50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51 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. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 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.
He asked for the kingdom of God.
He received instead a lifeless, bloodied, soiled body;
but a body, nonetheless, so, good man that he was,
he took that body and wrapped it in fresh linen;
sprinkled spices of disappointment across the
shroud, then laid the bitter remains of his dreams on a
shelf in the dank darkness of his new rock tomb.
He had been tempted, yes he had, tempted to
simply walk away and leave that corpse on the cross
for others to dispose of, but, surely, he reasoned,
surely this man, disappointing as he turned out to be,
surely he deserved—simply as a human being—a final,
quiet dignity. One more caress for the shrouded
remnants of his dream; one more sigh, and then he left to
close the tomb and seal away forever all his kingdom hopes.
But then…that curious rumor in the air that sent him back to
tidy up his now strange-emptied tomb; and there the lingering
scent of myrrh and aloes, mixed with something
new and strange, ethereal, it seemed, almost like
angel breath; and, too, that mystifying luster
glimmering ever just beyond his sight; those
linen wrappings, stained and stretched across the shelf…
Could it possibly be? Could his cave have been the
womb in which the costly kingdom pearl had been
laid to rest and then had birthed new life beyond this life?
And were his muted actions somehow part of all of that—
his futile disagreement with the Council? his binding of that
mangled body in his linen winding sheet? He hoped, but
sureness hovered just beyond mind’s reach; so quietly he
folded all his questions into the empty creases of the
shroud, and quietly he left his silent tomb.
Yet heart emboldened by that hushed and holy emptiness,
mysterious Presence filling gaps and pauses nestled in the
restless aching of his soul, he asked for rising faith to
Good to begin Ash Wednesday with a reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Today many will kneel at altar rails around the world. Today many will hear these ancient words as pastors, with the ashes of last year’s palms, mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.
Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation.
Not difficult these days to remember that I am dust, that we all are dust and that to dust one day we will return. Recently, I have watched loved ones and friends coping with intense physical and emotional pain. I have been measuring out my own days in mere teaspoons of activity with the weakness of my CFS/ME. As I’ve listened to the evening news, I have tried to imagine the agony of a young Syrian mother giving birth in a refugee camp after fleeing from all she had ever known and loved, or the distress of an Afghan father worried about finding money to bury his young son who had frozen to death in a Kabul shelter the night before. With all that’s going on in my life and in the life of the world, I truly have to struggle some days to remember that God has indeed begun a good work in me, in all of us. Struggle to believe that God is still at work to accomplish that good work and bring it to completion. Easier these days—often—simply to feel the dustiness, the grittiness, the muddiness of life rather than to be aware of any glory of the divine at work within me and within our world.
Yet, as I kneel today and hear the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday prayer, I find myself realizing that God is indeed at work in all our lives…
enabling us to trust as we grope our way through pain and weakness…
enabling us to keep hope alive amidst all the ugliness and fear so rampant in our world…
enabling us to see and cherish all the beauty that still shimmers and shines amidst the gloom…
enabling us to love and care for those who need our hearts and our hands.
Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation!