The following is a fictional story line that I have written over the last 24 hours as a means of turning all my thoughts to that one weekend in history on which the fate of humankind fell. All four Gospels record a fascinating piece of information that creates as many questions as answers: Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, and John 19:38-42. Read them for yourself before you fall into the storyline and you will be well able to sort the facts from the fiction. Let no one be confused between the two. But, only when we’re seated with the saints around the Table of the Lamb will we hear the hundreds of individual stories told by those gathered in Jerusalem one particular Passover. That is when those living stones will talk. Until then, we are left to imagine. It is, of course, unlikely that the story of one particular man went as follows but of this you can be sure: the actual events exceed all supposition, captivating all the human senses.
“Already? I think not. It’s only been a few hours. He could have a day, even two left to go. But then that beating was –”
“He is dead, Governor.” Joseph fought to keep his composure. Less than an hour earlier, he’d steeled himself and shaken off his fear with all the ease of an ox trying to shake off his hide. But once his courage surged, it blasted like a trumpet and brought forth his outrage. The man standing before him was a coward. And he knew one when he saw one. Shame burned in his throat. They’d all been cowards.
“Guard, send word to the centurion officiating on the hill this afternoon. Have him brought here.” Pilate’s gaze never left Joseph’s face as the guard stepped into the corridor. “So, who are you representing here today that you want the body of the Nazarene? Ah, yes, the Council has sent you to make sure the land is not defiled at dusk, has it not? You people and your peculiar laws. I’d say you’re running out of time for today.”
Joseph’s mind flashed with a firestorm of faces. Red, angry pious faces. He’d known those men on the Council for years. He’d dipped bread with them. Prayed with them. Respected them. Been respected by them. Hadn’t they all been looking for the kingdom of God? And had any of them ever seen a man like this man? If they did not believe his words, how could they not believe his works? Joseph had not seen this coming. He’d heard boasts and threats among them but never imagined it would materialize into this.
He knew there had been others like him who believed but they’d been equally discreet. Secret disciples. Spineless disciples, Joseph thought to himself. That evening before as men morphed to beasts, Joseph searched the room frantically for expressions of horror, for mouths pinched tightly, withholding consent. He’d known when he’d objected that private interrogations and public insults would come in the aftermath. He’d pay. He knew that. They’d remember. That prior evening, however, there was no debate. No order in the court. Only an ear-splitting mob mopping for blood.
“It wasn’t my doing.”
Joseph stared at the governor but refused to service him with a response. He was the last person who was going to help Pilate swat away his ghosts like flies. They’d all have to deal with the night haunts of culpability.
“It wasn’t. I told them I found no guilt in the man. You saw me yourself. I washed my hands of him. It’s on them. On you.”
The hair-raising chorus of the crowd echoed like a psalm from the abyss in Joseph’s thoughts. “His blood be on us and on our children!” He’d mouthed the words in respondent horror to himself, “On us, Blessed Name. If You must and You must. But oh, that You would spare our children!” Joseph knew nothing of the dream of Pilate’s wife and her icy forewarning to him but the maddening tapping of the man’s stubby fingers on the armrest and the bulging vein on his forehead betrayed an unraveling. Even amid his own frantic state, it was clear to Joseph that Pilate knew more than he was saying. But they all did.
“Governor.” The guard had reentered the room. “The centurion is here.”
Pilate motioned at the guard to send him in. “The Nazarene. He lingers, right?”
“No, Governor. He is dead.”
“You know that yourself? As an eyewitness?”
The centurion’s tongue felt blistered from the words that tumbled from them earlier. Truly this man was the Son of God! His heart hammered. “I saw him breathe his last.” He cleared his throat. “I heard him.”
“They broke his legs, did they?”
“No, Sir. They would have. He was already dead.”
“So soon? I would have given him longer than that. He had a strength of will about him. Who wouldn’t have begged for his own skin with that coming? Nevertheless, your word is as gold in the crown of the King, Officer.
No answer. Pilate dismissed the centurion and returned his attentions to the Arimathean. “This is highly irregular, you know, releasing the body to someone outside the family. We’d probably have refused it even to them. That’s not the way this is done. This is at my mercy, you know.”
Joseph clinched his jaw until he could make words cling to his thoughts. “It is mercy I am seeking.”
“What on earth will you do with him?”
“I have a place.” Joseph said each word slowly as if he himself were trying to fathom what he was saying.
“The heap?” It was a burial place for executed criminals away from Jerusalem.
“No, Governor.” He paused but could see clearly that Pilate wasn’t going to be satisfied. “It is something I own.”
“Ah, Councilman. You will contaminate the sacred bones of your fathers, will you?”
“It’s never been used.” None of this was Pilate’s concern. If this conversation lasted much longer, Joseph feared that something inside of him would come unhinged.
