Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Generous Rich Man

Joseph of Arimathea, Luke says, was the man who donated his own prepared tomb for the burial of Jesus after Jesus' crucifixion. Joseph, mentioned in all four Gospels was a native of Arimathea, in Judea, a town associated by Crusaders with what is now Ramla. He was apparently a man of wealth, probably a “councilor” or member of the Sanhedrin, according to Luke. Mark (15:43) identifies Joseph as an "honorable counsilor, who was searching for the kingdom of God". Matthew (27:57) says he was a rich man and a disciple of Jesus. In John (19:38) Joseph is described as a secret disciple of Jesus, who boldly “asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus.” Commentator R. J. Miller notes this as an "unexpected” act, and wonders if Joseph of Arimathea is, in effect, bringing Jesus into his own family. 

 Pilate, reassured by a centurion that the death had taken place, allows Joseph's request. Joseph immediately purchases fine linen, according to Mark and Luke, and proceeds to Golgotha to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. Assisted by Nicodemus, Joseph takes Jesus’ body and wraps it in the fine linen, along with 100 lbs. of myrrh and aloes, spices which Nicodemus had brought, according to John. Jesus' body is then carried to the place which had been prepared for Joseph's own body, a man-made cave hewn from rock in the garden of his house nearby. This was all done speedily, for “it was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning." (Luke 23:54) 

 Joseph of Arimathea is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal Churches: on March 17 in the West, and on July 31 in the East and in Lutheran churches. The Orthodox additionally commemorate Joseph on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, the second Sunday after Easter. 

The first reading today, from Isaiah 53, deals with a “a man of suffering, [one] acquainted with infirmity.” (53:3) Traditionally, of course, we see this as referring to Jesus, the unique “Man of sorrows”. But many interpret verse 9 as a prophecy about him fulfilled in the Gospel by Joseph of Arimathea: “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich...” (Isaiah 53:9) The exact translation is somewhat ambiguous in the Hebrew, and none of the Gospel accounts even claims a prophesied fulfillment. 

 Then there is a mass of legendary detail which, ever since the 2nd century, in addition to the New Testament references, has accumulated around Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is mentioned in both apocryphal and non-canonical accounts such as the Acts of Pilate, or Gospel of Nicodemus, dating in its original form from about the 4th century. Many early church historians refer to Joseph of Arimathea, including Irenaeus (2nd cent.); Hippolytus and Tertullian (2nd-3rd cent.); Eusebius (3rd-4th cent.); Hilary of Poitiers (4th cent.); and St. John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople (4th-5th cent.). 

The Gospel of Nicodemus, a text appended to the Acts of Pilate, provides a good deal of mythologized detail about Joseph. It reiterates the canonical Gospel information that after Joseph asked Pilate for the body of the Christ, and prepared the body with Nicodemus' help, Christ's body was delivered to a new tomb that Joseph had built for himself. In addition, it says that when the Jewish elders express anger at Joseph for burying the body of Christ, he responds: “...Why are you angry against me because I begged the body of Jesus? Behold, I have put him in my new tomb, wrapping in clean linen; and I have rolled a stone to the door of the tomb. And you have acted not well against the just man, because you have not repented of crucifying him, but also have pierced him with a spear...” (Gospel of Nicodemus, Tr., Alexander Walker) It continues with the Jewish elders capturing Joseph, and imprisoning him, then placing a seal on the door to his cell after posting a guard. Joseph warns the elders: “The Son of God whom you hanged upon the cross is able to deliver me out of your hands. All your wickedness will return upon you.” When the elders return to the cell, the seal is still in place, but Joseph is gone. The elders later discover that Joseph had returned to Arimathea. Having a change in heart, they desire to have a more civil conversation with Joseph about his actions and send a letter of apology to him by means of seven of his friends. 

 Joseph then travels back from Arimathea to Jerusalem to meet with the elders, where they question him about his escape. He tells them this story: “On the day of the Preparation, about the tenth hour, you shut me in, and I remained there the whole Sabbath in full. And when midnight came, as I was standing and praying, the house where you shut me in was hung up by the four corners, and there was a flashing of light in my eyes. And I fell to the ground trembling. Then someone lifted me up from the place where I had fallen, and poured over me an abundance of water from head to foot, and put round my nostrils the odor of a wonderful ointment, and rubbed my face with the water itself, as if washing me, and kissed me, and said to me, ‘Joseph, fear not; but open your eyes, and see who it is that speaks to you. And looking, I saw Jesus; and being terrified, I thought it was a phantom. With prayer and the commandments I spoke to him, and he spoke with me. And I said to him: ‘Are you Rabbi Elias?’ And he said to me: ‘I am not Elias.’ And I said: ‘Who are you, my Lord? And he said to me: ‘I am Jesus, whose body you begged from Pilate, and wrapped in clean linen; and upon whose face you laid a napkin, and put me in your new tomb, and rolled a stone to the door of the tomb.’ Then I said to him who was speaking to me: ‘Show me, Lord, where I laid you.’ And he led me, and showed me the place where I laid him, and the linen which I had put on him, and the napkin with which I had wrapped his face; and I knew that it was Jesus. And he took hold of me with his hand, and put me in the midst of my house though the gates were shut, and put me in my bed, and said to me: ‘Peace be to you!’ And he kissed me, and said to me: ‘For forty days do not go out of your house; I go to my brothers into Galilee.” (Gospel of Nicodemus, Tr., Alexander Walker) 

 Medieval interest in Joseph of Arimathea centered around two themes: 1) that of Joseph as the founder of British Christianity, even before it had taken hold in Rome, and 2) that of Joseph as the original guardian of the Holy Grail, who supposedly brings the cup of the Last Supper eventually to Glastonbury Abbey. 

 All of this, of course, is what it is: pious, romantic, beautiful legend based on dubious evidence. Perhaps what’s most important for us to take away from the example of Joseph of Arimathea is stated in today’s Collect: Joseph’s great reverence for and desire to protect Christ’s body, and his courage, despite his fear. Joseph did not only what was demanded by Jewish piety, but went far beyond in humanely and generously offering his own tomb for Christ’s burial. We might ask: what would we do in a similar situation? Are we as devoted to Jesus in our own spiritual lives? Do we revere the mystical Body of Christ, our sisters and brothers, whoever they are, enough to continually address their needs with extraordinary courage, humanity and generosity? It’s to pray for this that we join together whenever we share Christ’s Body and Blood.

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