"Now when it was evening there came a certain rich man of Arimathea, Joseph by name. who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered the body to be given up. And Joseph taking the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb, which was hewn out in the rock."
--Matthew 27. 57-60
All four Gospels record this part of the drama. I wonder if they weren't trying to stamp out the Gnostics heresy that believed Jesus was not really dead. They said that Jesus was still alive when they took him down from the cross. After all they believed that Jesus could not die. He was more a phantom that took on the mask of a human being. After all God's son could not die. For tghem the word really did not become flesh. That would have been a scandal.
Yet here all four accounts of the story give us the same picture. The Romans left the dead bodies on the cross as a warning to all those who might just break the law. But the Jewish custom was to take down the body and bury it before sundown.
And so here, toward the end of this via dolorosa--this way of sorrows--the dead Jesus is taken down from the cross. This rendering of Cecile Martin's is moving. She has joined with a company of others who have tried to capture this sad scene. Dostoevsky wrote: "The people surrounding the dead man...must have experienced the most terrible consternation...which had crushed all their hopes, and almost their convictions." Rubens' painting of this scene is included in a group of the Twelve Greatest Paintings. One art critic has said that "Of all the religious paintings in the world, it has been one of the most admired." The great Rembrandt also painted the descent of the cross. He also left several etchings of this incident toward the end. In Rembrandt's painting we can see the artist himself standing by the cross as they take the broken down for burial. There is a woman reaching up in Cecile Martin's portrayal. Could she have included her own face in her picture. Who knows?
Perhaps we should all see ourselves standing pondering the sadness and depth of the story. We have a tendency to distance ourselves from the Gospels. But here as they take down the broken, bloody body there is no doubt that Jesus is dead. Let us stand close until the impact of this somber scene sweeps over us.
Turning away is understandable. It is one of the hardest times when we lose someone we love. To know, as if for the first time, they really are gone. They will not be coming back. They are dead and it breaks our hearts. We believers know the rest of the Passion story that those figures around the cross did not then know. But stand by this cross until you are part of the story. Jesus died for us. For us. For the whole wide world.
After President Lincoln was assassinated his body was placed in a horse drawn carriage draped in black. It moved through the lined streets of that quiet Washington morning. One black woman in the crowd held a tiny baby in her arms. As the carriage passed her way she lifted the baby high and said, "Honey, take a long, long look...he died for you." Thanks be to God.