This is a guest post from a friend across the ocean.
Well, He’s dead.
In the end, they took Him and nailed him to a cross, watched Him suffocate under the weight of His own body, and then stabbed Him to make sure He was dead. Then everything seemed to go mad; the Veil of the Temple split down the middle, blasphemously revealing the Holy of Holies. The earth started shaking and the ancient dead burst from their tombs, as though strolling around Jerusalem was the most natural thing in the world after a thousand years of bodily decay. They say that if you put your ear to the ground, you can hear the whole netherworld beginning to creak and shudder; the dead are waking up, and the Devil is screaming.
It all seems a lot of fuss for one dead man. You can see Him there, moving down the path toward His tomb. He’s the bleeding bundle of cloth at the front of the group. The man holding His feet is Nicodemus; one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem. The man holding His shoulders is Joseph of Arimathea. They’re both religious types — they’re even on an important religious council called the Sanhedrin, with sixty-nine other extremely religious men, which would definitely make them two of the seventy-one most religious men in Jerusalem.
That woman behind them, the one who can’t seem to stop crying, is called Mary. She comes from Magdala, and unlike Joseph and Nicodemus, she is not the religious type. We don’t know much about her, but we do know that when she first met her Teacher, her body was home to no less than seven spiritual parasites. They were old, terrible creatures who fed off her misery and desperation. Back then, she had had plentiful stores of both, though we don’t know precisely why. Perhaps she had done terrible things. Perhaps terrible things had been done to her. Perhaps a bit of both. At any rate, she was not what anyone would call a “pillar of respectability,” and it hadn’t helped her Teacher’s reputation to have her hanging around. But He was the one who freed her. All seven of her demonic tormentors had screamed and fled when He came along, and they never came back. Since then, she has followed Him; and she follows even now, when all that’s left to follow is a bleeding corpse.
There are others walking with them, following the blood-soaked bundle that was their Teacher. There are a couple of Mary’s present (but not the famous one), Salome, Joanna and Susanna.
Surprisingly, you are present too.
You’re part of your own procession, a larger one, invisibly leading Joseph, Nicodemus and their bloody bundle of linen towards the tomb. Your procession is headed by golden crosses on poles and at the very back, just in front of Joseph and Nicodemus, men are carrying icons of Jesus’ burial and crucifixion, being censed by bearded priests wearing golden cloaks. Although there are more people in your procession than in the ancient one behind you, yours is a good deal less serious. Where Joseph and the Mary’s are burying a brutally murdered Friend, you are attending a religious festival. The atmosphere is solemn enough, what with the icons and the incense and gold crosses on poles, but in your procession people are distracted, occasionally chatting to one another, making quick remarks about Uncle So-and-So’s chanting voice and what they’re going to eat once the service is over. They’re tired because they’ve been in Church for nine hours. Mary, Joseph and Nicodemus are tired because they’ve just spent nine hours watching their Friend asphyxiate and bleed to death.
And so the two processions make their way slowly to a new tomb in a garden; one decked in white and gold, the other wet with tears and blood. You seem to be in two places at once. On the one hand, you’re walking around your local Coptic Church holding a candle, singing “Lord have mercy” in a tune which seems deeply sad and deeply joyful at the same time (which is different, mind you, to being half sad and half joyful). On the other hand, in some mysterious way, you are also walking towards a garden in Jerusalem to put a blood-soaked corpse into a new tomb. Some would say you’re not really in the same place as Joseph and Mary and the bloody bundle; properly speaking, they would insist, you are in a Coptic Church on Good Friday. You might imagine that you’re following a group of first-century Jews to a new tomb outside Jerusalem, but imagining doesn’t make it true. That’s what some people would say. Perhaps they’re right. But those people have probably never been to a Coptic Church on Good Friday, and so we might wonder how they can be so sure.
As you walk around the Church in procession, you notice some of the tired faces around you. A few places ahead of you in the procession is the man who taught you to be a Sunday School teacher. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, he’s the religious type. He’s attended every Holy Week service so far, morning and night, and he knows more about the Church and its history than anyone you’ve ever met. He loves this kind of service. His eyes are always closed during the long hymns, not because he’s sleeping (although no-one would know the difference if he was) but because he’s contemplating the deep nuances of the ancient hymns. He’s also one of the kindest and most self-sacrificing people you’ve ever known. You can only see his back from where you are, but you’re sure that his eyes are closed now too, as often as he can manage it without crashing into anything.
