ACH year during Holy Week, I focus on a different character from the Passion narrative, trying to experience the whole of Holy Week through his or her eyes. Usually I let the Holy Spirit guide me in the selection process. Over the years, I have experienced Holy Week alongside John the Apostle, Mary, Simon of Cyrene, St. Dismas (the Good Thief), Mary Magdalene, the Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, Veronica, and others. Once or twice, I have repeated a character.
Whether you find that idea appealing or not, I have a recommendation for this year, when COVID-19 will prevent so many followers of Christ from attending public celebrations of this most sacred week.
My recommendation is to spend some time this week identifying with Joseph of Arimathea.
What do we know about Joseph of Arimathea? Frankly, not much. Like many other characters in the Gospels, what we know of Joseph of Arimathea is gleaned through snippets.
He was from a place called Arimathea, which was a town of Judah (Lk 23:51). He was evidently a wealthy man, since he could afford to have a new tomb hewn out of rock for himself (Mt 27:60). According to Luke’s description, he may have been a member of the Sanhedrin (Lk 23:50). He is, furthermore, described as “a disciple of Jesus,” but, notably, “a secret one, for fear of the Jews” (Jn 19:38). So he was a man of faith, but a man, in some ways, reticent in his faith.
Although we do not know a great deal about him, what we do know is very telling. Two matters stand out—two actions that Joseph of Arimathea undertook on the day of Christ’s crucifixion and that are worthy of our reflection today.
First, the Gospel of Luke records that Joseph of Arimathea “went to Pilate and asked for the Body of Jesus” (Lk 23:52). The word “asked” demands our attention. In Greek, it is a very strong word (ᾐτήσατο), a verb that can mean to ask, or beg, or desire, or crave, or even demand.
Imagine that: Joseph of Arimathea desired, even craved the body of Jesus.
The second major action he undertook that day is described by the Gospel of Matthew: “Joseph took the Body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed” (Mt 27:59-60). Had it not been for this one great gift, in which he gave our Lord a tomb, the name “Joseph of Arimathea” would have been forgotten centuries ago. On account of his generosity, however, he is well and favorably remembered.
It is significant that this was not just any tomb, but rather “a new tomb where no one had ever been laid” (Jn 19:41). The cultural norm of the time and place was to reuse burial places, which often took the form of hillside necropolises. As Bishop Sheen observed: “Born of a virgin womb, He was buried in a virgin tomb, and as Crashaw said: ‘And a Joseph did betroth them both’” (Life of Christ, Chapter 53).
By giving Jesus a tomb, of course, Joseph of Arimathea was not consigning Him to death. Although not yet possessing faith in the Resurrection, he unwittingly gave the Lord a place to come to life again.
There is a tremendous beauty in these two great acts of Joseph of Arimathea—the acts whereby he “asked for the Body of Jesus” and offered Him a tomb. In our own day, each one of us is called to repeat these same very acts.
The widespread lack of access to the Sacraments at present has already cultivated a sincere craving for the Body of Christ in the hearts of many of the faithful. Have these circumstances also prompted us to hew a new place in our hearts from which the Lord can come to life again?
Certainly, the present situation is far from ideal. Indeed, it is unlivable for any length of time. Lacking the power to alter our conditions, though, we might at least seek the graces that remain always on offer from the Lord.
I invite you to follow the sacred events of this Holy Week alongside Joseph of Arimathea. By sharing with him a deep craving for the Body of Christ, may we also be united with him in offering the Lord a place to rise up and stand forth and declare newness of life.
COVID-19 Pandemic Reflections
On Separation from the Sacraments:
On Returning to the Sacraments: