IN THOSE DAYS, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting for the Kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead, and summoning the centurion, Pilate asked him whether Jesus had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that He was dead, Pilate 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.
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint the body of Jesus. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He is risen, He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples, and Peter, that He is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see Him, just as He told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Christ is risen!
On the third Sunday of Pascha we commemorate a group of brave women who came to Christ's tomb in order to properly prepare His body for burial. If you think about it, their actions are a lot more heroic than basically of any other disciple, especially men. One betrayed and sold Jesus, another denied Him three times, all others ran away. Only John the Evangelist stayed at the Cross. But after the Crucifixion, all of them were hiding behind the closed doors, scared. It was the women who went to pay, what amounts to, last respects to Jesus' body, to anoint it.
I go into some other details about what is going on in this Gospel lesson in my last year's reflection, the link to which is available below. Here I would like to focus on something else. When Joseph of Arimathea (and Nicodemus, see John 19:38-42) took down Christ's body, he wrapped it in a linen cloth, anointed it with spices and placed it in a tomb. Notice that it does not say that he buried Jesus, but placed Him there. There is a difference. The women, who came early on a Sunday morning to anoint Jesus according to Jewish customs of that day, intended to prepare His body for burial that would last for a year.
To understand what exactly is going on here, we need to recall one specific episode from the Gospels and do some historical background. The Gospel episode is from Matthew 8:18-22 and Luke 9:57-62. In it Christ tells a would-be follower of His, who wants to bury his father before beginning a new life of following Jesus, to "let the dead bury their own dead." Why would He say that? Isn't there a commandment, given by God, that says we should respect our parents? The Jews understood this commandment to include proper burial. And besides, why is Jesus so rude to the man?
The Evangelists, when writing down their accounts of the witness to Christ being the Savior and Son of God, did not specify historical and cultural contexts because they were writing to people living in those contexts. They did not have to, for example, specify that one denarius is a day's wage for a common laborer. They didn't have to say that only the cross beam was carried by the person walking to their own execution. They did not describe the whole ritual of the Jewish Passover meal, but only focused on the parts that Jesus changed.
In those days, the Jews practiced something called double-burial or reburial. This was not an original Jewish custom, but one picked up somewhere along the line from other cultures, as they spent a few hundred years in exiles, as they were occupied numerous times. There were plenty of opportunities for adoption of customs of other people, just like those people would adopt some of the Jewish customs.
The double-burial meant that a body was placed in a tomb, often a cave similar to the one Jesus was put in. The body would be prepared, as if for burial, with all the anointing and other customs, but it would be left in the tomb for about a year. A time long enough for the body to decompose. After a year, the family would come, collect the bones and now bury it in a family grave or an ossuary. These family graves or ossuaries were places where all the bones of family members were kept, in one place, even one pile.
However, this double-burial or reburial was unnecessary. The commandment of respecting one's parents did include burial, but it did not include a double-burial. There was nothing special about the double-burial, except for, maybe, an easier process of keeping all the family bones in the same ossuary or pile.
When the would-be follower asked Jesus to let him bury his father first, in all likelihood, he meant the second burial. If his father had just died, the man would not be out walking and talking with Jesus. When a parent died, children mourned the death for a week, prepared for (the first) burial, and mourned some more, without leaving the house and definitely without walking about. Since the man was talking with Christ, we can assume that his father was already dead for one year and lay in the tomb, from which his son had to take the bones and rebury them.
Therefore, when Jesus tells him to let the dead bury their dead, all He means is that the son had already done his duty of burying his father, he did what was necessary for him. The reburial was not only pointless, but took him away from something more important - following and learning from the Son of God.
What Christ's disciples (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were both His disciples, even if in secret) did to Him was the first burial. And the women came early at dawn to prepare His body for that first burial, after which the body was to spend a year in the tomb. Even though the double-burial was not, strictly speaking, a native Jewish practice. Even though we have some evidence of Christ not approving of it. Yet, had they buried Jesus right away, the women would not have encountered an empty tomb and Jesus risen from the dead.
This shows, I think, that God is fully capable of using what we give Him, so to speak. We may not always be doing the right thing, sometimes we do not even know what the right thing is, but God meets us where we are, He guides us towards Himself amidst our confusion. The reburial practice was more of a distraction, rather than an honorable practice. Yet God used even that in order to reveal one of the greatest mysteries - the Resurrection of His Son, through which all of us become partakers of eternal life in blessedness.
For last year's reflection, click here.
Yours in the risen Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest