tomb

Keeping Vigil in Illness and Death

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By Linda Rex

April 11, 2020, HOLY SATURDAY, HOLY WEEK—Looking at the graphic on the cdc.org website each day, I am moved by the way the numbers have climbed in the past couple days of those infected with COVID-19. The number of fatalities have increased as well, and it pains me to accept the reality this isn’t going to get much better for some time. It is challenging to keep these numbers in perspective, remembering that substantial numbers of people also died during the same time due to other more mundane causes such as cancer, car accidents, drug overdose, suicide, and sadly, abortion.

In many ways, our observation of what is happening with this pandemic is like the picture described by the gospel writers as Jesus hung on the cross, breathed his last agonized breath, died, and was placed in a tomb. Gathered within eyesight of the cross were several of his followers, whose lives were being totally disrupted by the loss of their rabbi and friend. His disciples handled his crucifixion in different ways—some were not even present in his last moments. One had been his betrayer. But there were those who stayed and kept vigil with him.

Think of Mary standing there, who so many years before had uttered the simple words, “Let it be to me as you wish” and her life became a living sacrifice in service of the soon to be birthed Savior. She raised this child to manhood, relinquished him to his heavenly Father’s service, and traveled with him at times, supporting him in his ministry.

She stood there at the cross, watching the unthinkable happen to her son, maybe even in that moment finally recalling the prophetic words of Simeon, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” Bound to Jesus with cords of love, she was comforted by his final wish, that John would care for her in her final days. This simple concern for her wellbeing while he was dying on the cross demonstrated a deep love and concern for Mary. How could she help but lament the loss of such a son?

The women not only watched Jesus as he breathed his final breath, but then followed Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus to the tomb. There the women sat across from the tomb as the men prepared Jesus’ body for burial. There was an urgent need to get it done before the sabbath began at sundown. When the men were finished, they pushed a stone across the front of the tomb. There Jesus laid, hidden from view, observed from a distance by the brokenhearted women who were his followers.

Lament is a healthy response to suffering and death. Dismay and concern are common feelings which rise out of one’s heart and mind—we lament the loss of all that is good, meaningful, treasured. We grieve the loss of what we cherish, the ending of those moments of connection, the changes in our everyday occurrences which are now forever altered. As we lament, we consider the ramifications of what just occurred or is occurring—our lives will be forever altered because of this moment, this unbearable change.

Some of us never allow ourselves to slow down long enough to even contemplate our losses, much less grieve them. To lament means taking the time to sit by the tomb and observe what is taking place, the reality of death and dying. It means allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and to accept that if or when that person dies, our world will never be the same ever again.

At first glance, death and dying are horrible bedfellows. Our natural response to death is to either fear it, resist it, or deny it. Or, possibly for some people, death can become so common in certain situations that we begin overlook it, becoming desensitized to the pain and suffering which go with it. Either way, we need to face death head on, keeping vigil with God at the tomb as what only he can do is accomplished—we need to rest in the tomb with Jesus, allowing him to be who he is as our Lord and Savior, in his death.

Going back to our story—the women watched the tomb, but could not open it. They were going to need help to get the stone moved so they could tend to Jesus’ body and use the ointments and spices would prepare. On the next day, the sabbath and holy day, the Jewish leaders went to Pilate and asked that the tomb be sealed shut and a guard be set over it. These leaders were so afraid that Jesus’ promise to rise from the grave would happen they had to find a way to prove it did not happen. The tomb was sealed shut and the guards posted.

But the vigil of the guards was much different than the vigil of the women. The women watched in sorrow, taking note of where Jesus was buried, hoping to tend to his body after the sabbath in addition to what Joseph and Nicodemus had already done. In time they went home to put together spices and ointments to bring back later.

Meanwhile, Roman soldiers were put in place by the Jewish leaders. The guards kept watch, protecting the tomb from tampering. They were indifferent to who was in the tomb and what might be going on inside the tomb. All they cared about was watching for anyone outside the tomb violating the seal.

In the same way today, our vigil in the midst of the pandemic can be focused on all of the externals, on all the possible violations of the rules, or on all of the bad outcomes that might occur due to COVID-19 and all the other scary stuff happening in the world right now. Or our focus can be on the One who is in the tomb and the hope which in ours in the midst of all this because he, for a time, laid in the grave just as each of us will one day.

Keeping vigil with Jesus as he hung on the cross and laid in the grave is a sobering reminder that there are parts of our broken humanity which needed to be crucified and to die—we all have places where we deny our personhood as image-bearers of our God. Our focus must be, not on all our failures to love, the tragedies of this world, and the suffering of our humanity, but on the One who lived our life and died our death. He is the one who carried our humanity into the grave and reformed it, as a caterpillar in a cocoon is metamorphosized into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus had become a curse for us, had become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him. What was happening in the tomb that Saturday involved each and every human being on earth—death itself was being invaded by Jesus and robbed of its power. No longer need death cause fear, dread and sorrow—we now can have hope. The morning would bring proof that there is nothing in this world that can separate us from God’s love—not even death on a cross. There is life beyond the grave. By faith, death becomes merely a door into an eternity in the presence of our loving God, with whom we will dwell in glory forever.

