Below is the text of my homily from this morning’s Holy Saturday liturgy, with a video link at the bottom.
I love you all, still.
Shiva, and other things
Just hours before Joseph asked if he could take the body of Jesus, all of the disciples, the men whom he loved until the end, they left Jesus. His friends fled, and he was left with his mother and some other women to witness his death. It is interesting that a man who was a secret disciple of Jesus, possibly a stranger, would have his heart moved to take down that precious body. That somehow, with the help of Nicodemus, he was able to remove it from the wood that had soaked up Jesus’ blood.
Blessed Anne Catherine Emerich, a Roman Catholic mystic and Marian visionary who died in the 19th century, had a vision of the removal of Christ’s body from the cross. She wrote, This taking down of Jesus from the cross was inexpressibly touching. Everything was done with so much precaution, so much tenderness, as if fearing to cause the Lord pain. Those engaged in it were penetrated with all the love and reverence for the Sacred Body that they had felt for the Holy of Holies during his life…but no word was uttered. When the blows of the hammer by which the nails were driven out resounded, Mary Magdalene, as well as all that had been present at the crucifixion, were pierced with fresh grief, for the sound reminded them of the most cruel nailing of Jesus to the cross…As soon as the sacred body was taken down, the men wrapped it in linen from the knees to the waist, and laid it on a sheet in his mother’s arms, which, in her anguish and ardent longing, were stretched out to receive him.”
She goes on to describe in tender detail how the body of our Lord was washed by his mother as she held him, marking every wound, as Mary Magdalene wept and washed his feet one last time with her tears. At last they gave the body over to Joseph, the secret follower, the stranger, to place in the tomb.
John’s gospel says the body of Jesus was wrapped with spices and strips of linen, in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
Another Jewish custom, stemming from the story in Genesis of Joseph mourning the death of his father, Jacob, is the practice of sitting shiva. Joseph observed 7, or shiva, days of mourning for his father, and the custom of shiva is still practiced in the Jewish tradition today. As I contemplated this liturgy, I thought of shiva, of the days of mourning that are allowed to a family, of the great mitzvah, or good deed, of visiting a grieving family and sitting shiva with them.
In learning about the custom of shiva I learned that one isn’t supposed to initiate conversation with those in mourning when paying a shiva call. You must wait for the grieved to initiate conversation with you, if they choose, and if they choose not to you must simply sit and bear witness, sit and mourn, sit and pray.
I wonder if Mary sat shiva for Jesus, if she planned to observe those seven days of mourning as friends came and went providing the traditional meals of comfort, if she received the traditional blessings as her visitors departed: May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
I think we forget sometimes that Jesus was a person, that he had a mother, that his siblings are specifically referred to in the New Testament, though we don’t seem to know what happened to that brave carpenter who was his father. He was once a mewling infant sheltered in his mother’s arms as they fled to Egypt, a bandy legged toddler with only a few teeth, a growing boy who loved to run and shout and play. A teenager who probably felt awkward at times, and finally a man who was able to ask men to leave their nets and come with him. This was the man that Mary held in her arms in Blessed Anne Catherine’s vision, though bloodied and stabbed, flesh ripped and torn, this was her child. I cannot imagine her grief.
The Altar Guild stripped the altar last night of all ornamentation, leaving behind nothing but a wooden cross shrouded in black, like the mirrors in a home observing those seven days of mourning, a family sitting shiva. I watched from the very back of the nave, in a circle of black cassocks, with a cell phone flashlight to see our music as the choir sang.
I came in this morning for my hour of vigil and only traveled about half way down the aisle before the tears welling spilled over, to see the beautiful chancel stripped of ornament, as our Lord was stripped of his clothing and his dignity and nailed to a cross. The stark beauty cold and uncomforting, much like a tomb, there was nothing of us, nothing of our history, nothing of our community left.
And here we are, on the morning after the crucifixion of Jesus, like the women at the base of the cross, the women who washed that sacred body, who sat outside the tomb in the garden. And though our liturgy and tradition does not dictate that we mourn for seven days we are in mourning none the less, all of us the grieved friend, the grieved mother, the grieved sister. All of us feeling the despair and the anguish, as we commemorate the death of our Lord, and bewail and hide all at once our own manifold sins, our own old hurts, our own private sadness.
The stone has been levered in front of the door, and the scent of burial spices tickles our nostrils.
We are here together, even if, like Joseph and Nicodemus, we don’t know one another very well. We are sitting this abbreviated shiva, as the women and men who tended to the body of Jesus did, weeping tears that mingle together into the same human stories of shame and pain. Covering the mirrors, removing the beautiful things, respecting the need for silence.
The glimmer of new fire is rushing forward with the end of this day, the stone will begin to move and the sacred body to stir. But for now it is right and good to sit with this grief as the women who bathed his body sat. To feel our tears mingle with the water and spices that anoint him, to see once more the silhouette of Nicodemus against a darkening sky, on a ladder, carefully hammering backward the nails that held that precious body to the hard word of the cross. To feel again the coldness of the new tomb, to choose to mourn.