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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 23 - The Burial

By James Stalker


      There is a hard and shallow philosophy which regards it as a matter of complete indifference what becomes of the body after the soul has left it and affects contempt of all funeral ceremonies. But the instincts of mankind are wiser. In ancient times it was considered one of the worst of misfortunes to miss decent burial; and, although this sentiment was mixed with superstition, there was beneath it a healthy instinct. There is a dignity of the body as well as of the soul, especially when it is a temple of the Holy Ghost; and there is a majesty about death which cannot be ignored without loss to the living.[1] It is with a sense of pain and humiliation, as if a dishonour were being done to human nature, that we see a funeral at which everything betokens hurry, shabbiness and slovenliness. On the contrary, the satisfaction is not morbid with which we see a funeral conducted with solemnity and chaste pomp. And, when someone falls whose career has been one of extraordinary achievement and beneficence, and who has become

       On fortune's crowning slope
       The pillar of a nation's hope,
       The centre of a world's desire,

      then, as the remains are borne amidst an empire's lamentation to rest "under the cross of gold that shines over river and city," and the tolling bells and echoing cannon sound over hushed London, and the silent masses line the streets, and the learned and the noble stand uncovered around the open grave, it would be a diseased and churlish mind which did not feel the spell of the pageant.

      Thus ought the great, the wise and the good to be buried. How then was He buried whom all now agree to call the Greatest, the Wisest and the Best?

      I.

      The three corpses were taken down towards evening, before the Jewish Sabbath set in, which commenced at sunset. Probably the two robbers were buried on the spot, crosses and all, or they were hurriedly carried off to some obscure and accursed ditch, where the remains of criminals were wont to be unceremoniously thrust underground.

      This would have been the fate of Jesus too, had not an unexpected hand interposed. It was the humane custom of the Romans to give the corpses of criminals to their friends, if they chose to ask for them; and a claimant appeared for the body of Jesus, to whom Pilate was by no means loath to grant it.

      This is the first time that Joseph of Arimathea appears on the stage of the gospel history; and of his previous life very little is known. Even the town from which he derives his appellation is not known with certainty. The fact that he owned a garden and burying-place in the environs of Jerusalem does not necessarily indicate that he was a resident there; for pious Jews had all a desire to be buried in the precincts of the sacred city; and, indeed, the whole neighbourhood is still honeycombed with tombs.

      Joseph was a rich man; and this may have availed him in his application to Pilate. Those who possess wealth or social position or distinguished talents can serve Christ in ways which are not accessible to His humbler followers. Only, before such gifts can be acceptable to Him, those to whom they belong must count them but loss and dung for His sake.

      Joseph was a councillor. It has been conjectured that the council of which he was a member was that of Arimathea; but the observation that he "had not consented to the counsel and deed of them," which obviously refers to the Sanhedrim, makes it more than probable that it was of this august body he was a member. No doubt he absented himself deliberately from the meeting at which Jesus was condemned, knowing well beforehand that the proceedings would be utterly painful and revolting to his feelings. For "he was a good man and a just."

      We are, however, told more about him: "he waited for the kingdom of God." This is a phrase applied elsewhere also in the New Testament to the devout in Palestine at this period; and it designates in a striking way the peculiarity of their piety. The age was spiritually dead. Religion was represented by the high-and-dry formalism of the Pharisees on the one hand and the cold and worldly scepticism of the Sadducees on the other. In the synagogues the people asked for bread and were offered a stone. The scribes, instead of letting the pure river of Bible truth flow over the land, choked up its course with the sand of their soulless commentary. Yet there are good people even in the worst of times. There were truly pious souls sprinkled up and down Palestine. They were like lights shining here and there, at great intervals, in the darkness. They could not but feel that they were strangers and foreigners in their own age and country, and they lived in the past and the future. The prophets, on whose words they nourished their souls, foretold a good time coming, when on those who sat in darkness there would burst a great light. For this better time, then, they were waiting. They were waiting to hear the voice of prophecy echoing once more through the land and waking the population from its spiritual slumber. They were waiting, above all, for the Messiah, if they might dare to hope that He would come in their days.