Thank you, Abba, for rescuing us from the jaws of death. Thank you, Jesus, for penetrating the gates of hell itself for our sake, so we could be once and for all free from the fear of death. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for all the ways you comfort us, heal us, and make real in us the finished work of Christ. Grant us the grace in the midst of illness, suffering, and dying, to trust in your healing power and presence, find comfort and peace in your love, and keep our eyes on Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.

“This I recall to my mind, | Therefore I have hope. | The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, | For His compassions never fail. | They are new every morning; | Great is Your faithfulness. | ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.’” Lamentations 3:21–24 NASB

See also Matthew 27:57–66, John 19:38–42, and 1 Peter 4:1–8.

Waiting in Silence

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By Linda Rex

HOLY SATURDAY—Sometimes when wandering through a garden or while I’m picking berries, I’ll come across a cocoon hidden under some leaves. Looking at the neatly formed shape, I will marvel at God’s creation, and then I will wonder just what might be lying inside.

There within this cocoon a transformation is taking place. I once read that while in its cocoon, all a caterpillar was is reduced down to its elements and reformed into something new. The butterfly or moth which eventually pushes its way out from the cocoon may look completely different from its earlier form, but it is still in essence the same creature.

From the outside, the cocoon is like a tomb. There doesn’t appear to be any activity. It looks like a misshapen blob at times—something which needs to be removed from the plant or limb and thrown away. Even though something significant is going on inside, it is not obviously apparent to anyone who happens upon it.

On Holy Saturday we are reminded of how Jesus’s body was removed from the cross and laid in a tomb. Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes, and helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial process, wrapping the body linen and spices. The new tomb in the garden near where Jesus was crucified was blessed to receive the body of our Savior.

After Jesus was laid in the tomb, a stone was rolled in front of the entrance to close it. The Jews asked that the tomb be sealed, and it was—they hoped to prevent a rumor that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had heard that Jesus had promised to rise again, and thought it was only the vain hope of a would-be messiah. They did what they could to ensure the tomb could not be tampered with.

If we had sat opposite the tomb on Saturday, as Mary and Mary Magdalene had done the night before, we would have seen a silent spectacle. We would have had no ability to see what was going on inside the tomb. The grave would have been silent, with the only sounds being the wind rustling the tree leaves, the birds singing, or perhaps the voices and activities of people nearby.

Looking hard at the tomb, we would have seen only stillness. Considering the dead body within, we’d only hear silence. There would only be darkness within the tomb, we’d reason—nothing would be going on. When a person dies and is laid in the grave, all that’s left is decomposition and eventually dried out bones and dust. From the exterior, we would have had to assume that this was what was happening here, and that this was the end of all we had hoped and planned.

Maybe after a while, we would remember that Jesus liked talking about seeds in reference to himself and the kingdom of God. A seed, he said, must die in order for a new plant to grow and for many new seeds to be harvested. For Jesus, death never stood alone on its own—it was always accompanied by resurrection. He wanted his followers to understand that his path needed to go down the road to death, but that was never meant to be the end. Jesus’ death was only a step along the path to new life for all humanity.

This is a good thought. What if we saw the times of death, of silent waiting, not as times to grieve, but rather as times to hope? What if, instead of imagining someone going back to the dust from which they were made, we picture instead the renewal and transformation of what has been laid in the tomb? Maybe we should look at the places in our lives or relationships which appear to be dead and lifeless as being places where seeds have been planted which only need the light and water of God’s presence and power to bring about new life and an abundant harvest.

It is easy to come to places in our lives where we are faced with death and dying. The human story is one in which death occurs constantly—not just death of people, but death of dreams, relationships, businesses, or even churches. We fear death, when actually we should embrace death as the path Jesus trod in order that we might experience new life and new existence grounded within himself. Death can be a good thing, especially when we die to wrong ways of thinking or living or we die to the control of our broken sinful ways of being.

The spiritual discipline of silence in some ways resonates with the silent waiting at the tomb of Jesus. In silence, we set ourselves in God’s presence to listen and to wait, allowing ourselves to become attuned to the heart of the Father. When our attention wanders or our mind takes off on some errant thought, we need only redirect ourselves back to silence. Here we are, in this moment, with God. What does he have to say to us?

