Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, disciples of the Lord
Doctors of the Law…
It’s hard enough for ordinary, simple people to open their hearts to a God who often reveals himself in unexpected, disconcerting ways. Often, it’s even harder for the learned who are esteemed as teachers of their people. It’s tempting to think that once we’ve studied and taught enough, we know it all, even about God. But, as we discover in two men who appear in the Gospels together at Jesus’ tomb, nothing is impossible for God.
The Gospels describe Joseph of Arimathea as “a rich man” (Mt 27:57); a “respected member of the council,” or Sanhedrin (Mk 15:43), the governing body of the Jewish people that would have been the legal and religious reference point for the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and as a “good and righteous man” (Lk 23:50). “He was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly” (Jn 19:38); after all, Jesus was a controversial rabbi who disturbed the religious sensibilities of many of Joseph’s colleagues in the Sanhedrin. But it is Nicodemus, a Pharisee – the party of the strict observers and teachers of the Jewish law – who grants us deeper insight into the drama that unfolded in the lives of both these learned Israelites.
…and teachers of Israel
Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John describes “a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews,” coming to Jesus under the cover of night, drawn to him and yet fearful that this small movement of his heart might be seen. The teacher of the Law tells the Lord what he intuits: “Master, we know that you are a teacher come from God.” But Jesus points out that this is not yet true knowledge: “Unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can a man be born when he is old?” asks the learned man, taken aback. Jesus, too, marvels: “Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not understand this?” That there is a kind of knowledge that does not come from studying, that one can only receive like a child, welcoming the gift of God’s love? Nicodemus left that night with something in his heart like a crack in his great edifice of learning, but it was a fissure of light.
Both men ruminate on the Lord’s words and deeds until that small fissure in the heart becomes a wider opening. Their eyes begin to open and, as the net of malice that surrounds Jesus is woven thicker by their colleagues in the Sanhedrin and among the Pharisees, their secretiveness gives way to small acts of courage. When the Pharisees debate what to do with this Jesus, whom they cannot abide, Nicodemus asks in the Lord’s defense, “Does our law judge a man before giving him a hearing?” (Jn 7:51), earning the derision of all.
The opened heart
Finally, the events themselves provide the catalyst that makes those small fissures in the heart open into an abyss of light. Jesus is crucified, his heart is opened with a spear, and Joseph of Arimathea no longer cares if people find out that he is a disciple. He goes to Pilate and asks for the body of the condemned man, so that he might give it a proper burial. He even knows where, a tomb he had bought for himself: “After this, Joseph of Arimathea … asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus…. Nicodemus also … came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight.” The teachers of Israel anoint the King of Israel. Their hands gently wrap in clean linen the greatest visitation of God their people had ever known. Together, “they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices,” and laid it in Joseph’s newly hewn tomb (Jn 19:38-42).
Both men had once been afraid to confess that they were disciples, or afraid to be seen questioning the Lord. But in this labor of love, their hands confess more than words ever could. Their hearts have broken open. These learned teachers of Israel have become like children born anew. Silently, they anoint, shroud, bury and bless the body of the Son of God, from whom, for them and for the world, a new kind of knowledge has come.