Jesus’ Burial: Passion Sunday 2023

The Sunday before Easter is sometimes called Palm Sunday, focusing on Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem. And sometimes Passion Sunday, focusing on Jesus’ crucifixion. Today’s Passion Sunday passage describes Jesus’ burial after he was crucified.

In vs. 57 we learn that a wealthy disciple of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea was able to retrieve Jesus’ body from the Romans. He wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth, as was customary for burial, and buried him in his own tomb.

Most Palestinian Jews at that time buried their dead in caves. Or, if wealthy like Joseph, by carving out a tomb in a natural rock formation, either a cliff or rocky slope. The body would be laid on a shelf or bench inside the tomb. As vs. 60 tells us, a large rock would be placed over the entrance of the tomb to prevent grave robbers from entering.

After about a year, when the flesh had fully decomposed family members would collect the bones and put them in a stone box called an ossuary. This “bone box” would then be placed in a small recess in the tomb as the permanent resting place. Over time, others would be buried in the same tomb. But Matthew tells us that Joseph’s tomb was new. Only Jesus’ body had been placed there.

An interesting thing is that we can look at Matthew’s description from two different perspectives. One the one hand, we can note that Matthew wrote his account after Jesus’ resurrection. Scholars believe that Matthew emphasized certain details in order to show that Jesus was really raised from the dead.

Many rumors existed at that time. When the tomb was found empty, some people were saying that Jesus was only badly hurt on the cross, and that he had revived and escaped the tomb. Others said that his disciples had stolen his body to make it look like he’d been resurrected.

Another theory was that the tomb had been misidentified, that the tomb found to be empty was some other tomb, not that of Jesus. That if people had gone to the correct tomb Jesus’ dead body would have been there.

So Matthew writes his account of Jesus’ burial to refute these theories. He’s saying in effect:

Because Joseph was wealthy and prominent, his newly cut tomb was well-known and readily identified. No other tomb would have been mistaken for his.

Plus, the two women, Mary Magdalene and another Mary were watching the tomb from the time when Jesus’ body was placed there. There couldn’t have been a mistake as to where Jesus was buried.

Nor could the disciples have secretly stolen Jesus’ body. Pilate sent group of soldiers to guard the tomb—and secure it with a Roman seal. The guards would have first looked inside to make sure Jesus’ body was still. Then placed a rope across the large stone and sealed it on each side with soft clay imprinted with the Imperial insignia.

Matthew is detailing all this to make the case that a merely weakened Jesus couldn’t have escaped the tomb, nor could his followers have stolen his body. Jesus had really died, and afterwards had been truly resurrected by the power of God.

Matthew writes with the resurrection in view. But there’s another perspective we can bring to his account of Jesus’ burial. That is, we can read about how his followers felt and acted at the time — after Jesus’ had been crucified and before his resurrection.

Though Jesus had told his followers about his imminent death and resurrection, they thought he was speaking in parables. They didn’t believe that he would be actually killed and raised from the dead. So for them Jesus’ death was the ultimate catastrophe. The end of all hope.

We feel like that at times, don’t we? That we face an impossible situation. That we’ve done everything we can, and it isn’t enough. That there’s no way forward.

That’s how Jesus’ followers felt, so maybe we can learn something from how Matthew describes them.

Let’s start with Peter and the apostles. They aren’t mentioned in these verses about Jesus’ burial. The reason is that they weren’t anywhere around. They had run away and were in hiding.

We can relate to that. When faced with an apparently hopeless situation we too feel like running away. Perhaps literally — or perhaps we simply want to withdraw mentally and emotionally.

Much of the time running away – either literally or figuratively – isn’t very helpful, and often it makes things worse. But sometimes distancing ourselves actually helps.

We might think of Elijah the prophet. He fled when Jezebel sought to have him killed and hid in a cave. He was afraid and depressed. But God met Elijah personally in his place of refuge. God revitalized him and renewed his mission.

Sometimes when life feels too much for us, we too need to take a time out. We need to stop thinking about the problem, to stop trying to fix it. To withdraw temporarily in order to be refreshed. Sometimes we need to “let go and let God” as the saying goes.

Jesus didn’t condemn the apostles for running away. He meets them after his resurrection and renews them, as God did Elijah. And as God can do for us.

Let’s look closer at Joseph of Arimathea. Matthew tells us only that Joseph was a wealthy disciple of Jesus. We learn more about him from the Gospel accounts of Mark, Luke and John. They tell us that Joseph was a prominent member of the supreme religious council, and that he had opposed Jesus’ execution. 

We’re also told that Joseph was a secret disciple. He hadn’t wanted others to know about his belief in Jesus. But Jesus’ death changed something inside Joseph. Unlike the apostles who went into hiding, Joseph stopped hiding his commitment. He took the risky step of publicly identifying with Jesus.

Joseph came out as a disciple and acted to address the practical needs of the situation. He retrieves Jesus’ body, wraps him for burial, places him in his own tomb and seals it with a stone. These were acts of great love and devotion.

Probably Joseph wished he would have done more, that he could have somehow prevented Jesus’ execution. But even though he was rich and powerful, that was beyond his ability. Joseph couldn’t save Jesus from execution, so he did what he could. He met the practical needs of the moment.

Joseph is a good model for us in the face of apparently impossible circumstances. Focusing on practical everyday activities often helps us when we ourselves face great difficulty.

And the practical acts of caring are often also the most important immediate things we can do for others experiencing loss and pain. We may not be able to fix things for them, to make everything right. But we can express love by helping meet the practical needs of the moment. We can be there for them. And whatever we do for a fellow human being in need, we are doing for Jesus himself, just as Joseph was.

In vs. 65 we learn that Mary Magdalene and another Mary were sitting near Jesus’ tomb. We’re familiar with Mary Magdalene. The other Mary seems to be Mary the mother of James and Joses, who was previously mentioned in vs. 56.

The two women were sitting nearby, facing the tomb. They were there out of love and devotion to Jesus. Even in his death they wanted to be near him.

They were mourning and perhaps they had begun sitting shiva, the 7-day period that began immediately after the burial of a loved one, according to Jewish custom. Usually sitting shiva was done in a home. But maybe the two Mary’s began at the grave site. We can be sure that they were praying. They would have prayed certain Psalms, and other special prayers for those in mourning.

There is one other thing the Marys may have been doing. Perhaps they were engaged in a “watch.” That is, a vigil involving quiet waiting and expectant prayer. We might think of Psalm 119: “O God, my eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises.”

Maybe as they sat before Jesus’ tomb, Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James and Joses were thinking about God’s promises. Even during that time of incalculable loss perhaps they had some inkling, some tiny hope that the story wasn’t at an end, that something unexpected and wonderful might yet happen.

“Watch and pray,” Jesus had told them. “Always pray, and never give up” he had said.

We too are called to watch and pray, to trust in God in whatever difficulties we face. We do not know when our prayers will be answered and our hopes fulfilled, whether in this life or in the world to come.

But like the two Marys we trust and pray and keep watch, meditating on God’s promises, and looking to see what great work God may yet do.

For as we now know, and as the disciples would soon learn, while the apostles were hiding, and Joseph was burying Jesus, and the two Marys were watching and praying, God too was acting. 

God was doing something immensely greater than what they could ever have imagined.