During Lent, we have imagined the robes of Jesus and what they can tell us about his life and his ministry. Today, we look to the burial robe as we remember the ending of Jesus’ life. Jesus was condemned and executed by the Roman powers on a cross on a prominent hill outside the Jerusalem walls.
This happened on a Friday and his death occurred in the afternoon. All four Gospels state that a Joseph of Arimethea went to the Roman ruler Pilate and asked to have the body of Jesus so it could be cared for before the Sabbath began at sundown. The violence is over, the crowds have thinned out. Joseph comes and retrieves Jesus’ broken body for burial. The Gospel writers emphasize that there is a burial; there is no doubt that Jesus really died on the cross.
The Jerusalem area has many stone tombs from the time of Jesus. Rock quarries were plentiful and tombs were carved out with small entry passages.
A tomb itself may consist of a rectangle room with ledges, or shelves where bodies would be placed. Extended family members (children and adults) would be buried in the same tomb. About a year after a burial, the bones would be gathered and placed in another area or in a stone box. The shelf then could be used for another burial. It is said of the tomb that Joseph provided that there had not been a burial in it; it was newly cut from stone.
Jewish custom for burial is that the body would be bathed, oils/spices added, and then wrapped in cloths. Joseph and those helping him did all they could do in the short time that they had before sunset.
There is a family tomb from the first century that was excavated in Jerusalem in 2000 which contained several remains, including those of a young man.
What was very unusual about this burial is that there were remnants of his burial cloths that had not completely deteriorated. There appeared to be three or four cloths, some from linen, and one from fine wool. It was speculated that the young man was from a family of wealth.
We don’t know many details about Jesus’ burial cloth, only that is was a clean cloth of linen.
To provide the burial clothing was an act of love from Jesus’ friends. They did what was needed to take care of his body. They responded even though their grief must have been tremendous after witnessing his death on the cross.
A friend of mine shared about a time a couple of years ago when her mother-in-law was very sick. Her father-in-law asked her if she would go and buy the clothing that she would be buried in. He said that if she would do so, it would relieve him of a heavy concern. Several family members went to a Cincinnati department store. Weary and distracted, they couldn’t find what they were looking for.
A saleswoman came to their rescue and quickly understood their task. She stepped in and helped them find everything that they needed. She was very grateful to her for her attentive care and compassion for them on that sad afternoon.
Sadness and disbelief surrounded the cross. For the disciples of Jesus, his family, and those who followed him, the cross was a sign of broken dreams, hate triumphing over goodness, sin having the last word.
The cross robbed them of their Lord. The one who had healed so many, who had shared about God’s love, who had promised abundant life, was gone.
Even though we know the rest of the story, I don’t want us to turn away from this scene just yet. Something important has happened. Love for the world propelled Jesus forward even if it meant death on a cross.
The story of the burial brings up difficult questions that we have about our own losses. We ask “Why did this have to happen?” We wonder “Why did her life have to end as it did?” And we struggle with how we can continue to live in the face of death when nothing is the same.
There is an ancient devotional practice called the Stations of the Cross where one walks from station to station, reads Scripture, and remembers an action that happened to Jesus in his last 24 hours. In the modern Stations of the Cross, the first station begins in the Garden of Gethsemane with Jesus praying , and the last station #14 is Jesus’ burial.
Mark Roberts has written a devotional and prayer to be used at each station of the cross. This is his prayer for the Station of Jesus Burial: “I’ll never be able to understand fully the wonder of your death, Lord. But I can grasp the fact that your real death opened up the door for me to experience real life.”
There is a song, I believe, that can be heard faintly at this final station. The words go: “Death, where is they sting? Grave, where is thy victory?”
We could rightly argue that there is plenty of pain and sting in life. We can see it on the faces of those who mourn. We have known the pain from our own experience of loss. For all of us, it has been hard to say goodbye.
But the melody continues. The reason that we can sing the song is because Christ has overcome death for us. We still know sorrow and grief but we mourn as those who have unbelievable hope.
I was reading about a common image for Easter in the Orthodox Church, but one that was not familiar to me. This powerful icon of the Resurrection depicts the risen Christ reaching out, beginning with Adam and Eve, pulling them out of a tomb and into new life.
Not only is Christ risen, but he is bringing new beginnings to all people, to all creation, to us. No matter how deep the darkness, the light and power of Christ enters, chains are broken, the doors to the prison of death and defeat are flung open. This is why this robe of Jesus isn’t just a burial robe. It’s a redeeming robe!
We are all lifted up by Christ from despair to joy!
Oh, but back to my friend’s story about finding clothes for her mother-in-law. She said that they found a beautiful pink suit for her to wear as her burial clothes. That person picked that color because it was a suit fit for an Easter celebration!
And then my friend shared that because of that helpful salesperson, her family discovered that in the midst of winter and our sadness, they were able to anticipate the glorious life to come. They knew at the funeral that this was not the end.
She said that even with heavy hearts when they gathered for her mother-in-law’s funeral, and with tears in their eyes, they knew deep down. They knew deep down, that death wasn’t the last word.
The color pink reminded them that the last word isn’t death. The last word is “resurrection.”
Thanks be to God!
Come, Touch the Redeeming Robe of Jesus
Small Group Questions
I Corinthians 15:53-57 & Matthew 27:57-61
March 18, 2018
In 1st century Judaism, when someone died, it was customary to clean the body and include oils/spices and then wrap the body with linen cloths and place the body on one of the shelves in a tomb. After a year, the bones were collected by the family and placed in a box which freed up the shelf for the next body. This burial rite was a way of showing love and respect to the person who had died.
What emotions do you think were going through the minds of the people who prepared Jesus’ body for burial? How do we show love and respect in our culture today for loved ones who have died?
When Jesus died on the cross and was placed in a tomb, his followers most likely felt defeated since the promised Messiah was not expected to die on a cross. We of course, know how the story ends, Jesus was raised to new life on the 3rd day. Each year on Good Friday and Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) we are invited to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ death.
What does Jesus’ death on the cross mean for you? What are you thinking about on these days leading up to Easter Sunday?
In the Orthodox faith tradition, an icon depicts the Risen Christ reaching out, starting with Adam and Eve and drawing people out of their graves. It’s a symbol of how Christ brings new life out of death.
Share a time in your life when you felt Christ offering you new life.
Mark Roberts has written a devotional and prayer to be used at each station of the cross. This is his prayer for the Station of Jesus Burial. Read this as a group in unison:
“I’ll never be able to understand fully the wonder of your death, Lord. But I can grasp the fact that your real death opened up the door for me to experience real life.”