This blog entry continues a series of meditations on the Three Days of Holy Week, guided by The Undoing of Death, a book of sermons for Holy Week by the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge. This entry focuses on her sermon, “Midnight in the Kingdom of Death”.
38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:38-42)
At the end, or what seems to be the end, it is Nicodemus of all people who, with Joseph of Arimathea, comes to lay Jesus to rest. Nicodemus, as John reminds us, ”had at first come to Jesus by night”, brings the spices and ointments to prepare the body for burial. It sounds like a costly amount, “a hundred pounds” of “myrrh and aloes”, but Nicodemus was a wealthy, prominent man. Perhaps, as Jesus’ body was brought to the tomb, if Nicodemus thought about that night when the rabbi had told him, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). If he did remember those words, I wonder what he thought of them as Nicodemus watched the works roll the stone into place, as the tomb was sealed, and the finality of death asserted itself?
As the Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge reminds us, night and darkness in John’s Gospel are symbolic of sin and death, the forces opposed to God. Jesus tells Nicodemus as much when he says “this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (Jn 3:19). Now, as Nicodemus and Jospeh leave the tomb and the shadows begin to lengthen, darkness and evil seem to have won.
Normally the church’s observance of Easter Eve occurs at night. The liturgy of the Great Vigil invites us back into a church that was left darkened and bare at the end of Maundy Thursday, all the fair linens, bright colours and brass and gold removed. It is a time when, as Rutledge says, “The realm of darkness appears to be victorious. There is nothing left of the Messiah but the grave” (p. 236). On the Eve of Easter, the church normally gathers in darkness to remind itself of what is at stake.
“Jesus has entered the realm of Death. The mythology of the Greeks and Romans is by no means wrong here; the dead must cross over the black waters of the river Styx into the kingdom of darkness from which no one can ever return. The Son of God, by his own permission, has been given over to the realm of night. This is where he has gone. We say in the Creed, “He descended into hell.” Death rules there. Satan rules there. The corpse lies there twenty-four hours, thirty-four hours. It is night” (p. 237).
Normally at the start of the Great Vigil, the New Fire outside the church, and the return of the church’s white linens and hanging, would signal the victory the we come to celebrate. However, today on this Easter Eve I am recording this service of Morning Prayer in the light of day, and yet as we lie in the grip of this pandemic and wait for it to peak, does it not feel like night? The trees are in bud, snowdrops and crocuses have emerged, but even in that spring sunshine the coronavirus lies in wait. In hospitals across the world people are struggling to breathe, refrigerator trucks are filling with the dead, and families mourn without the comfort of funerals. If we are not in the realm of death, we are somewhere adjacent to it, in a place where the reality of Jesus’ tomb seems more apparent to us now than it has for many Easter’s past.
If there is a gift in this strange time, it is that every health care worker who risks their lives daily, every person who comes off a ventilator and lives, every act of kindness done for the isolated and vulnerable, all these things point to hope and life. We may now in a place where death seems more real, but we are also situated so that we may better perceive the promise of resurrection. We are in a better place to appreciate the enormity of God’s victory. As Rutledge notes, and as the Great Vigil of Easter will tell us in better times to come, the resurrection happened at night. When the light of dawn entered the tomb, all it revealed were the empty grave cloths of the risen Christ.
As we the church remain apart from one another, this Easter may feel like a pale shadow of what we normally celebrate. One day, soon, I pray, we will have a chance to gather and celebrate at the table of our Risen Lord, and won’t that be a joyous occasion? I think of that day, when St. Margaret’s is full again, and I know I will cry for happiness on that day. For now, though, as we gather virtually, let us remember that we know what Nicodemus could not know as he walked away from he sealed tomb in the gathering dusk. We know that the grave is empty and that death has been defeated. God spoke in the night, the Spirit raised our Lord’s body, the stone was rolled back, and Jesus walked out into the garden, into the dawn, into the realm of life.