Lent: A Garden of God
Some encounters with Christ remain unresolved in the Gospel narratives. Unlike the parable of the prodigal son, the stories don’t necessarily have either a decisive or a happy ending. For example, what happened to the rich young ruler who, having asked Christ what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life, turned away grieving when told to sell all he had … because he owned so much (Mark 10.17–22)? And, too, the man who desired to bury his father before following Christ (Luke 9.60). Did they either sell-up or catch-up, in the end?
Nicodemus (who’s referred to in these verses) had had a clandestine meeting with Christ under cover of darkness, on the strength that God was evidently with Christ. He wanted to know how to enter the Kingdom of God, but didn’t want to be seen by his fellow Pharisees to ask the question. Having been told that it could be accessed only through spiritual rebirth – a concept that utterly perplexed Nicodemus — the discussion peters out.
However, Nicodemus turns up again in the Gospel narratives twice. The first time is prior to Christ’s seizure and prosecution by the Jewish authorities. On that occasion, he reminded them of the principle of a just trail – that, in effect, a man is innocent until proven guilty. This was brave, not least because — just before he spoke — one officer had asked: ‘Have any of the Pharisees believed on him?’ (John 7.47–51). Was Nicodemus merely being equitable in his comment? Or was he by now, like Joseph of Arimathea, a ‘secret disciple’ and well and truly in the Kingdom?
On the second occasion, recorded in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus’ allegiance to Christ is far less ambiguous. He not only provides the customary embalming spices and ointment, but also assists Joseph to bury Christ’s body. There’s one other feature of this story that suggests that Nicodemus had undergone a profound change since that night-time interview: the 100 lbs of spices that he contributed to the process of preparation. This was far in excess of what was required, both in quantity and quality. There’s a broader principle at work, here. Recall the ‘woman [who] came to [Christ] with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table’.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor. Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.Matthew 26.7-12
She loved him much, because he’d forgiven her much. The woman’s conspicuous generosity was a material manifestation of her spiritual gratitude. Liquid thanksgiving, if you will. Nicodemus, too, was embarrassingly profligate. And, likewise, his practical generosity was the outward expression of an inward transformation. This was the logic of the Kingdom at work: give, give, give, without letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, and without counting the cost to yourself.
We know far less about Joseph of Arimathea’s history. The Gospels tell us he was a rich, good, and just man; a covert disciple of Christ (who — like Simeon before him — waited expectantly for the Kingdom of God); a respected member of the Jewish Council; and the one who’d begged Pilate for the body of Christ. (That was a risky undertaking in itself.) Joseph’s generosity was also expressed materially. In other words, this was no empty piety; he put his life and possessions on the line.
Joseph provided linen for a shroud and a new sepulchre that had been hewn out of the rock in the garden. In all likelihood, Joseph had commissioned the chamber sometime prior to Christ’s death for either his own burial or that of a family member. In 2014, one of our local, much-loved, and well-respected rugby heroes died tragically. He’d always desired to be buried in the town’s municipal cemetery. But no place could be secured; until, that is, a local family who’d reserved a plot there some years earlier came forward an offered it to his widow and children. The donors did a beautiful thing for them. Of course, Joseph had the resources to buy another grave. But he’d bought this one, in this place, and for a reason. Perhaps, it was close to a family plot. Whatever the motivation, he put self-interest aside and sacrificed it. Like all who are suddenly bereaved, Nicodemus and Joseph were desperate to do whatever good they could in the service of the departed. Love is stronger than death. Sadly, we’re often more generous to people – in terms of our consideration, estimation, and practical expressions of regard – when they’re dead than when they were alive.
Here, then, were two men, whose commitment Christ had been closeted until now. We aren’t told how they either found one another, or recognised their kindred faith, or determined to oversee with dignity what, to them, must have seemed like the final act of a failed mission. But no matter how downcast and disappointed they were feeling, Nicodemus and Joseph needed to act quickly. According to Jewish tradition, the body had to be buried before the sun went down on the Day of Preparation (our Good Friday) preceding the Sabbath.
The narrative in John’s Gospel while faithful is not also comprehensive. It focuses on these two men alone. That’s its objective. But other people contributed to speeding on the course of events. For example, while Joseph took the body of Christ, we read in Mark’s Gospel that it was the centurion (likely or not, the one who’d speared Christ’s side) who helped Joseph to remove it from the cross. In the Gospel of Luke’s account we’re told that, while Nicodemus procured the spices and ointment, it was the women who had come with Christ from Galilee who prepared them. Among their number, Mark says, were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses (Luke 23.56). Together, this group of people, many of whom would not have met before this day, formed a devoted family joined not by blood but, rather, by faith (which can be thicker than blood). Variously, they gave of their money, belongings, time, talents, and safety to one who had surrendered all for them, and for a reason that was still hidden along with him behind the stone at the sepulchre’s door.
Finally, I want to return to the context of Christ’s burial, and a verse that can be easily overlooked in the narrative: ‘Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden’ (John 19.41). One ought to pause and consider this astonishing incongruity. Set amid this dismal landscape of undignified, slow, and excruciating mass execution, and rank and rotting cadavers, was an oasis of natural beauty and solace, where the well-to-do departed were laid to rest and remembered. A rather twee and sanitised representation of this conjunction is evident in the church tradition of the Easter Garden.
There was a garden in the vicinity of another notorious state-sponsored killing machine, much later in Jewish history. On the outskirts and at the centre of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, the prisoners planted and tended formal flower gardens. Through them they’d be marched en route to the gas chambers. A paradise in hell, as it were.
But in the Garden of Golgotha, life would re-emerge in a spectacular, unprecedented, and never to be repeated way, two days later – at the resurrection. The event was the consummation of a plan of redemption that had begun in the Garden of Eden, where God promised a redeemer who’d bruise the serpent’s head. Later, Christ would agonise over the implications of that promise with blood, sweat and tears in the Garden of Gethsemane. His obedience and generosity took the form of an abnegation of every right, status, instinct for self-preservation, and freedom of will, so that we might enter, through the twin gates of his death and rising again, into a Garden of God far surpassing Eden’s splendour: the paradise of Heaven.