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0 Comments | Dec 01, 2014

Excerpts From Sistina


And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulcher. And
they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
Luke 24:2-3

April 3 – 33 CE

Nicodemus looks away as Joseph grunts and puts all his weight into the bar, drawing the heavy iron nail from out of the black oak, freeing Jesus’ limp left hand from the cross. The task is excruciating, physically and emotionally, and there is no respite from the unforgiving afternoon heat. They are two men, observed only by a pair of centurions, but working alone, and with the crudest of tools: a heavy winch to lift the massive cross from its support hole and lower it gently to the ground, and a stout iron bar to grip the heads of the six-inch-long spikes and draw them screeching from the timber. The man upon the cross appears barely human—beaten, scourged, pierced, and crucifified almost to the point of unrecognizability. Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus attempts to hide his emotions as the final nail is removed and the broken body rolls to one side and onto the dusty ground.

Joseph extends a hand toward Jesus’ bloody head, meaning to dislodge the ring of thorns placed there by the Romans. The spines are enormous, each nearly the length of a finger, and Joseph winces as he tears his thumb on one of the savage tips. “Take care, my friend,” Nicodemus whispers. His face, like Joseph’s, is dusty, tracked with sweat and tears. Joseph rises, bringing his torn thumb momentarily to his lips, and steps toward his donkey, reaching into the saddlebag for a piece of heavy cloth to protect his hands while he pulls the deeply-embedded crown from Jesus’ head.

“Lift . . . here.” Joseph grasps the feet while Nicodemus places his hands beneath Jesus’ inner arms. Together they lift, marveling at the lightness of the body, the torment of his treatment by the Romans having taken its final toll on his already frail constitution. It is several miles back to Joseph’s estate at Arimathea, and they have brought an extra donkey on which is mounted a wooden bier. They wrap the body with heavy linen shrouds, place it delicately onto the bier, and lash it securely in place.

“It is fitting that he go to his rest in this manner,” Nicodemus observes, bending to retrieve the spikes and thorned ring. He drops the four nails into his saddlebag and inserts the crown as well, though with some difficulty. “He arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey. Now he departs that way.” They exchange sad smiles.

“And what of the cross?” Nicodemus asks, watching suspiciously as the centurions laugh together in the distance.

“Arrangements have been made,” Joseph replies. “My servants will come later this afternoon with retrieve it.”

Joseph draws a small paper from his tunic pocket—his receipt for the body. It contains a couple lines of text, a signature, and Joseph’s family seal. He walks toward the centurions who do not stop their banter until he is within a step of them. He holds out the paper without expression.

“I believe this concludes our business,” he says, as one of the guards takes the paper from his hand.

“And you will return for the timber?” the centurion asks. “If not, my wife can use it to build us a new chicken coop.” He looks to his companion and smiles broadly.

“My servants will come for it shortly,” Joseph replies. He turns without further comment and walks back to where Nicodemus sits astride his donkey. As Joseph climbs upon his, he turns to face his friend.

“Surely now no one can displace these animals,” he glances indignantly over his shoulder as the centurions begin to walk away, still laughing and talking loudly. “He was our greatest hope.”

“My friend,” Nicodemus says, “I believe he remains our greatest hope. And if I know you as I think I do, then you believe this as well.”

Joseph is a good and pious man, though he does not display his piety in public ways, lest he incur the wrath of the Jewish elders and business associates on whom his livelihood depends. However, in recent months, his silent support for Jesus had been an increasing source of internal conflict. He closely followed the travels, teachings, and rapid rise to fame of the man who garnered the unwanted focus of the Roman government in Judea, and who seemed so utterly unconcerned over the consequences he might incur for having the temerity to offer hope and inspiration to the masses. Joseph is a believer, a man who now waits, along with a rapidly growing number of followers, for the inevitable return of the kingdom of heaven on earth. A braver man would have shared in spreading Jesus’ message and taken on some of that risk—a man without a family to feed and a business to run.

