I have always been amazed at just how much there is to do when someone dies. Perhaps that is a good thing. Keeping busy is sometimes just what people want, what they need, when they simply cannot bear to think about what has happened to them. There is a time for sitting and praying and letting it sink in, of course, but there is also a desire to get things done. Some people resort to cleaning the house, busying themselves in the daily chores, some will set to in the garden, others will be out all of the time. But the processes of the aftermath of a death also need to be attended to, seeing the undertaker, being visited by the vicar, registering the death, making arrangements for the funeral, contacting friends and relatives, visiting the bank and your solicitor, choosing the flowers. It all takes time, it all has to be done and often it is the most intimately affected person who has to do so much of the work.
And then someone steps forward, ‘Here, let me help you.’ ‘What can I do?’ I remember neighbours offering to arrange the reception back at home after the funeral. Jean, next door, would have the key and get the kettle on for when we got back. Brenda and Bill would make the sandwiches. Fred would clear his drive so that some people could park there. Doreen would be at the door to welcome everyone in and she’d baked a cake. ‘Let us help you.’
People ‘rallying round’ is such an important thing and I’m always saddened when I come across a person without that kind of network of support, without the good neighbours, the good friends, without family who will shoulder some of the burden and ease, in just small ways, the demands of the days between death and burial.
In our own culture, of course, that intervening time seems to get longer and longer. When I was first ordained, over 30 years ago, you could expect a funeral within a week of a death. Now I think in terms of ten days to a fortnight and that is an enormous amount of time for a bereaved person, a family to be caught in this ‘limbo’, this between time. There is only so much cleaning that a person can do and the pressure on people just waiting to do the right thing, to say the right words, for their loved one, is tremendous.
Other cultures and faith traditions with whom we share life nowadays have very different practices. Funerals seem to follow a death almost instantly and we hear the reports of the distress that is caused when they get caught up in the British bureaucracy of death and their traditions of immediate burial cannot be met.
Jesus’ lifeless body had been taken down from the cross. An unknown ‘friend’ had intervened. Joseph of Arimathea, a Pharisee, had gone to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus and when Pilate had assured himself by asking the Centurion who had been on duty at the foot of the cross whether Jesus was dead, he gave permission. Mary took Jesus in her arms and, in that desperately cruel place, with the cross looming over her, she loved him. Some of the disciples but principally the women stood around her and let her have her time of grief, her private moment with her child. There was nothing that they could say.
But the evening was fast approaching and that meant the Sabbath was fast approaching. So they couldn’t linger too long, Jesus had to be laid in a tomb.
Joseph was, we imagine, a wealthy, well organised man. He had already made arrangements for his own funeral. A tomb had been carved in a cave not far from where they were, in a garden. He would give his own tomb to Jesus. He was the ‘unknown’ friend and yet made this generous response. We have to remember that as far as everyone else was concerned Jesus was now a dead criminal, a curse in many ways, and yet that was not how Joseph saw him, and he was a trusted, respected leader of the community.
At the Second Station on this journey ‘Calvary Bound’ we remembered the Passiontide hymn by Samuel Crossman, ‘My song if love unknown’. the verse I quoted from briefly then says it all now
In life, no house, no home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death, no friendly tomb,
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heav’n was His home;
But mine the tomb
Wherein He lay.
And Joseph was not alone. I remember seeing the great Passion Play in Oberammergau for the first time. What struck me then was how the divided nature of the Pharisees was so powerfully brought to the fore. We often see them – like we can see many groups in society, even in the church – as monochrome, all in opposition, all in favour. But truth is far more complex and nuanced.
In the Passion Play we saw a group of Pharisees arguing for Jesus with those who were opposed to him and his teaching. And there were three of them – Joseph of Arimathea who we meet at this Fourteenth Station; Nicodemus, who St John tells us came to Jesus ‘by night’ (John 3.2), so secretly, stealthily; and Gamaliel (Acts 5.34) who speaks for Jesus in the ongoing debates that we hear about in Acts.
These men were friends and as darkness began to fall, they appeared. ‘Let us help… What can we do?… What can I do?’
There is a wonderful tradition in parts of France of building monuments that commemorate this part of the story. They are known as ‘Mise au tombeau’ and they show Jesus being laid in the tomb, with his mother Mary, John and the women looking on, but the actual burial is being performed by Joseph and Nicodemus. They stand at either end of the tomb and are depicted as lowering Jesus into it. It is a very moving depiction. Mary had friends; the disciples had friends; they were not alone, even though they thought that they were. These men had come out of the wings, out of the shadows and had done the right thing. So much had happened that was so wrong and as we have made this journey with Jesus we have seen that all the way along.
But in the darkness there have been sparks of light – Simon, Mary, the women, and now these men who could have been thought of as the enemy but in fact they were true friends.
When Jesus had been sought out by Nicodemus almost at the very beginning of St John’s Gospel there was an amazing exchange. And he, this leader, this teacher of Israel, had said to Jesus
‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ (John 3.4)
Now, with Joseph, he places Jesus again in the womb, but not his mother’s womb, the womb of the earth and he will finally learn, as we will finally learn, what Jesus meant as he said to him those words which are at the very heart of our faith
‘For 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.’ (John 3.16)
But we must wait in the silence of this day for that to be fulfilled and as we do thank God for those who step from the sidelines onto the stage of our life and support us and pray that we may be an ‘unknown’ friend to others.
make me generous in giving
and generous in receiving
the unknown friend.