teacher, brought a new chill to the early dawn air and more weariness to his old bones.

Would there have really been anything that either of them could have done, the old teacher had wondered, even if they had been present for the trial before the council.  The matter had been decided before Caiaphas had even ordered the arrest.  The old teacher of Israel had remembered how his blood had run cold at the words the high priest had spoken to the council some months earlier.  With cool calculation, Caiaphas had said to the rest of the council, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” [NIV]

photo by GAC

“Oh Joseph,” the old teacher had said in the cold gray gateway to the high priest’s palace.  “What could we have done?”

“We could have spoken up for him at the very least.”

Weary and heart-sick, Joseph and the old teacher of Israel had made their way to the area outside Pilate’s Praetorium.  The scene was a theater of orchestrated outrage.  Several mid-level temple officials had directed the crowd like a choir.

When Pilate had called the young Galilean rabbi out onto the balcony, the old teacher had gasped and looked away.  The man was all but unrecognizable, a mass of blood and wounds, the product of civilized Roman ruthlessness, Pilate’s specialty.  Looking toward his friend, the old teacher was shocked to see Joseph gazing transfixed at the ruined young Galilean.  Joseph’s face showed, not horror, but rather something like reverence—even worship.  The old teacher looked quickly toward Pilate’s balcony again—too late.  All he saw was the blood stained back of a purple robe.

They had watched the crucifixion from a distance.  Both had seen such things before, the picture of Roman efficiency, professionalism, and terrifying brutality and inhumanity.  The two old friends had kept watch through the day.  They had heard him speak from the cross.  Ordinary, mundane words about his mother.  Then words from the psalm, that dreadful lamenting psalm: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?  Why are You so far from my deliverance and from my words of groaning? . . . Everyone who sees me mocks me; they sneer and shake their heads:  ‘He relies on the Lord; let Him rescue him; let the Lord deliver him, since He takes pleasure in him.’ . . . For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers has closed in on me; they pierced my hands and my feet.  I can count all my bones; people look and stare at me.  They divided my garments among themselves, and they cast lots for my clothing.” [HCSB]  And on went the words of the psalm.  The old teacher had experienced a creeping sense of recognition.

The words of Galilean on the cross had become harder and harder to hear and understand.  “I’m thirsty.”  “Father, forgive them.”  “He’s talking about me,” the old teacher had thought.  “I failed him, and he’s seeking forgiveness from God for me.”  At the same moment, a sob burst from Joseph’s lips.  He’d had the same realization.

In the moments that followed, the old teacher’s meditations were interrupted by more words, this time coming, not from the cross but from Joseph, standing beside him, quiet, murmured words:  “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” [ESV]

The old teacher turned in amazement toward his old friend.  Joseph was quoting Isaiah.  Slowly and powerfully, light began to pour into the mind of the teacher of Israel.  Could it be?  Could this be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah’s hymns?  He stared dumbstruck into this old friend’s glowing face.

Then there came such a shout from the cross that they both started and turned toward the sound.  The sound bore such power that they could hardly believe it had come from the ruined man on the cross.  The shout had caused the Roman soldiers to leap to their feet and draw their weapons.  The supervising centurion with sword in hand was gazing at the limp figure on the cross and muttering in awed tones.

The young Galilean was dead.  That was quite clear.  Then Joseph was speaking.  The old man turned.  Joseph asked, “What will they do with his body?”  The old man stared at his friend uncomprehending for a moment, trying to clear his mind.  Then he replied, “They’ll throw it in a pit somewhere and cover it up, all three of the bodies together.”

“No,” Joseph had said resolutely.  “I’ll take his body and bury him in my new tomb.  I just had it cut out for me.  It’s just over there a little ways.”

“Joseph, they won’t let you do that,” the old teacher had said, pointing at the Roman soldiers, still staring nervously at the dead man on the cross.

“I’ll go to Pilate,” Joseph had said.  “He’ll see me.”  The old teacher had not doubt that he would.  Joseph was a man of high standing in the province.

“I’ll go with you,” the old teacher had said.

“No,” Joseph had said.  “I think that will complicate things with Pilate.  Instead, you go and get the spices and aloe for the burial wrapping.  I’ll pay for it.”

The old teacher had shaken his head.  “You provide the tomb for him.  I’ll provide the burial wrappings.”

They had looked into each other’s faces for a moment.  Then the old teacher had said, “You know, Joseph, we’ll have to do this in the open, in the broad light of day.  There will be no hiding what we are about to do.  It will not go well for us with the council.”

Joseph looked back into the old teacher’s eyes.  Then he said, “We’re well past caring about that now, are we not, my old friend?”

Woodlawn Cemetery, Elmira, NY; photo by GAC

The teacher of Israel returned the gazed and nodded.  “Yes,” he said.  “Well passed caring about that.”

And so, the old teacher resolutely bore his heavy load of spices and aloe toward the cross.  He arrived in time to see the soldiers helping Joseph hoist the body of the dead rabbi onto his shoulders.  It was a strange and surprising sight.  These usually rough and arrogant Roman soldiers seemed strangely affected and subdued by this particular victim, the centurion especially so.

A crowd of astonished onlookers, some temple officials among them, watched as these two dignified council members carried their burdens toward the place of burial.  Both men had servants who might have helped them.  But they had both decided that this was a task they must not delegate to others.  This was a service that they must do with their own hands.

A small procession moved toward the tomb.  These two once well-respected religious leaders and a group of weeping women.  The old teacher wondered for a moment where were all those brash young men who had followed this Galilean rabbi around over the past few years.  But he wondered about it for only a moment.  He and Joseph—and these women too, he realized—were somehow about God’s business now.  He wasn’t entirely sure exactly what God was doing, but he had no doubt that God was about something of great importance in all this.  He and Joseph and the women were part of it now.

Drawn especially from John 19:38-42

© 2021 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with permission

See also:

Bible Note #43: Peter’s Denial & Following Jesus–A Lenten Meditation

Bible Note #44: The Centurion at the Cross–A Lenten Meditation

2 thoughts on “Bible Note #45: Nicodemus & Joseph of Arimathea at the Cross–A Lenten Meditation

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