When we are busy going about our lives, caught up in the day-to-day issues we face, we may miss the growth and healing opportunities which come through attending upon God in silence. There is an intimacy in our relationship with God which grows when we slow down to pause and just be with God for a time. Perhaps we could spend a few minutes even now, picturing ourselves sitting beside the tomb, pondering what just happened this week and wondering what God is planning to do next.

Is there some place in your life where you are facing death or loss? Do you have a place in your life which feels as though it is dark and empty, with no hope of renewal? Perhaps symbolically you may take this into your hands and hold it out to God, laying it in the tomb with Jesus. And then wait for a time in silence. Allow Jesus to meet you in these moments, to remind you of his promise, which he kept in faithful love.

The seed planted in the ground often lays there for a time. The roots may be growing deep into the soil long before we ever see a sprout. Jesus lay in the tomb and all was silent—but great, amazing things were at work in God’s creation. A renewal, a turning about of all which was broken, lost, and dying was happening as Jesus Christ lay in the grave.

Holy Saturday reminds us that God is always and ever at work in our lives. As we turn to Jesus in faith, the Spirit reminds us that God loves us and has our best interests at heart even when all we see is a silent grave. Abba is a working, renewing, restoring, and healing, even though we may not see him at work. As we rest in Christ and wait in silence, we can find renewal and encouragement to hope in times of despair. God is at work and will not stop until he has finished what he has begun. We can count on him.

Thank you, Abba, that you never cease to bring new life and hope into our lives. Thank you, Jesus, for embracing death so that we could share eternal life with you. Holy Spirit, remind us anew that we are loved and cared for, and that Abba will work all things to the good, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” John 19:42 NASB

A Father’s Love

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By Linda Rex

While reflecting on the events of Holy Week yesterday, it came to my mind that even the small details of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reflect the love of the Father for his Son.

I got to thinking about how it was all orchestrated that Jesus, though born in poverty, was buried in a rich man’s tomb so that a long-forgotten scripture would be fulfilled:

His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
Isaiah 53:9

The Bible Knowledge Commentary suggests that perhaps Jesus had made these arrangements ahead of time with this Joseph. It is conceivable that Jesus might have done that, since he was well aware of what would occur and how it would end up, and had for quite some time been preparing his disciples for this reality. Jesus may have made sure this was taken care of so that his mother Mary or the rest of his family would not have had to deal with the details.

In any case, whoever this man Joseph of Arimathea was, we do know this about him: he risked his reputation, his position as a member of the Sanhedrin, and his life in order to give Jesus a dignified burial. This was not normally done for crucified criminals. They were normally thrown in a mass grave, rejected and forgotten, or not even buried.

Jesus’ kinsmen, the Jews, preferred the dignity of appropriate burial for their dead, but they would not have gone to the extent Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus went to in providing a new, unused family tomb, spices and fine linen for the burial of Jesus. Because Jesus had been crucified, they would not have given him an honorable burial at all.

Joseph was able to use his influence and position in the Sanhedrin to request from Pilate and receive the body of Jesus after his death. Jesus’ family would not have been able to request and receive his remains. Nor would have any of his disciples. Joseph was perfectly positioned to be able to do this.

And since Jesus was placed in a new tomb, and the tomb was sealed by the Jewish authorities and guarded by the Roman soldiers, the evidence for the resurrection was even more obvious when it occurred. No doubt Joseph’s service to Jesus ended up playing a bigger role in God’s plan than he ever imagined.

How fitting it was that Joseph of Arimathea bore the name of Jesus’ human father. In the Spirit of Jesus’ heavenly father, Joseph, with the help of others, expressed the compassion and affection of a loving parent by taking Jesus off his cross, tenderly caring for him and laying him in a new tomb.

Here is Jesus, God’s beloved Son, being given a hasty, but dignified burial worthy of a godly man and dearly loved child. Joseph participated in a unique way in God’s work of fulfilling all things through and in his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death and resurrection.

We can learn from this simple gesture of love and compassion that each of us has a unique place in God’s story. God takes us where we are, using not only our gifts and talents, but our relationships, our influence, our finances and belongings as well, in accomplishing his kingdom work.

We each can and do have a meaningful role in the accomplishment of God’s will in this world. Perhaps instead of trying to offer some significant, earth-splitting, profound contribution to mankind, we need to take a humbler path of service. Something so simple and profound as the care of the dead, giving of one’s wealth, time and reputation for the sake of caring for those who are the outcasts of society—this is a great gift of service.

Joseph illustrated with his life what Jesus did symbolically on his knees in the upper room the final night before his arrest. He gave freely and served humbly and compassionately. And it was enough.

Father, thank you for the gift of your Son. Thank you, too, for all the people you place in our lives who show us your love and compassion through their simple acts of service. Grant us the grace to serve humbly too with all that we have and all that we are. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.” Matthew 27:57–60 NASB