People of the Book: Joseph of Arimathea
The church obviously celebrates the memorial of Christ’s Passion this week, the remembrance which serves as the apex of both the liturgical year and, for Christians, of all human history. After his suffering and death, abandoned by those he loved, Jesus’ bruised and battered body hung unprotected from the elements and carrion birds of prey on a makeshift torture device outside the city walls as the Jewish Sabbath approached at sundown.
All four Gospels recount the story of a heretofore unmentioned character, Joseph of Arimathea, coming forward to take the body from the cross and place it in a rock-hewn tomb. It is likely that after a lifetime of warm embraces and healing gestures, of rubbing blind men’s eyes mixed with spittle and laughingly lifting children onto his lap, Jesus’ human body was last touched by the hands of Joseph before the glory of the Resurrection.
Joseph was without doubt a man highly respected in the first century Jewish community in Jerusalem. The Gospel authors differ in their descriptions of him – Mark calls him a “member of the council” (boule), which most scholars agree refers to the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death (or was at least complicit in the execution). The other evangelists burnish the rough edges of this earliest presentation, answering the implicit question left in the Markan account’s previous claim that the council “unanimously” sought the death sentence for Jesus (Mk 14:55, 15:1). Luke exonerates Joseph of that decision, claiming “he was a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their purpose and deed, and who was looking for the kingdom of God.” Matthew and John go a step further to name him a disciple of Jesus, whether professedly as in Matthew’s case, or “secretly, for fear of the Jews” in John’s rather polemical description.
According to Mark, Joseph “took courage and approached Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.” Throughout his Gospel, Mark has a particularly negative description of Pilate as a self-interested procurator obsessed with and frustrated by the intra-Jewish quarrels which sought to tear Judea apart under his watch, a man at least implicitly hostile to the figure of Jesus. Thus, the other Gospels, in their softened presentations of Pilate (where he often explicitly declares Jesus’ innocence or washes his hands of the murder, specifics not mentioned in Mark), do not emphasize that any kind of risk was involved in Joseph’s request. Historically, it is quite likely that his decision to perform this pious act could have had serious implications for him and his family, potentially tainting them in the eyes of both the Jewish Temple aristocracy and the Roman occupiers.
We as Catholics are, through our baptism into the royal priesthood of the believing community, called to perform the seven corporal works of mercy, one of which is burying the dead. This is quintessentially an act of charity, and one which Joseph of Arimathea models for us.
Pope Benedict XVI’s most recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, asserts: “Charity is at the heart of the church’s social doctrine. Every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from charity which, according to the teaching of Jesus, is the synthesis of the entire Law. It gives real substance to the personal relationship with God and with neighbour; it is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones). For the church, instructed by the Gospel, charity is everything because, as St. John teaches and as I recalled in my first encyclical, ‘God is love’: everything has its origin in God’s love, everything is shaped by it, everything is directed towards it. Love is God’s greatest gift to humanity, it is his promise and our hope.”
Because Joseph embodied such a vocation, despite the emotional, social and perhaps physical risk involved, he is the patron saint of funeral directors, of which there are not a few connected with my own family on my paternal grandfather’s side. Joseph has, perhaps unfortunately, been assigned the feast day of March 17, and so unless his hearse is painted green, the holy undertaker’s remembrance often gets short shrift compared to his more famous co-patron’s celebration. We would, however, do well to meditate on the loving care Joseph provided Our Lord, even if the last moments of life had, like it so often does, pushed him beyond his psychological and spiritual comfort zone.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.