31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ 37And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’
38 After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 39Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. 40They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Like many if not most of you, I watched the recent solar eclipse and stood in awe as the moon passed over the sun, blocking both its light and its warmth. An eerie twilight fell over us for those mid-morning hours. And I couldn’t help but think of the three hours of darkness which hovered over the earth when Christ was on the cross.
But in this gospel, the darkness does not fall when Jesus is crucified. No, John leaves that particular darkness to Matthew, Mark and Luke. Instead, it is still very much daylight as Jesus dies.
However, darkness is not far from this scene. John seems at pains to remind us not only that Joseph of Arimathea was a secret disciple, but that Nicodemus had first come to Jesus by night.
You may remember the story of Nicodemus the Pharisee who came in the night to confess that he believes Jesus has come from God. Jesus replied, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above’. But Nicodemus was rightly confused: ’How can anyone be born after having grown old?’
And Jesus answered, ’No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit … Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?’
Again, as with Judas, we do not know why Nicodemus chose the night. Unlike Judas, however, he was drawn towards the Light, into an intimate if somewhat mysterious conversation with Jesus. Perhaps he came by night because he was fearful of the other religious leaders. Perhaps he was ashamed because of his confusion and the beginnings of his conflicted loyalty. Perhaps he had questions that could not wait until daylight.
For Nicodemus, the dark provides protection, safety.
In one of his parables, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden. It grew and became a tree and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.
But before it can flourish, the seed must be placed in the dark soil.
‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies’, he tells his disciples, ‘it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit’ (John 12.24)
There can be a security about the dark. We rest in the dark. We are nurtured in our mothers’ wombs in the dark. It is a place where quiet growth can take place safely, out of the way of danger. Anyone who has planted seeds knows this.
But precisely because it can feel like a refuge, it can also become a hiding place. A place, according to John, that sin can grow, a place we think we can withdraw from the sight of God.
And when that becomes the case, being drawn into the light can feel more vulnerable. It can feel as though our very selves — our imperfections, the very worst of ourselves, our sins, however you want to put it — are exposed. It feels a huge risk. It takes courage to emerge, like Nicodemus, from the darkness into the presence of the one true Light.
On the day Jesus dies, it is not yet night as Nicodemus comes again to his Lord, but evening is falling and the sabbath approaching. And that Light of the world seems to have gone out.
Jesus had said to him in that conversation which must have seemed so long ago, ‘God loved the world in this way: that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’.
God sent his only Son not only into the metaphorical darkness and confusion of the world we live in, but also into the very real darkness of death and the tomb, into the darkness of the earth and of hell. Today, God’s Son becomes himself the seed planted in the soil.
After the burial, I wonder what Nicodemus thought. I wonder if he, like the other disciples, hid in the darkness, afraid of what might happen. I wonder if he thought back to that odd conversation with Jesus, the conversation about water and spirit and rebirth and eternal life. I wonder if doubt and despair and death haunted his dreams that night. I wonder if the smell of linen and spices that lingered on his hands was a constant reminder of loss and lostness.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes:
God puts out our lights to keep us safe … because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. … The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God’s seems most absent, the night will do the rest (147).