Sermon for Wednesday, August 1, 2007
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
I’ve been doing CPE this summer, at Children’s Hospital in Washington. I spend much of my time in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, where tiny babies, some only days old, undergo open-heart surgery to repair congenital defects. It is a place of great hope, and sometimes great sadness.
One of our sickest babies died recently. Cassie was born with many medical problems, and in her ten months of life underwent a number of surgeries. She finally could hold on no longer. In the last few weeks of Cassie’s life, her mother often said to me, “I just want to hold her in my arms.” There were so many tubes and wires connected to that tiny body that it was impossible in those many weeks for her to be lifted off the bed and into her mother’s embrace. So at the end, the nurses undid most of the wires and tubes, and let her lay in her mother's arms. In death, finally, Cassie’s mother got her wish. The parents sat quietly with her for a long time, and after the last few pieces of equipment were unhooked, they bathed her and dressed her and continued to hold her in their arms.
This is a ritual that often happens in this unit when a baby dies - and babies do die here frequently because we do the most radical of surgeries, the true last-ditch efforts. The parents stay with the baby, bathe their child, and spend time quietly holding their little one. They are waiting. Waiting before they let go.
I wonder about these rituals of washing and waiting. Our Scripture reading this evening speaks of them after Jesus' death on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea collects Jesus' body, lays it in the tomb, and the women come to prepare the materials to wash and anoint the body. It sounds remarkably like the scene I described in the hospital. These actions are in sharp contrast to the responses of others to what has happened to Jesus on the cross. Luke Timothy Johnson highlights these different responses in analyzing this passage and the one that immediately precedes it: at Christ’s death, the centurion reacts by identifying Jesus as an innocent man. The people watching the crucifixion, presumably originally as a form of entertainment, turn away and head for home, beating their breasts in an act of contrition. Jesus’ followers watch, frightened, from a distance. These are expressions, in a way, of the mind: seeing, speaking, regretting, grieving. But Joseph and the women respond with expressions of the body, by doing something active: securing Christ’s body and beginning the ritual preparations for His burial. They are doing something concrete and tactile. Why the different response? Why the washing and waiting, in the hospital or in Joseph’s newly hewn tomb?
I believe that some of it is to lend tactile truth to the death. When you have touched a dead person, child or adult, before the body even goes cold, you know they are dead. You can feel there is no life in them. Some of it, too, is an honoring of the person by washing them, anointing them, preparing them to step away from this world and into the next. It is the last gentle act of love you can do.
There is another element to this kind of ritual. In our shock and grief, sometimes we can only do the housekeeping tasks to keep going. I remember when my mother had her first heart attack. I was fifteen years old. It was a bad heart attack; she was not expected to live. I went home from the hospital that afternoon in a fog of confusion. What was I to do? So I washed windows and cleaned the floors. It seemed a needful thing to do at the time. All I could manage was something tactile, something finite, something that I could control in a time of no control.
So, too, at the moment of death, we wait with the one who has died in a liminal space between the stilling of the heart and the uplifting of the soul to God. We hold them in this sacred moment, not just in our hearts, but in our hands. Before we can rest on the Sabbath, according to the commandment, we must do this work of our hands.
This ritual of washing and waiting is very old. Jewish scholar Ruth Langer describes it thus: “From the point that a person dies, not only the immediate family, but also the community collectively, has a responsibility to ensure that that person is buried properly, showing the greatest respect to the body which had housed life. In most communities today (and this has been true for many centuries), this is the task of a special voluntary burial society, the hevra kaddisha (holy society). Although today they usually perform their tasks at a funeral home, the rituals were designed to take place in the home of the deceased. [W]ith maximum concern for the deceased’s modesty, they first wash the body, and then ritually purify it by pouring over it quantities of water, dress it in white shrouds (and prayer shawl for a man), place it in a plain wooden coffin (if any coffin is used) and close the coffin. During the entire tahara (purification), the only words spoken are a few brief prayers and appropriate biblical verses. This relative silence developed from a sense that the deceased’s soul has not yet left the body entirely and can hear — and be grieved — by words spoken in its presence. The family and community also supply shomerim, watchers, who sit with the body from the time of death until the funeral begins, quietly reciting Psalms — maintaining a focused silence.”
They are waiting.
In this description of the rituals, we can see the details behind the very brief picture Luke sketches out in the Gospel. Joseph and the women were in that liminal space. They had no idea of the glory of the Resurrection to come. They were deeply grieving, only knowing they had lost their dear teacher in a horrific way. The only comfort they had was to use their hands to do the housekeeping tasks: to follow the traditions, the ritual, and wash Him and anoint Him and lay Him in the tomb. The only gift they could give Him was the work of their hands: to wash Him and anoint Him and lay Him in the tomb. They could not know yet of the rolling back of the stone, of the light of a new morning of the risen Christ.
I used to think that rituals like wakes were barbaric. I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and the wakes were something out of James Joyce. I can still smell the cigars in the smokers’ parlor, and the Bushmill’s and the beer on the breath of the men. I can’t count the number of times I heard someone say at the side of the casket, "Doesn't she look good? Didn’t they do a great job on her?" Spending time sitting with a body? Having the dead person made up and dressed up and laid out for all to see? Awful!
And yet…and yet…
Now I start to see the wisdom of ritual to lend reality to what has happened, although the making up of dead bodies still seems wrong to me. I wonder if we can visualize a going up to heaven without the rituals that bid the person, or at least the person's mortal body, farewell. In our grief, we cannot yet see the rolling back of the stone.
These rituals, in that liminal place, shut the door of the past, of the living of this person who has died, and open another door to the glorious place where all pain is gone, all suffering, all limitations end, and new life begins. It allows the possibility of joy, even in our grief.
To comprehend that joy, the vast expanse of it, may be beyond us. But our faith in it can be incarnate, on the eve of the Sabbath, in the wisdom of the body, in the work of our hands, in the gift of love.