We recognise what they were like as people, from the same kind of people who always help out in parishes with funerals, or who, when a crisis happens, you can always rely on someone to know what needs to be done. Thus to this day, burying the dead is counted a “corporal work of mercy”. This does not only mean attending the funeral, but the practical action of laying someone to rest. Many of the practicalities involved are now seen to by the funeral director. But even though many of the arrangements are in such hands, others may still make tasks their own - preparing food, helping with transport, singing and reading at the funeral, making charitable donations. Sending fragrant flowers recalls anointing the body with aromatic spices to overcome the odour of our life’s decay. It is ab act of physical honour to the person whose life has gone from this world. In the Eastern Church, you will have noticed that mourning families come to Church for a special service of prayer for the dead, often after the end of the Divine Liturgy, for which a special loaf of bread is baked and koliva is made, a memorial dish of wheat and raisins. Its blessing by the priest blesses the mourners who will consume it, and it honours the memory of those who are missed and now look to the resurrection to eternal life. In the Western Church this service can take the form of a memorial mass, and people will often make a donation to a Church with a request for the intention of a particular mass to be devoted to the repose of someone’s soul – and a tangible card with the date, the name of the Church, and the signature of the priest will be sent to the mourners as an act of kindness on one level but of faith on another – faith that the power of Christ’s sacrifice will forgive the burden of sin and lead us to everlasting life.
So, even in different ways, we are still setting out to do works of mercy for the dead like Joseph of Arimathea and the Myrrh-Bearers of old. But what were their tasks?
We are told in the gospels that Joseph of Arimathea is granted the custody of the dead body of Jesus for burial. Most of the other disciples are terrified of possible reprisals from the Temple and Roman authorities and are in hiding. St John’s corporal act of mercy is now to take the Blessed Virgin Mary into his own home, there to comfort her in her grief. He has enough to do; but also he may have been too junior to approach the authorities in such a tense moment. So it fell to a member of the Sanhedrin itself to choose this moment of all moments, and seek a rare, personal audience of Pilate the Governor. Aided by Nicodemus, he puts together one of those groups from among the nearest disciples, willing to perform the accustomed tasks for burying the dead. But the imminent setting of the sun means the Sabbath is about to begin and there is little time. Joseph has bought a new linen cloth to wrap the Lord straight from taking Him down from the Cross. There is a treasured tradition that at this moment the Mother of God takes her Son into her arms for one last time, just as she had first held Him after he was born and wrapped in His swaddling cloths. But there is hardly any more time. St John tells us that myrrh and aloes were wrapped on the Lord’s body and held in place with the linen. He will have seen this, perhaps. There is not a moment for preparing the spices to anoint Him. Everything else will need to wait. The stone is rolled in place and the Tomb is sealed. A guard is set up by the authorities, and no one is allowed near until Sunday morning.
If there had been time, Joseph, Nicodemus, the Magdalen, Mary the Mother of Joses, and Salome would have taken the body away to one of their houses. There the spices would have been mixed and steeped in olive oil. Then they would have anointed the Lord’s body in its horrifically injured state, to relax the tensed muscles and sinews, soothe the bruises and wounds with aloes, to clean and disinfect it with the myrrh and other spices. After this they would have bathed it in water, rinsing it of the dried blood, the sweat and uncleanliness, to restore to it some human dignity. After that, they would have bound His body in the linen with more of scented spice, before taking Him, within a matter of hours of His death, for a proper burial attended with open mourning from those who loved and followed Him.
But, whenever you read the Gospels, you see that nothing happens without a reason; and nothing falls without the Lord’s own plan for events and people, each fulfilling God’s purpose. Thus it is neither possible nor necessary for Jesus to be anointed with myrrh and spices after His death for three reasons:
- He has already been prepared for His descent into death by the Magi, one of whom presented Him with myrrh when His incarnation was first revealed
- A woman at Bethany - whom St John identifies as Mary the sister of Martha and the much-loved Lazarus that Jesus had just raised from death - had already anointed the Lord in preparation, He said, for His imminent burial
- Jesus was already the Lord’s Anointed, for the Spirit of God had been seen to rest upon Him, and the Father’s own voice had declared Him to be the Divine Son of Man, the Lord Himself.
- He had already been baptised in the Jordan, and there revealed as the Lamb of God, Who would be slain and revealed as Worthy to be the true King in the reign of God’s Kingdom
- In the city of Nain, where Jesus had raised from death a distraught widow’s son, another woman covers the Lord’s feet with the water of her tears, turning to Him with complete repentance, so that He grants her forgiveness on the depth of her faith in Him and the sacrifice He is about to offer on the Cross
- Water was brought to Jesus at Cana in Galilee, we are told, on the third day. This water He turns into wine, as He re-sets of Creation with the first of His miracles. So it is that, on the night before He died, He took the cup and says He will not drink wine again until He drinks it new in the Kingdom. And it is on the Cross that He takes wine turned to vinegar in the moments before His death, when water with blood flows from His side. On the third day, He rose again. He cannot be washed with water ready for His tomb, because the New Order of God’s Kingdom is inaugurated on the Cross, and the steps leading to the Resurrection have already been set in motion. The water has flowed, and it is already the time of New Wine, on the third day.
It is this moment that the Myrrh-Bearers are caught up in, when the consequences of believing in Jesus dawn. Belief is not just in the mind; it takes physical bearing too and there are practical consequences. Those who carried linen, water, oil, myrrh and aloes are frustrated in the performance of their righteous office. They had to set everything they brought aside, and now instead must take up a story of bold faith, of being unafraid and forgiven, of a new Order. Those who were there to take down a body from the Cross and lay it in a Tomb, were told not to hold on to the soon to be Ascended Lord, but take up a cross and follow for themselves the path He had just trodden. Those apostles whose hands had bolted a door behind them, frightened out of their wits at what might happen because the Lord had risen and who would come through to get at them, would with the same hands take bread and wine and make the Lord known in the Breaking of Bread, and so from that day to this.
This moment of realisation matters and on it hangs all else. Last weekend, I was sitting at bus stop and a man who had enjoyed a very good lunch came and sat beside me. My fears of an inebriated and fruitless conversation softened, as I conversed with this rather clear-minded person. He began as I expected: “Of course, I am not religious. I don’t hold with it. I cannot see how there can be a single Creator being.” We were now on the bus. We’d established I was Catholic priest. Then he asked, ”Do you believe all that stuff happened?” As I reflected on an adequate answer, he shouted out, “Ah! Ah! No funny answers, No ‘It depends…’! Tell me what you think. Do you believe it all happened or not?” So I said, “Unequivocally, yes. He rose from the dead. If He was not Who He said He was, then it is all just another religion, one path of spirituality to choose among others. If He did not rise from the dead, if there is some tomb somewhere in which He still lies, then nothing I believe in stands. If indeed He rose from the dead, it changes everything – not just about my opinion, but about everything in creation. You may not believe or feel it. But if it happened with Jesus, it happened in the whole of humanity. Some of the things in the way we speak are metaphors, some analogies. But this? This is the simple truth. So, without any prevarication, yes, I believe it all happened.” Then he told me that he was glad to hear once more a Catholic answer to his question.
To the Myrrh-Bearers, the Angel said, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth Who was crucified. He is not here; He is risen. Go and tell His disciples that He is going ahead of you.” This command rejoices not only their hearts and ours. It conveys the simple truth about humanity and the created universe that it is re-set for a new Order, the Kingdom of God where this natural body of ours is sown and a spiritual one rises up to eternal life (I Corinthians 15.44). Its echo even the unbeliever strains to hear is still there.