Joseph is also well-to-do. When first he heard of the impending crucifixion, he immediately beseeched Judean governor Pontius Pilate for possession of Jesus’ body following the execution. Pilate had found this a strange request. It seemed that Joseph, a well-regarded member of the Sanhedrin, but of no known religious proclivity, was in effect taking Jesus into his own family—curiously magnanimous gesture toward such a controversial figure. Joseph had not been a known associate of Jesus throughout the months of sermons and miracles that had captured so much attention, and which ultimately led to his prosecution and condemnation. Still, Joseph had asked fervently that he be allowed to care for the body and to inter it in a family sepulcher on his estate, and Pilate had seen no special reason to deny the request.

Joseph had gone to the courtyard on that fateful day; he witnessed the mock trial and the chants of the crowd to free the insurgent and murderer Barabbas. He walked the path that Jesus walked, watched him struggle with the ponderous oaken cross, and, despite repeated attempts to force himself to look away, had watched as the hours passed that it took for Jesus to finally expire, suspended there in the searing sun. He thought again of these things as they rode solemnly back to his estate, where he had arranged fine linen strips, myrrh, and aloes in preparation for the entombment of the body.

In the preceding months, Joseph had excavated from a hillside near his home a sepulcher intended to serve as the final resting place for members of his family. It required the work of many men, and when completed, extended more than thirty feet into the heart of the hill. It is here that Jesus is laid to rest later that afternoon. The mouth of the cave, nearly seven feet across, is covered by an enormous round stone that traverses a track in the ground before the opening. It has been constructed with multiple uses in mind, since several members of Joseph’s family will ultimately be interred here. The massive stone requires a pair of harnessed oxen to roll it over or back from the opening, and it is nearly sundown on Friday evening when, with a final round of prayers,
the door is sealed and Jesus’ body laid to rest.

The two men, exhausted and perspiring from their labors, are then met, through a prior quiet arrangement, by three of Jesus’ Apostles: James and John, the sons of Zebedee; and Philip. The five drink wine, dine on bread and lamb, and discuss the events the of day, as well as those leading up to the execution. Following lengthy draught from his wine cup, Joseph broaches the topic that has been weighing on his mind since word of the trial first began circulating.

“The prophets have said—indeed, Jesus himself told us—that on Sunday morning he will rise from this sepulcher and walk again among us. Do you believe such a thing?”

His question is directed to no one in particular, but John, the younger son of Zebedee, takes up the response.

“How can it not be believed? Have we not seen countless other miraculous occurrences take place at his hand? Did not Lazarus himself walk again to his family? It is the fulfillment of his journey.”

“But that was in life, my friend,” Nicodemus replies. “Can a man, even one so great as our master, truly be expected to conquer his own death?”

James sits at the far end of the long table, gazing upward, addressing no one and everyone. “Everything depends on fulfillment of the prophecy.” The others look in surprise at the quiet utterance. “If it does not come to pass, then what has this all meant? For what have we sacrificed our livelihoods, our families?”

“There are more than a few,” Nicodemus intones, “who have a vested interest in the failure of the prophecy. There are economic interests, political consequences, men who will do whatever is required to see that Jesus’ work comes to nothing. And many of these men know where we have placed his body. They may take steps to actively thwart the prophecy rather than rely on chance to ensure their continuing power.”

“He is right,” responds Joseph. “There are men who will not take that chance. Even if they believe the prophecy to be false, they cannot allow for the slightest threat.”

“They will come,” John says, stating the conclusion that all of the men have arrived at more or less simultaneously. “And what can we do to stop them from this heresy?”

“There is nothing we can do,” Joseph replies. “We cannot fight centurions if they are committed to taking our Lord’s body. And they know the prophecy as well as we. If they are going to act—and they must act—they will do so before the appointed time. They will do so tomorrow.”

“And we are powerless to stop them,” John adds. “They will take him away, and perhaps even kill us as well.”

A silence pervades the room, after an interminable minute Joseph rises from his seat and places his hands upon the heavy table.

“The body must moved,” he says resolutely. “It must be moved and it must be done tonight—before the politicians have the time or opportunity to agree their course.”

“But what of the prophecy?” protests John. “What of the resurrection?”

“Yes,” agrees James, “and where else can we place him?”

Nicodemus raises his right hand and pauses thoughtfully before addressing the first part of John’s question.

