And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12: 32)
When Pilate turns to Jesus and asks “What is truth?” he may be speaking for the majority of those present there that day. Something is happening in front of these people, something world-changing. They are taking part in it. But they don’t know what it is. They are drawn by fear, drawn by the desire for someone to blame, drawn by the vain hope that they might put this episode to rest and go on with their lives and their careers. They make decisions, mostly for their own self-protection in the short term. Their decisions make everything worse.
I don’t know about you, but this is a condition I feel that I am in often lately, and an anxiety I hear all around me. What’s going on? Where are we heading? What is unfolding among us right now? What are we participating in? What are we making worse? We watch our electoral process take a sickening turn toward violence. We wonder about what technology will mean for our futures. We watch in what seems to be mostly numb silence as our environment suffers severe degradation. And we watch as victims surround us: refugees, casualties, the downtrodden, those who have been forgotten, those whose lives are being consumed by war and poverty and disaster. There is a strong stench of violation in the air. There is blasphemy all around us today, just as surely as there was blasphemy that day at the foot of the cross.
We are unmistakably standing at the foot of the cross. And we are no more able to announce with certainty what it is that we are witnessing than Peter or Pilate were. We feel anxiety and complicity, and we are probably all hoping that we will be able to put this moment behind us and go on with our lives and our careers.
But coming here today, we are admitting that even in our anxiety we sense salvation. We are here today because we are drawn to the cross, maybe in spite of ourselves. We are here today because Jesus is calling to us in some way we may not be able to explain. We seem to be compelled to do this today, as the church has been compelled to do it for centuries. We’ve been moved, all of us, in one way or another, to join a community of people who gaze upon the cross, revere the cross, follow the cross. A community of people for whom Jesus crucified is the redemption we are hoping for, our own redemption and the redemption of the world.
We sense that there is degradation here, but also that there is something precious. And we dare to act out of a sense of tenderness and gratitude. Doesn’t it seem astonishing to you that you are here today, for all of the world’s pain, drawn by tenderness and gratitude? That you hope for forgiveness and new life?
Nicodemus is drawn to the cross just as we are. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, who had once gone to Jesus by dark of night and asked him foolish questions about being reborn. Nicodemus has no great virtues, as far as I can tell, and there isn’t much heroic about him, except that he has quietly never stopped being drawn to Jesus. And this Joseph of Arimathea, this secret, fearful disciple, finds that he too is moved to come. What do they understand? It can’t have been much. But the broken body of Jesus calls to them, as it calls to us. They are moved to stay with the broken body of Christ, as perhaps we are moved to stay with the church and with one another. They receive the body, as perhaps we receive communion, perhaps surprised to find our hands outstretched and our hearts willing. They show their reverence for the body by wrapping it in linens and spices, and laying it in a tomb, as perhaps we show our own reverence here today.
No, they couldn’t have told us then what it was that was unfolding in front of them. They didn’t know, any more than we do today, what they were part of. They could not have told us then that the body they held in their arms was the body of God who dwells “in light inaccessible from before time and for ever.” They had no way of saying at that moment that they were participating in God’s great transformation of death into life. But God gave them the gift of profoundly eloquent gesture. God gave Nicodemus and Joseph a calling, a desire to stretch out their hands and receive him, and hold onto him, and wait. Even if they don’t know exactly why.
There is, they observe, a garden right there, right in the place where Jesus is crucified. There is a garden right there. Kindness and beauty and grace open up right in the place where Jesus dies, right in the place where failure and bafflement and powerlessness seem to reign. Where others have found only bitterness and violence, Joseph and Nicodemus have found a place of contemplation, a calling, a longing to take the broken body of Christ into their own hands. Whatever else happens that day, these two are given the inestimable gift of honoring Jesus in the most improbable circumstances.
A church is beginning right here, right in the place where the body of Jesus is broken. Even as he is laid in the tomb, his presence fills this garden as the presence of God filled the garden of Paradise. And Joseph and Nicodemus have a part in making that presence palpable, by their tender acts of reverence and even by the rich scent of the spices with which they prepare the body.
The tenderness and reverence we practice today are eloquent. On our knees today, asking forgiveness, we are dwelling in that light that is the light of the world. We proclaim, entirely by the grace of God, that Jesus has been lifted up and is drawing us to him, drawing all people to himself.
And today, this place of degradation becomes a garden of Paradise, filled with God’s presence and God’s light. From it will flow acts of charity and healing and grace. From it will flow reassurance, the confidence we need, timid as we are, to witness to the truth.
In the beginning was the Word. And though actual words fail us, we come here today to learn eloquent gestures. And our gestures proclaim, even to ourselves, in our unknowing, that the light shines in the darkness. Our gestures teach us that together we are drawn to Jesus with profound hope, even in our unknowing. That we are dwelling in God and with God, in that inaccessible light. That light is our life. That light shines in the darkness. And we behold it, full of grace and truth.