Mark 15: 42-47, NRSV
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
Preached Sunday, June 10, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Pilate was surprised Jesus was already dead. Usually, crucifixion took longer. The pain was in the extended suffering of suffocating to death—your lungs couldn’t handle the strain of gravity on your entire body. It could take days, so when Joseph of Arimathea came to ask for the body, Pilate was surprised. “Already?” he must’ve thought.
Pilate granted the body to Jesus’ friends, who took it, wrapped in linen in laid it in a brand-new, un-used tomb—a luxury by any standard at that time offered Joseph—a member of the very council that approached Pilate initially advocating for Jesus’ death. It seems Joseph is repentant, at least by actions if not by his words.
There was a ritual around death and burial then—one that for Jesus’ followers was broken up by the religious law ordering them not work on the sabbath. Prepping a body a for burial would’ve been considered that—work—and they just couldn’t do anything like it after sundown. That’s why here we see them start the ritual and when we read about the resurrection, we witness them continuing the custom.
But they start. First, wrapping Jesus in linen cloth, then placing him in the tomb. It’s methodical and intentional. And they all watch it happen. Mark tells us “Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” That second Mary is Jesus’ Mama. According to tradition, she had other children—the two who are named are James and Joses, a shorter form of Joseph. This particular moment of seeing the body laid in the tomb serves a particular literary purpose. We know what’s coming—that they will find the tomb empty. But in order for the women who find the tomb empty to speak with integrity they have to first see it occupied—that is, in order for them to bear witness to the resurrection, they first have to bear witness to death.
When I think about how we bury people, how remember them when they die, I realize it’s not about proving we actually put them in the ground and covered them with dirt. That’s the functional part of funerals. Instead, what we do a funerals with remains or at memorial services without them is we bear witness. We bear witness to the life of the one we’ve lost. And we bear witness to the story of our faith that says that life isn’t over. Today, that looks like hymns and readings and eulogies. As a writer of eulogies—pretty good ones, in fact—I can attest to the fact that it feels next to impossible to sum up an entire life in twelve minutes. What a charge—to tell the story of a life with all of its triumphs and foibles in a single narrative.
But the truth is that isn’t the only way we bear witness to someone’s life. It’s a start. But there’s a second tradition that’s not mentioned in scriptures, but one I’m confident happened then just as it happens now. After they buried Jesus, they went home and ate together. For them, it was the ritual of Shabbat—of the sabbath meal—where they would’ve prayed and eaten and told stories about the one no longer with them. There would’ve been laughter and tears and laughter through tears. And through it all, they would’ve confirmed—affirmed—that it all happened.
We do that, too. In fact, many of you here today helped make that happen just yesterday. That’s why have funeral receptions. Yes, it’s a nice thing to do. And yes, we are always on the side of feeding people. But the reason we do it after a funeral isn’t because people—at least, not for food. You see, they’re hungry to remember, to tell the stories, and speak of the life lost. When you stand on the other side of the death of a loved one, it feels like an instant and a lifetime at once. And sometimes, you’re not sure it happened the way you remember it, or like it even happened at all. Telling stories helps.
It’ll be a decade this October since my Mama died. And every once and a while, he’ll run into someone he hasn’t seen in a bit who’ll tell some story from years ago that has Mama in it. And somewhere along in that tale, they’ll mention Mama’s name. And it moves him, nearly every time. Because, to hear him tell it, it’s an affirmation that it all happened: the 40 years of marriage, the kid, the life they built. Something that in the confines of a big, empty house feels more like a dream than reality.
That’s our call as a church—to bear witness to the ones that have gone before us, to remember and say their names, to lift up those who remain, and to feed their hunger for memory and church lady punch all at the same time. And with God’s strength, we’ll do just that. Amen.