Thomas Aquinas, ST, IIIa.q51
I wonder what thoughts were running through Nicodemus’s mind and what feelings governed his heart as he accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb to bury the body of Jesus? In his account of the burial of Jesus following the crucifixion at Golgotha, the writer of John’s gospel is quick to note that this is the same Nicodemus who had previously visited Jesus at night (Jn. 19:39), the pharisee Nicodemus to whom Jesus said: “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again and that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [or exalted] that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (Jn. 3:3; 14–15).
He comes well prepared to bury Jesus. We are told that Nicodemus brings 35 kilograms of a mix of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’s body for burial in the garden tomb. That’s a lot of spices. By way of comparison, commentators note how much more it is than the perfume that Mary pours out on Jesus at Bethany (Jn. 12:1–8). This is the amount that would be used for the burial of a king. It’s yet another detail that reinforces the portrayal in his suffering of Jesus as King, from the crown of thorns and purple robe that the soldiers use to dress Jesus to the notice that Pilate orders to be placed on the cross: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
Presumably, Nicodemus has been party to the events of Jesus’s crucifixion or least been told about them: this macabre coronation, ending with the enthronement of Jesus on the cross. The irony should not flit by us: the King of all Creation has been enthroned by his own creatures on a dreadful wooden throne (if I am ever in doubt about the depths of perversity and blindness to which we humans can descend, the crucifixion of God incarnate is an antidote to my idealism). Yet, this same enthronement—this lifting up of the Son of Man like Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness—is, in the mysterious workings of God, the victory of creation’s King over the enemies of sin and death.
As I meditate on this burial story, I imagine Nicodemus wrapping the body of Jesus with Joseph of Arimathea while turning over the words of Jesus to him… the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him… the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life.
“Yes, the Son of Man has been lifted up,” Nicodemus thinks, “but eternal life in him?”
“I’m wrapping his dead body; the King is dead.”
“But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Then I imagine a spark igniting somewhere in Nicodemus’s mind, igniting a small and precarious fire, but a fire of hope nonetheless. I imagine this fire growing, such that when Nicodemus watches the tomb being sealed, he wonders:
“Yes, the King is dead.
But, long live the King?”
Nicodemus then leaves the garden with that precarious fire of hope still burning and a growing sense of anticipation as he enters into the night…