“If, as we all believe, the prophecy is true—that our Lord will indeed rise on the third day—then the location is of no consequence. If he will rise, he will rise, and whence he rises will not concern him in the least. Our responsibility is to our master, most especially now in the hour of his greatest need and weakest state.”

“Joseph,” asks John, “do you know of such a place? Is there somewhere he can be made safe, if only for a few days?”

“Yes, my friends, I do know of such a place.”

And so it comes to pass that, by working through the remainder of the night, and with the assistance of two irritated oxen who had thought their night’s work complete, the body of Jesus is, with great care and reverence, lifted from the family sepulcher and taken more than three leagues away to a well-hidden cave in the forest along the northern border of Joseph’s vast estate. It isn’t a tomb in any real sense of the word. It isn’t even a proper cave—more of a deep crevice at the edge of a ridge. There are two major advantages, though, to the location. First, and most important, no one knows of this place, save for Joseph and a
handful of his domestic servants. Second, it is set high enough in the wall of the ridge to preclude any chance of rain collecting inside. Also to their advantage is the large broad stand of cypress trees that grows just before the opening—a natural camouflage that will dissuade discovery by any but the most well informed of searchers. There is, however, no feasible way of securing the entrance against possible predators or accidental visitors. Thus, Joseph directs one of his most trusted servants to stand watch over the makeshift tomb relieved later on Saturday morning. Of course, if something spectacular should take place, the servant will immediately bring news of any such blessed event.

Rather than risk a life unnecessarily, no one is allowed to stand guard over the family sepulcher lest the Romans or other unscrupulous visitors might harm
them upon visiting the tomb. They leave the massive round stone pulled back and the sepulcher empty, presuming that any visitors, nefarious or otherwise, will assume that the prophesied resurrection has already occurred. As a measure of further insurance, Joseph directs another of his servants to hide in the woods
within sight of the family sepulcher, watching to see if it attracts any unwanted visitors. None appear until late on Saturday night, and then not the centurions that Joseph and the others have expected. Rather, the visitor, difficult to discern in the shadows of the night, appears to be a lone young man—a spy perhaps, or simply someone curious—who tentatively approaches the massive opening, looks around furtively, and then steps inside. Moments later, still watched from a prudent distance by Joseph’s servant, the man exits the tomb and departs stealthily down the path from which he has come. Whether he passes the word of the sepulcher’s vacancy, or the men’s suspicions are ultimately unfounded, no one else appears at the tomb for the remainder of the night.

Having successfully relocated Jesus’ body deep into the north woods, Joseph and the four others reconvene again in his kitchen to discuss and agree upon what they ought to do next.

“Suppose our Lord rises on Sunday morning as he foretold?” James says. “What will he think of us, of our faithlessness?”

“My friend,” Nicodemus replies, placing a calming hand on the man’s shoulder, “it is not faithlessness we have demonstrated this night, but respect for the prophecy and commitment to its completion. If our Lord rises, as we have agreed, the spot from which he rises will matter neither to him nor to any of those he gave his life to redeem.”

“But are we not interfering with the fulfillment of the prophecy?” objects James.

“Or could it be that we and our actions are indeed a part of those prophecies?” Nicodemus responds. “Nowhere is written the place from which our Lord will rise, nor the manner in which he will do so. Nowhere does it say with whose assistance this wondrous event will take place. Only that he will rise up and ascend bodily into heaven. If there is some small part we are called upon to play in bringing this to pass, then I say so be it!”

“But, my friends,” says Joseph, rising from his seat, “should we not also consider what our course will be if Sunday comes and there is no sign of the resurrection? What then shall we do?”

The exhausted men debate long into the early hours of Saturday morning—whether to leave things to their natural course or to take steps to actively bring about the Lord’s prophecies themselves. In the end, they agree that advancing Jesus’ work on earth is what matters more than anything else—this is so whether he rises or not. They agree, as well, that should Jesus not rise and ascend into heaven, the body they have so carefully prepared and protected must be preserved at all cost, against any who would abscond with or otherwise desecrate it. Finally they agree that, one way or another, there is going to be a resurrection on Sunday morning.

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