Incessant tapping. Both hands. The Councilman’s head was nearly splitting.
“Well, what is a corpse to me, Joseph? Have it if you want it.”
And with that, the cancerous guilt of Pilate bore explicit testimony. The crime for which Jesus had been crucified was the exception among all gestures of governing grace. When offenses are lèse-majesté, let the vultures clear the crosses and may their bellies be the tombs.
There was no turning back. Pilate’s permission may as well have been Pilate’s commission. Joseph was bound now and his name would be permanently marked by this action. Some among his own blood would be outraged by this outsider’s body in the new family tomb. Joseph had purchased it and quarried it out himself. It was his to give but they would not see it that way.
He forced them all from his thoughts. Joseph’s determination commanded the full obedience of his mind and body. He knew where he had to go first.
“Joseph! Why are you here?” All of them who’d gotten involved looked to have aged eons, thrown to the elements of a 40-year wilderness in one thunderous afternoon.
“Nicodemus, I need your help.”
“But it’s over, Joseph. There is nothing left to be done. Have you not heard, man? He is already dead.” Nicodemus motioned to his children to back away from the door. The shame bore heavy on his beard.
“He is not buried!” Joseph spit the words out with such slow cadence and fierce anger that Nicodemus steadied himself against the door frame.
Joseph leaned into him and the two men spoke in deep, guttural tones that the closest eavesdropper could not have interpreted. The brief dialogue ended with Joseph’s hands firmly gripping the shoulders of Nicodemus. He neither nodded his head nor shook it in response. He stared wide-eyed and slack of jaw. And, just like that, Joseph spun on his heels and flew as fast as his feet could carry him down a winding pathway to a place he could collect what he needed. He then started up the hill, arms full and an end of the cloth whipping behind him in the wind.
Joseph saw his silhouette long before he reached him. He knew exactly which body was his. He did not know if he had the iron within him to do what this would require. The bones in his neck felt fractured, his chest starting to heave. He chided himself to courage, to do this one thing in his power. Joseph saw two soldiers nearby and knew he’d have to contend with them first. He inhaled deeply, arching his back and expanding his shoulders. He held his head high and mimicked the confidence of the man he’d once believed himself to be.
The elder one shook his head and said, “Not today. It’s too close to dark. What’s left of him tomorrow–”
“Today,” Joseph spoke emphatically. “By order of the Governor.” A nerve came over the Arimathean that he’d never felt before. “And you have been given to me to assist in taking him down.”
Joseph would look back on that moment with wonder for years to come. Heaven alone could have seen to it that they never questioned him. The next half hour would be etched on the walls of his mind like laws on broken tablets for the rest of his days.
Grumbling all manner of protest, one of the soldiers set the short ladder behind the cross and threw out his palm toward Joseph for a piece of the fabric. He then began the gruesome task of weaving it under the left arm of Jesus, across his chest, and under the right arm. The soldier cursed at the mess. “You had to pick this one.”
The other soldier circled around to the front of the cross with a hammer in his hand and bent over toward the feet of Jesus. The bodies of the men who’d been crucified were suspended only about three feet off the ground. Joseph was startled by the callous and carelessness of the men. It was a high price they’d paid for seeing too much. Hearing too much. Joseph impulsively jerked back the arm of the one as he swung the hammer against the grain of the nail through Jesus’ feet.
Irritated, the soldier yelled, “Do you want him off of here or not?”
Joseph nodded and stepped back. With two more sledges of the hammer, the nail gave way and the feet fell free. The body dropped six inches and lurched forward. Joseph instinctively threw up his arms to catch him.
“Get under him,” the soldier on the ladder ordered Joseph, “if you’re planning to catch him.”
And Joseph did. The hammer was handed off to the soldier on the upside. The other held each end of the fabric woven over the chest of Jesus. Joseph’s back pressed to the wood until he could feel the jar of every hit ricochet within his ribcage. The weight of Jesus’ body pulling heavily against the nails in his wrists caused them to give way quickly and brutally.
“You got him?” the soldier on top yelled.
Joseph responded hoarsely. “Yes!”
They let the body of Jesus down gently at first but, just as Joseph struggled to get his grip solidly on dry flesh, they dropped him. His entire weight fell into the lap of Joseph and thorns from his crown tore down the side of the Arimathean’s face. Joseph was making sounds. He could hear himself. Sounds of horror and panic, his mind fighting to flail from his heart.
As Joseph grabbed hold of himself, he saw the soldiers walking off. “Wait! Where are you going? Get back here! I order you!”
The one swinging the hammer as he walked glanced over his left shoulder and yelled, “It’s yours now. We’re finished here.”
“But how am I to get him to the tomb?” Joseph was frantic and his chest felt crushed against the wood.
