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Holy Family Cathedral » Knights of Columbus » Notes from the Knightstand: Preparing Jesus’ Body for Burial

Notes from the Knightstand: Preparing Jesus’ Body for Burial

BY MARTIN REIDY

Three crosses set upon the hill
silhouettes against the dawn
their outstretched arms now empty
their deeds of death now gone.

Now upon the center cross
was there nailed our King
to pay the price for sins
that upon that cross we bring.

He is, indeed, the Promised One
given by God we know
and by such was Evil done
to One who loves us so.

So now we think upon this deed
and the coming Easter morn
the holy gift of Death and Life
by which we are reborn!

We are very familiar with the narrative of the Passion of our Lord and God, Jesus the Christ – how He was convicted on trumped charges, convicted, scourged and “crowned”, and, finally, crucified on Golgotha (Place of the Skull – so aptly named as a favored site for crucifixions though it was a hill just outside Jerusalem and so named because it protruded from the ground much like a head from a human body). And then what happened? We know that Jesus was taken down, wrapped in a shroud, and placed in a tomb hewn from rock which was owned by Joseph of Arimathea – and in three days rose from the dead.

In all probability and from learned sources Jesus was interred in line with the Jewish customs of His time. It was the custom that a corpus be transferred to its final resting place- usually a tomb- on a bier and so we may assume that Jesus was laid upon a bier to be transported the short distance to the tomb thus described which was located in a garden (Jn.19:42) and which was most likely an orchard or wooded area just outside the town walls. It was possible that it was also either an adjacent or abandoned rock quarry as it was the custom to hew a tomb from the remaining rock and recesses left as a result of quarrying.

It should be noted here that it was only the wealthy and very important who had the means for providing a tomb such as thus described. Furthermore, a tomb would most likely have “shelves” for placing the corpus not only of one but for several persons in a family. Upon final corruption of a corpse the bones were placed in an ossuary (a small “bone box made of stone) in order to make room for another deceased. According to Matthew (27:59-61) Joseph took the body and wrapped it in clean linen while the Virgin and Mary Magdalene sat outside opposite the tomb. Why did they not go in? Most likely so they would not be deemed “unclean” for whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days, This admonition extends to even touching a human bone or grave (Numbers 19:11-16). If one is thusly “unclean” they must purify themselves with water on the third day and on the seventh day; then they will be clean. Yet it was by custom the women who prepared a body for interment: the body would be washed with hair and nails clipped. The body would be wiped down with a mixture of spices and then wrapped in a linen with a white cloth placed over the face, all the while prayers from the scriptures would be chanted. The body would lay in the tomb for three days while being carefully watched by family members and then reexamined to be certain that the person was indeed dead. The corpus would then be heavily anointed with oils and perfume and left to deteriorate naturally.

This explains the hurried visitation to the grave by Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary and possibly others on Sunday. Following the interment of the corpse on the first day the tomb was sealed by various methods: a hinged door, a square or hex cut stone, or a round stone that could be rolled into place. The “door” was chalked so as to warn others to avoid touching the tomb so as not to become unclean. This is the basis of Jesus’ exclaiming, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs…”!(Mt. 23:27-28).

All of this was done on the day of death as, according to Mosaic Law, one who dies must be buried on the same day. Space and time do not permit a full discussion of any of these customs here to fore or forth coming but are related to the uncertainty of actual death – there are recorded instances where the “dead” came out of the grave and walking back into town much to the fear and chagrin of the town folk and from such occurrence come many of our folk tales regarding the dead; and the rapid decomposition of the corpse in a hot climate – from which comes our customs of flowers and incense at funerals to cover the odor of decomposition. As to who actually removed the Body of Christ from the cross we do not know though in all probability it was the Roman soldiers present as they had no such inhibitions in disposing of a human body, crucified or otherwise.

Also, in all probability, the two miscreants crucified at the same time as Jesus (there is some argument were they thieves or guilty of some other crime) were lowered by the same soldiers by the constraining ropes (they were not nailed to their crosses) and dragged by those ropes or taken by cart to the nearby Kidron Valley to be tossed into a trench to decompose naturally and quite possibly ravaged by wild dogs and other such beasts for such was the lot of the poor, the homeless, and common criminals.

Finally, according to various sources and learned authority, the Body of Christ was “inspected” by both Temple authorities and Pilate’s emissary to verify that Jesus was actually dead, and the tomb then closed and sealed – the seal being Pilate’s (and thereby Rome) official seal that prohibited anyone from opening the tomb without proper authorization. A coterie of four Roman soldiers, called a “custodia” or “watch”, whose shift changed every three hours to further guarantee that no person or persons disturb the sealed tomb. And yet their efforts were all for naught! – For on the third day Jesus rose from the dead and the rest is history!

We are now coming into the final days of Lent – a period originally commenced as a preparation for Baptism on Easter Sunday and now a time to reflect on our spiritual short comings in preparation for the Feast of Easter – though, in a sense, I suppose Easter is our Baptism into a new life through the Resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday of so long ago. Last month I wrote of a typical Lenten meal in the early centuries of the church and promised to provide you who wished to emulate such fare a typical Holy Week fast so that you may be one and same with your co-religionists of these many years ago – and here it is: Bread, salt, herbs, and water! – But only after sunset! Bon appetite!

And speaking¬† of food our March pancake breakfast had to give way to the Annual Garage Sale but we are back in full swing on the 19th. so don’t forget us! And a tip of the chapeau to all the Knights that assisted the Ladies in making the garage sale a success! So, with that, the Council wishes one and all a Happy and Blessed Easter! (and who is that we see going hippity hop, hippity hop with all those colorful baskets?)

PAX!

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