      Such were the souls among which both John and Jesus found their auditors. All such must have welcomed the voices of the Baptist and his Successor as at least those of prophets who were striving earnestly to deal with the evils of the time. But whether Jesus was He that should come or whether they should look for another, some of them stood in doubt. Among these perhaps was Joseph. He was, it is said, a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews. He had faith, but not faith enough to confess Christ and take the consequences. Even during the trial of Jesus he satisfied his conscience by being absent from the meeting of the Sanhedrim, instead of standing up in his place and avowing his convictions.

      Such he had been up to this point. But now in the face of danger he identified himself with Jesus. It is interesting to note what it was that brought him to decision. It was the excess of wickedness in his fellow-councillors, who at length went to a stage of violence and injustice which allowed him to hesitate no longer. Complete religious decision is sometimes brought about in this way. Thus, for example, one who has been halting between two opinions, or, at all events, has never had courage enough openly to confess his convictions, may be some day among his fellow-workmen or shopmen, when religion comes up as a topic of conversation and is received with ridicule, Christ's people being sneered at, His doctrines denied, and He Himself blasphemed. But at last it goes too far the silent, half-convinced disciple can stand it no longer; he breaks out in indignant protest and stands confessed as a Christian. In some such way as this must the change of sentiment have taken place in the mind of Joseph. He had to defy the entire Sanhedrim; he was putting himself in imminent peril; but he could hold in no longer; and, casting fear behind his back, he went in "boldly" to Pilate and begged the body of Jesus.

      II.

      Boldness in confessing Christ is apt to have two results.

      On the one hand, it cows adversaries. It is not said that Joseph got himself into trouble by his action on this occasion, or that the Sanhedrim immediately commenced a persecution against him. They were, indeed, in a state of extreme excitement, and they were seventy to one. But sometimes a single bold man can quell much more numerous opposition than even this. It is certain that the consciences of many of them were ill at ease, and they were by no means prepared to challenge to argument on the merits of the case a quiet and resolute man with the elevation of whose character they were all acquainted. It is one of the great advantages of those who stand up for Christ that they have the consciences even of their adversaries on their side.

      The other effect of boldness in confessing Christ is that it brings out confession from others who have not had in their own breast enough of fire to make them act, but are heated up to the necessary temperature by example. It seems clear that in this way the example of Joseph evoked the loyalty of Nicodemus.

      Nicodemus was of the same rank as Joseph, being a member of the Sanhedrim; and he was a secret disciple. This is not the first time that he appears on the stage of the Gospel history. At the very commencement of the career of Jesus he had been attracted to Him and had gone so far as to seek a private interview; the account of which is one of the most precious component parts of the Gospel and has made tens of thousands not only believers in Christ but witnesses for Him. It had not, however, as much effect on the man to whom it was originally vouchsafed, though it ought to have had. Nicodemus ought to have been one of the earliest followers of the Lord; and his position would have brought weight to the apostolic circle. But he hesitated and remained a secret disciple. On one occasion, indeed, he spoke out: once, when something intolerably unjust was said against Jesus in the Sanhedrim, he interposed the question, "Doth our law judge any man before it hear him and know what he doeth?" But with the angry answer, "Art thou also of Galilee?" he was shouted down; and he held his peace. Doubtless, like Joseph, he absented himself from the meeting of the Sanhedrim at which Jesus was condemned; but the injustice done was so flagrant that he was ready to make a public protest against it. He might not, however, have had the courage of his convictions, had not Joseph shown him the way.

      Yet this must be praised in Nicodemus, that he was a growing and improving man. Though he hung back for a time, he came forward at last; and better late than never. It was a happy hour for him when he was brought into contact with Joseph. There are many circles of friends where all are internally convinced and leaning to the right side, and, if only one would come boldly out, the others would willingly follow. The hands of Joseph and Nicodemus met and clasped each other round the body of their Redeemer. There is no love, or friendship, or fellowship like that of those who are united to one another through their connection with Him.

      III.