With one wave of the soldier’s hand, Joseph was left alone on the hill, the living among the dead, suffocating under the weight. He’d failed. There was nothing more he could do. It was an impossible task for one man. He inhaled until every bit of afternoon air seemed swallowed by his chest and he squeezed his eyes shut and let out a curdling scream.
The sobs came like quakes until, exhausted, Joseph leaned his head back on the cross in defeat. If the Merciful One had any mercy left for this Israelite, He’d let him die right there. He was broken now, beyond all earthly mending.
Joseph did not know how long he’d been there when his eyes blinked open. At first he thought he was having a dream. A vision conjured up by a crazed mind. A thirsty man’s mirage in the desert. He mustered the strength to lift his fist and wipe the water, blood, and dust from his eyes.
No. This was real. The colors vivid.
“Joseph, it’s me. It’s okay. We’re here.”
Nicodemus knelt down in front of him and touched his hand. He was flagged on each side by several servants clutching containers. The scent of myrrh and aloes stirred Joseph fully conscious.
They lifted the body of Jesus carefully off of Joseph and helped him to his feet. Nicodemus urged him on. “Joseph, we do not have much time. It will be dark soon. We must work quickly now.”
The small band of men transported the body of Jesus to the cave, stopping only to shift the lifeless weight and regroup. The servants carrying the heavy urns of spices – about seventy-five pounds in all – set them down from time to time, trying to catch their breath. All of them trudged the distance in silence except for an occasional direction from Joseph. There just outside the mouth of the tomb, they laid the body of Jesus. And there in the hush beyond the madness of Pilate and violence of the dismount, two men ministered like priests in the holy place.
They labored in tandem like they’d been trained all their lives to handle the dead. The irony would be wasted on neither of these sons of Abraham, these strict adherents of Moses. It had taken them both to remove the embedded wreath of thorns from Jesus’ head and each were pierced and scathed. That Jesus could no longer feel the searing pain was of no consideration to Joseph and Nicodemus. They treated the body as if they were studied meticulously by guardian eyes and working under a canopy of wide and outstretched wings.
They sponged the body and groaned the torn flesh. They bound it round and round with linen clothes and packed it with spices. They each paused silently at the last glimpse of Jesus’ face. Joseph combed the matted hair from his face with his fingertips and both of them stared. Nicodemus reached over and closed the mouth of the great teacher, preparing to circle the linen under his chin. He could not silence the words replaying in his mind.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
But how can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Joseph covered the bruised eyes of Jesus last.
A body you have prepared for me.
The servants helped move the body length-wise to the mouth of the tomb then Nicodemus dismissed them. The small opening only left room for two of them to maneuver the body into its place. Joseph crawled inside then reached for the upper body of the corpse. Nicodemus lifted the lower, crawled in behind them, and together they stretched the body of Jesus on the hewn ledge.
The last vestiges of evening light shone through the opening just enough for Nicodemus to see Joseph’s final nod. The task was done. He stooped and backed out through the opening and waited on the other side. Joseph sat with the body for what could only have been a moment but time seemed suspended in the cave’s thin air. He blew the last bit of air from his lungs and forced himself up. He felt like pottery broken, a century old. Before he departed the tomb, he leaned forward on his knees and kissed the feet of Jesus.
Messiah. Son of David. Kingdom not of this world. What will become of us, God-forsaken?
The precious oil running down on the beard of Aaron and on the collar of his robes had been traded for human tears. And, when they dried, surely the dew of Hermon would dry with them.
Without a single word between them, the two men rolled the stone down the embankment and slid it securely over the opening.
Joseph could not lift his frame for the next 2 days, exhaustion making lead of his bones. But neither could he sleep. The whole family had gathered for the Feast but only a few of them had seen his woeful condition when he returned to the house where they were staying. That he was late for the meal was appalling enough for them for now. The rest would come out soon enough. They supposed him to be sick. And he was.
“Joseph.” It was his wife. “You have a visitor. He’s insistent on seeing you. I have said you’re not well but he is determined.”
Joseph felt disoriented but sat up from the mat. “Very well. I’ll be right there.”
He didn’t have to bother. The visitor pushed his way in and asked Joseph’s wife to excuse them.
“Brother.” It was Nicodemus. The urgency in his voice made the hair on Joseph’s arms stand on end. “He’s gone.”
“What are you saying?”
“Jesus! That’s what I’m saying. He’s gone!”
“Gone. Stone rolled away. Would they have left it open if they’d stolen him? Joseph, listen to me.” Nicodemus crouched down right in front of him and clutched him by the shoulders, shaking him enough to make sure he was alert. “The linens are all still there. Same ones.”
“Are you out of your mind, man?”
“No but they’re saying the women are. But, I don’t think so. They said they saw him, Joseph. He’s alive.”