05 April 2015

The Long Sabbath

It was the longest, least restful Sabbath any of them could remember.

The sun was bright and the birds were singing, but these tokens of spring seemed hollow in light of the week's events.

Yes, the rabbi had seemed foolhardy last Sunday when he decided to come into Jerusalem despite the death threats, despite the danger. But it had turned out so well, with throngs of enthusiastic people waiting to receive him. 

In that moment, with the crowds waving palm branches and screaming for salvation, he could have led them anywhere, accomplished anything.

His followers had asked themselves, "Could this be it? Could this be, at long last, the coming of the Kingdom?"

But instead of assembling an army or forming a provisional government, he started doing what he had always done best: Alienating people.

He began with the temple. Raving like a madman, he overturned tables, loosed animals, and generally raised hell anywhere he could. Merchants alienated? Check.

Then he moved on to the most respected members of the religious establishment, calling them blind guides and hypocrites. Oh, yes, and also calling down damnation upon their heads. Pharisees alienated? Check.

Not to mention his own disciples. 

Judas, the treasurer, was incensed when Christ refused to speak out against the flagrant wastefulness of Mary's perfume-footwash debacle.

Simon the Zealot saw Palm Sunday as a wasted opportunity to throw off the shackles of the Roman oppressors.

Even Cephas was hurt -- the rabbi basically told him he was destined for cowardly failure.

And then there was the intensely awkward moment when Jesus had stripped down and bent to wash the filth from his followers' feet. How humiliating! Worse still, he commanded them to do the same.

They didn't hate him -- well, not all of them, anyway -- but they sure didn't understand him, either. Disciples alienated? Check x12.

So there goes the kingdom. Whatever this man might be, he's no politician.

And then came Gethsemane: Their failed battle against sleep as he struggled alone in prayer.

And then the mob who came to arrest him, the flash of steel and the ear bouncing to the ground, then miraculously restored.

And then the trials, where he resembled nothing so much as a sheep destined for slaughter.

And then the slow, agonizing death on the cross, and the blanket of darkness, and the earthquake, and his gasped "It is finished."

He may has well have been talking about hope itself. All day long, his disciples felt like Joseph at the bottom of the pit, bereft of any good  future they could have imagined.

And that was Saturday.

03 April 2015

Unexpected Company

So here are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two pillars of the Sanhedrin, defiling themselves right before the holiest Sabbath of the year, and for what? The cold, mutilated corpse of an unrepentant heretic.

Joseph and Nicodemus almost certainly knew each other before that grim day. Tradition tells us they were both members of the Jewish ruling body. But did each know of the fearful hope hidden in the other's heart? I wonder.

Nicodemus, curious about this Jesus but unwilling to risk his reputation, went under cover of night to hear what the rabbi had to say. He came away bewildered by the man's talk of wind and snakes in the desert and rebirth.

Joseph was rich and respectable. He followed Jesus in private, like a Shakespearian scholar secretly obsessed with Kim Kardashian. John tells us Joseph was afraid of the establishment -- the one he was part of, and the one that ultimately condemned this innocent man to death.

How Nicodemus and Joseph found out about their mutual faith in the Nazarene is anyone's guess. I like to think their eyes met at Golgotha, and each saw his own pain, loss, and disappointment reflected in the other, even as their shared hope died before their eyes.

Whatever led up to it, I find myself fascinated by the picture of these two devout men gently preparing the bruised, bloody, broken body of Jesus on that grim afternoon. They raced against the sun, intent on finishing their task before the Sabbath. They packed spices against the cold, torn flesh, then wrapped linen around his body.

With their preparations complete, they laid him in a nearby tomb -- the one Joseph had selected for himself. It must have been surreal to lay the young, charismatic teacher to rest there as the sun sank into the west.

Then, these two men must have parted ways, each returning to his home and family, and each haunted by the day's tragic events. But they had discovered something few find in the midst of such darkness: Unexpected company from a kindred spirit.