      Art has described the burial of our Lord with great fulness of detail, drawing largely on the imagination. It has divided it into several scenes.[2]

      There is, first, the Descent from the Cross, in which, besides Joseph and Nicodemus, St. John at least, and sometimes other men, are represented as extracting the nails and lowering the body; while beneath the cross the holy women, among whom the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are prominent, receive the precious burden. Many readers will recall the most famous of such pictures, that by Rubens in the Cathedral at Antwerp--an extremely impressive but too sensuous representation of the scene of busy affection--wherein the corpse is being let down by means of a great white sheet into the hands of the women, who receive it tenderly, one foot resting on the shoulder of the Magdalene.

      Then there is what is called the Pieta, or the mourning of the women over the dead body. In this scene the holy mother usually holds the head of her Son in her lap, while the Magdalene clasps His feet and others clasp His hands. Next ensues the Procession to the Sepulchre; and, last of all, there is the Entombment, which is represented in a great variety of forms.

      On these scenes the great painters have lavished all the resources of art; but the narrative of the Gospels is brief and unpictorial. The Virgin is not even mentioned; and, although others of the holy women are said to have been there, it is not suggested that they helped in the labour of burial, but only that they followed and marked where He was laid. Joseph and Nicodemus are the prominent actors, though it is reasonable to suppose that they were assisted by their servants; and the soldiers may have lent a hand in disentangling the body.

      It was in a new sepulchre, which Joseph had had hewn out of the rock for himself, in order that after death he might lie in the sacred shadow of the city of God, that the Lord was laid. No corpse had ever been placed in it before. This was a great gift to give to an excommunicated and crucified man; and it was a most appropriate one; for it was meet that the pure and stainless One, who had come to make all things new and, though dead, was not to see corruption, should rest in an undefiled sepulchre. Similarly appropriate and suggestive was the new linen cloth, which Joseph bought expressly for the purpose of enwinding the body. Nor was Nicodemus behind in affection and sacrifice. He brought "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight." This may appear an enormous quantity, but custom was very lavish in such gifts; at the funeral of Herod the Great, for example, the spices were carried by five hundred bearers.

      The tomb was in a garden--another touch of appropriateness and beauty. The spot does not seem to have been far from the place of execution; but whether it was as near as it is represented to have been in the traditional site may well be doubted. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre includes within its precincts both the Lord's tomb and the hole in the rock in which stood His cross; and the two are only thirty yards apart.[3] But it is highly questionable whether the identification of either is possible. Still, this may be said to be the most famous bit of the entire surface of the globe. Christendom accepted the tradition, which dates from the time of Constantine, and since then pilgrims have flocked to the spot from every land. It was for the possession of this shrine that the Crusades were undertaken, and at the present day the Churches of Christendom fight for a footing in it.

      We may have no sympathy with the practice of pilgrimages and little interest in the identification of holy places; but the holy sepulchre cannot but attract the believing heart. It was a practice of the piety of former days to meditate among the tombs. The piety of the present day inclines to more cheerful and, let us hope, not less healthy exercises. But every man with any depth of nature must linger sometimes beside the graves of his loved ones; every man of any seriousness must think sometimes of his own grave. And in such moments what can be so helpful as to pilgrim in spirit to the tomb of Him who said, "I am the resurrection and the life"?

      In comparison with the great ones of the earth Jesus had but a humble funeral; yet in the character of those who did Him the last honours it could not have been surpassed; and it was rich in love, which can well take the place of a great deal of ceremony. So at last, stretched out in the new tomb, wherein man had never lain, enwrapped in an aromatic bed of spices and breathed round by the fragrance of flowers, with the white linen round Him and the napkin which hid the wounds of the thorns about His brow, while the great stone which formed the door stood between Him and the world, He lay down to rest. It was evening, and the Sabbath drew on; and the Sabbath of His life had come. His work was completed; persecution and hatred could not reach Him any more; He was where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.

      [1] The most beautiful thing ever said about the bodies of the dead is in the Shorter Catechism: "And their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection."

      [2] On these and similar details see The Life of our Lord as exemplified in Works of Art, by Mrs. Jameson (completed by Lady Eastlake).

      [3] Many interesting details in Ross's Cradle of Christianity.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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