The procession takes you up the back of the church, where a woman called Selena is leaning against a pillar. Selena still comes to Church for the big occasions, but she’s not really the religious type. She has a complicated history, which she doesn’t like to talk about. A combination of things she’s done and things that have been done to her have convinced her that she isn’t pious or holy enough to be a good, church-going Coptic girl. So Selena only comes on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, because the services are crowded and she can slip in the back without really being noticed. She doesn’t understand the long hymns, but she likes the processions. In the processions, Christ comes to her at the back of the Church, meaning she doesn’t need to wade through an ocean of harsh eyes and perfect people to get to Him. The priests and deacons carry Him around the whole Church, and she can even reach out and touch Him, like the bleeding woman in the Gospels. You meet her gaze as you pass her, but she looks away.
Over there in the corner is the kid you kicked out of your Sunday School class last week. You probably shouldn’t have lost your temper, but in your defence, he was being a royally arrogant little punk. He hit another kid hard across the back of the head, and when you yelled at him, he acted like he couldn’t even hear you. But you remember now that he’s Selena’s younger brother, and you don’t really know what his family is like. The one time you visited his house (your Sunday School mentor was with you that day) you noticed that his mother was limping. The father was in the house but he didn’t come out to say hello. In the car on the way back, your mentor said, “Pray for them. Especially for the father.” You didn’t ask for details. You hadn’t been thinking of that when you kicked him out. You should probably talk to him later.
As the procession takes you through the church pews, you see the faces of your friends, your teachers, your relatives, even one of your old crushes. Mostly you don’t acknowledge them; sometimes, you exchange a quick smile or nod. You have seen these faces nearly every week for years; at liturgies and fundraisers and functions, at fantastically failed church plays, at homeless drives and hospital visits, soccer competitions and youth camps. But it strikes you all of sudden, how strange it is to be here with all these people. I mean, in one sense, it’s no surprise that the usual people would turn up to Church on Good Friday, as they have done for years. But in another sense, it all seems like a strange coincidence that these people, with whom you’ve spent so much time doing such boring, normal things, should be present with you at something so important. This is no parish camp or trivia night; you’ve all come here to bury God. That bloody bundle of linen behind you contains the Firstborn over All Creation, the Word of God, the Father’s Wisdom and Power. Now that He is dead, the whole Kingdom of Death is being overthrown; angels are pouring down into Hades to join the coup. You’d expect burying God and the overthrow of Hades to be a unique and monumental occasion; something totally removed the mundane existence you carry out day by day. And yet, there is your old mentor, your punk Sunday School kid, your old crush, your friends, the woman who heads the Sunday School service, the man who runs the bookshop, the lady who makes sandwiches on Sunday mornings.
You reach the end. Joseph and Nicodemus lay down their load and let the women pour a last libation of myrrh and spices on Him. Your parish priest is with them, sprinkling rose petals as red as the blood seeping through the linen. You remember that those hands, sprinkling rose petals, are the hands with which he played volleyball at your last camp. Now, he is using them to anoint the body of God for its burial. You look around at the tired, familiar faces, watching Abouna wrapping the tiny icon in white cloth. No-one is joking now. They are either singing, “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” or saying nothing. And again, you are surprised that you should all be together here, at this place where the whole world turned upside down.
When all is done, Joseph and Nicodemus seal up the tomb, locking their Teacher in Hades to do battle with its dark prince. Abouna kisses the door of the tomb and begins to read Psalms while the ancient mourners go home to weep and ponder the spectacular disaster that had become of all their hopes and dreams. Selena slips quietly out the back. Your old Sunday School mentor stands in the sanctuary, eyes closed and arms folded. When the chanting stops, your class punk is unusually quiet in his corner seat; he is praying that God will teach his parents how to love each other. You realise that you’re glad they were all here with you, to see God die and come to rest in the earth.
It’s only as you leave that you realise who had been walking next to you in the procession. He never said a word, but He had directed your attention as you walked; He had pointed wordlessly to Selena, to your old mentor, to your Sunday School child. And He had looked back at you from inside each of them; from the peace that hung around your old mentor, from Selena’s downcast eyes, especially from your little punk Sunday School kid. When you reached the end of the procession, you watched Him wrapped in linen and sealed behind the black curtains of the sanctuary. But even then, somehow, He hadn’t left your side. He was walking beside you while He was borne behind you in burial clothes; just as He was still in the bosom of His Father even when He went to the depths of Hades. You realise now that it is no coincidence that you were all here together. You have things to do.
And He’s not dead.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 3:2)