6 min. to read.
Today is the 39th day of Lent. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations in response.
John 19:38-42 is the scripture today, the burial of Jesus.
In these few words, we are shown a scene both tender and terrible. Two men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, at this point both secret disciples of Jesus, took it upon themselves to care for Jesus’ body. They removed him from the cross, quickly prepared his body for burial, and carried him to a nearby empty tomb. On one hand, this is a tender act of love and respect. On the other, Jesus is dead. For Jesus’ friends and disciples, this was a moment of profound grief, loss, and anguish.
Christian consciousness tends to rush from the cross to the resurrection. We can hold the image of Jesus on the cross in mind because we’ve been taught that he was sacrificing himself for all of us. Even in its horror, we are witnessing nobility, the highest act of love. Then, of course, we can see the image of Jesus emerging from the tomb in a halo of glory, death conquered. Even someone who doubts the reality of these texts or the possibility of the afterlife can see the attraction in that! But many of us, certainly most American Protestants, don’t spend much attention on the space between.
There was a moment when Joseph and Nicodemus, having finished their work, ducked out of the tomb and silently rolled the stone into place. As the heavy stone dropped into the groove that had been carved for it, they were not just sealing the tomb. They were closing the door on the story of Jesus and the hope he’d given them. It was done. Jesus was dead. The irresistible force of the Roman Empire had done what it always did, plowing over any resistance. The inertia of corrupt leadership had held out one more time. The hopes and dreams of all the years were once again proven false.
Looking back from the perspective of a religion based on the resurrection, we want to rush to the good part. God brings life where there once was death! Christ defeats death by death. We are raised to new life with him! But to rush past Saturday means we miss the single most transgressive and life-changing part of the incarnation.
Christians believe that in Jesus, God came to walk among us. We call this the incarnation. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus experienced every temptation and experience common to humanity. This means we have a Divine advocate who personally understands our circumstances. We talk about the wonder of God entering into our mess, walking with us in our shoes, but in the tomb on the Saturday of Holy Week, we come to arguably the highest moment of the incarnation, and there’s no holiday to celebrate it.
The one experience that binds all of humanity together is death. We all die, rich and poor, every color, every gender, all of us, no matter how much we fight it. Death is our universal inheritance and fate. Our bodies fail, refusing to do what we ask of them. Unexpected tragedy strikes. Sometimes others do violence to us. One way or another, usually against our will, we die.
Perhaps Nietzsche thought he was edgy and scandalous when he declared, “God is dead,” but it shouldn’t have offended any Christian who knew their own story. At the heart of our faith is this mystery: God came down from the gilded top of the pyramid of power where we expected Divinity to reside and became human. God didn’t just appear human or cosplay humanity. God became human in the most total and most complete capacity. Breaking every rule and expectation we have for what it means to be God, God died.
The early church fathers talked in various ways about how those things taken up in Christ are made new, saved, or reconciled. Well, One of the human things taken up in Christ is death. The ancient church called this the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ entered death and defeated Death forever. There is now truly nothing that can separate us from God or from God’s love.
In this, death is made sacred. Like birth and baptism, it is one more thing we do after the example of Jesus. He died with us; we die with him. Death defanged is death no longer feared. Instead of a haunting spirit, it has become a sacrament, an experience of sacred rest that all humanity shares with God. In Christ, the Apostle Paul said, we live and breathe and have our being. In him, we also have our death. Christians celebrate rising with Christ, and rightly so. But, we must also talk about Saturday, the day in the tomb, when by every human measurement, death had won.
In so many ways, our fear of death corrupts our lives. We run and work and fill every waking moment with distraction, so we don’t have to face the idea of our death. We idolize adolescent bodies and spend our time and resources trying in vain to hold back the effects of time on our own. We cannot look certain people in the eye–those with chronic pain, those living with cancer or AIDS, the very old, and many others–because their very existence reminds us that our bodies, too, will fail. We pack up our elderly and send them away to fall apart and die in special facilities, so we don’t have to watch the decay happen in real-time.
Even our desperate attempts to deny the structural inequality in our society are manifestations of our fear of death. We tell stories that people without homes, healthcare, or enough money to afford free time are only experiencing the consequences of their own choices, failures, or moral flaws. Why? Because those stories allow us to believe that we could stop these terrible things from happening to us because we are wise, or prepared, or righteous. We don’t want to contemplate the possibility that we might be powerless to stop these things happening to us in the very same way that we are ultimately powerless to prevent death.
But if God died, then even death is sacred. If God died, then there is truly no experience we can have that is outside the reach of God’s understanding or presence. And if in death, we are not alone but are in fact held in Christ, then there is nothing to fear. If there is nothing to fear, then there is no reason not to love. Freed from the haunting fear of death, we can live motivated by generous other-centered co-suffering love.
Lent invites us to leave behind our fear of death. This way is life.