Tuesday, April 10, 2012

but what a stranger gave

In addition to the thief crucified at Jesus’ side, another player in the crucifixion-burial-resurrection drama has been in my thoughts--the mysterious and touching figure, Joseph of Arimathea. All four Gospels record that he was a man of some influence in the Jewish community who asked permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body, brought it down from the cross, wrapped it in linens and laid it in a tomb.

We know almost nothing about this Joseph--he is not mentioned anywhere else in scripture--he was not an apostle or an evangelist, not one of Jesus’ closest friends--apparently, he kept his distance to avoid scandal and stay out of trouble. But he loved Jesus. And he was watching and listening, from the sidelines, throughout the story.

I have never particularly identified with this Joseph myself, but he’s always felt like a very dear character--the way he just quietly steps out of the shadows to do this one act of tenderness and honor, for the great teacher he had admired from afar. It seems strange that it was not one of the Twelve, nor any of the women disciples in Jesus’ inner circle, but someone that a favorite old hymn even calls “a stranger”--who gently lifted the broken body, and wrapped it in a clean cloth, who bestowed this final loving care, and laid Jesus to rest.

There is something very dear and touching about the quiet tenderness and intimacy of Joseph’s part in the story--and a kind of pregnant peace as I picture him setting down the body of Jesus there in the garden among all the blooming spring flowers.

I’ve always liked the idea of medals of saints, but only ever wanted ones that are really hard (if not impossible) to find, like Thomas Aquinas and Anselm of Canterbury. I think I would like a Joseph of Arimathea medal, just to remind me of this little story of surprising devotion.

Here is that favorite old hymn, by the way:

My Song Is Love Unknown
(Samuel Crossman)

My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take
frail flesh and die?

He came from his blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But all made strange, and none
The longed for Christ would know:
But O! my friend, my friend indeed,
Who at my need
his life did spend.

Sometimes they strew his way,
And his sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their king:
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for his death
they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease,
and ’gainst him rise.

They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of Life they slay,
Yet steadfast he to suffering goes,
That he his foes
from thence might free.

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.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear king!
Never was grief like thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days
would gladly spend.

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