John 18:1 – 19:42 (especially 19:38-42) – Good Friday – for Friday, April 3, 2015
“There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified…” (John 19:41)
The garden—a laughable description for the neglected swath of hard dirt and thick weeds—was now oppressed with shadows. But at least, even before in the fading sunlight, Golgotha and its bloodied hillside couldn’t be seen from where Jesus lay in a tomb. That now empty place, where a few hours before Roman soldiers had threatened the crowds with more death if they didn’t keep their distance from the crosses, where women had wailed until their hoarse throats sounded like wounded animals, where children played tag, where the clot of temple priests silently encouraged each demeaning step of the crucifixion, was over a rise and seemed like it had happened a thousand years ago to someone else.
But it happened.
Nicodemus had witnessed every gory, grim moment.
The man who hailed from Arimathea had trudged away a few moments before. Nicodemus had never met him—Joseph, that was his name—until this Friday. And yet, as this horrific day ended, they had been the only ones willing to carry Jesus’ limp, broken body to a place of final rest. This dung heap of a garden happened to be close. This tomb happened to be available. And Joseph, who’d helped Jesus carry his cross out of the damned streets of Jerusalem, had somehow had the courage to stay and help. Nicodemus, because of age and sorrow, couldn’t have managed to bury Jesus by himself.
Was it good luck or God’s good favor that supplied a ready tomb and some additional helping hands? On this day, Nicodemus didn’t believe much in happenstance or holy favors. If gory Golgotha was now empty of the foreign soldiers and cowardly priests, it also felt empty of God’s presence.
Indeed, all Nicodemus felt was God’s absence.
In the milky gray of the day’s gloaming, he lingered. He thought he should wait to see if one of Jesus’ disciples might appear. Then Peter or James or John or whomever came would know exactly where the body was and Nicodemus could leave this wretched place, leave even Jerusalem, feeling like he’d accomplished something.
No one came. Not a living soul.
He wiped sweat from his brow, and the pungent scent of the myrrh and aloe assaulted his nose. Nicodemus had purchased more spices than necessary to prepare the body, but he’d wanted it done right. He wanted Jesus’ scarred and scoured flesh to at least be covered with the sweet reminder of tradition.
The old man shivered.
Not from the cold, since there was no chill in the night air.
Not from being afraid, for all the soldiers were gone, now probably drunk or screwing the whores that crowded the alleys during Passover.
Not from regrets, though Nicodemus would admit to . . . disappointments. When he first met Jesus, why hadn’t he just listened to the young man? Why debate everything the fiery, intense Nazarene had said? In their first encounter, Jesus had shown only love, only understanding, only hope. Nicodemus had scoffed at his ideas, even as those same ideas—those tender mercies—were breaking open his brittle heart. Before Nicodemus left Jesus on that long ago night, the old man knew he’d follow the younger man anywhere.
And he had followed Jesus, except he kept his new, troubling beliefs to himself. He hoarded the secret of his renewed hopes in God. So, yes, there were disappointments.
He was still an old fool, who could not have handled the stone without Joseph’s muscles, and could not have felt that anything resembling love was possible in this cruel, greedy world without Jesus’ ministry.
He shivered again.
He knew why.
He was alone in the dark of this worst night of his life.
Now Nicodemus couldn’t see the outline of the rolled stone against the surrounding rock outcropping. Now he only heard the tentative chirps of birds and the weak breeze stirring branches and he suspected, even if he waited until dawn, that none of the disciples would arrive. They’d abandoned their rabbi. Everyone had. Now he only smelled the remnants of the burial spices and feared, no matter how often he washed his arthritic hands, he’d never rid himself of the smell.
He was alone in the darkest parts of his soul.
Jesus was dead. His disciples, they of the brave words and quick feet in retreat, had vanished. The crowds dispersed, probably many of them shoveling stew into their guts and not caring they had demanded a young man die a terrible death before sitting down to dinner.
Nicodemus thought God was little different than this cursed darkness. God was the empty clacking of branches. God was the dried blood on Golgotha. God was shallow promises and a young man in a tomb with flesh soon to rot. God was still the holy deceiver from the ancient story of Eden, tempting humans with the knowledge of good and evil. Why offer the creation choices? We’ll always take the worst one. Won’t we? We may speak pretty words and claim lofty ambitions, but every damn time, given the choice, we’ll grovel for one more meal or one more whore to screw or one more coin to grasp rather than lead a life of humility and hope.
Humility and hope, after all, were rotting in a tomb.
The first stars glinted in the sky over Jerusalem.
Nicodemus left the garden, taking the same path Joseph of Arimathea had taken earlier in the day’s final light. As he hurried away, the old man didn’t care if he stumbled or fell.
There was only a long night now. Only more loss. Only inevitable futility.
His whole body ached with loneliness. He wondered, with each step, if he could even keep breathing. And yet, unbidden, he kept hearing, in the deep recesses of his heart, Jesus’ final words on the cross: It is completed. Why, as that anguished memory echoed within Nicodemus, did Jesus’ stark announcement seem more like a faithful challenge than a final statement?
Even in the gloom, Nicodemus sensed he’d come to a junction. He paused, unable to recall if he should go this way or that way. There was probably a marker where the two trails crisscrossed. If the Romans were good for anything, it was because they put signs everywhere. But he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, let alone a Roman milestone. And God, unlike the ancient stories of Moses, certainly wasn’t leaving any bright clues in the wilderness to follow. Nicodemus had to choose on his own.
A gust of wind graced his face, suddenly flowing from the path to his right. It dried his sweat and swept away the stench of the myrrh. Nicodemus, a man of little faith who had even that faith shove into a tomb and sealed away, chose the right path. His heart remained heavy, but his pace quickened.
Again, he heard the echo of Jesus’ words: It is completed.
The old man refused to hope, and yet some inexplicable piece of him wondered if, perhaps, maybe, possibly, one chapter was over and another might begin? Only a fool would believe that.
The wind drew him forward.
* – John 3:8 inspired the title. And the entire essay, as oft the case, is merely my imagination: we know less than a little about Joseph and Nicodemus’ relationship, and I certainly have no idea if the “garden” was a lush spot or a weed-riddled patch.