Last spring my father died of Parkinson’s disease. I never saw his lifeless corpse, but only his frail body
waiting for death, his pale thin skin and his stiff limbs, once impressively athletic for his age, but now — so
very recently — barely able to move. My mother and his nurses cared for him in his many final months, while we
all said good-bye each time we visited him. And finally a phone call told me he had died two hours after my latest
farewell. Days later I returned to bury his ashes in the deep sea. I never saw his lifeless corpse. How they cared
for it, how they prepared his body for cremation, how they felt that afternoon, I can only imagine. No, I cannot
imagine; I barely try.
Tonight we will go to the altar table together, and lay flowers around the icon of Christ’s burial, and our
choir will sing laments, beginning and ending with the beloved troparion about Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus.
This troparion does not describe what happened on that awful day. Then most likely Jesus was thrown into a common
pit with other executed criminals, with mounds of dirt shoveled quickly on top, like the thousands of slaughtered
men and boys and women and girls dug up this past year from mass graves in Bosnia and Rwanda and Kampuchea. The
Persians who invented crucifixion, and the Romans who took it up, believed that criminals buried without prop-er
rites suffered an eternal death — that was the completion of the penalty. Crucifixion was for disappearing the
worst criminals from the whole human universe.
But soon Jesus’ followers, convinced after all that God had not let Jesus’ life disappear and go for nothing,
convinced instead that God had poured his life out like gasoline setting the whole world ablaze with light — Jesus’
followers wrote of the burial they would have given him if only they could. They described Joseph of Arimathea
doing what they would willingly have done, and generations of Christians treasured the story and wrote beautiful
chants like the ones we will hear tonight. Tonight we will join centuries of Jesus’ followers, burying him gently,
tenderly, as his family and friends were never allowed to do. The chants may not describe what happened on that
awful day; but they describe what we do now.
We join all the families that were not allowed to bury their beloved, kidnapped, exe-cuted,
slaughtered, lost dead. We join the mothers of the disappeared in Buenos Aires,
whose stolen sons and daughters were tortured and drugged and shoved out of planes flying over the ocean, where
they sank into the deep — only twenty years ago! We join the Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian families of Yugoslavia
and Korea and Burundi and Kampuchea whose relatives were led off and shot and cannot even be found today. When
we touch Jesus’ icon we touch them too, as closely as their families will ever touch them, caressing their photograph
or a handkerchief left behind.
This is not a mental exercise. We do not ask you to imagine burying Jesus — though you
can imagine anything you want. We do not ask you to have an opinion or doctrine about
relating to Jesus or burying the dead. We ask you to DO it: a physical action. To join in with your hands, your
knees, your body. Let me suggest why.
Late this past winter, his holiness the Karmapa Lama — a teenager in Tibet —
doffed his famous red and yellow robes, and in trousers and a jacket, crawled out onto the roof of his monastery.
When monks spying for the Chinese authorities had gone inside, he dropped to the ground, and traveled for days
across the snowy mountains by car, foot, and horseback, evading Chinese checkpoints in the predawn murk, until
he reached India and safety. The Indian government could not believe he had done this physical feat without
popular help. (But he did!) The Chinese gov-ernment arrested everybody in Tibet they
could think of. The Karmapa Lama had been THEIR token lama, the Chinese claimant to
rule Tibet rightfully. And now he was gone to join the hated Dalai Lama and others in exile, and to make even more
Maybe you have watched films about Tibetan monastic life, and seen what they do
for sport. Their sport is argument and debate. They gather in squares outside the monastery buildings and shout
doctrines and metaphysical concepts at each other, while monks nearby applaud and join in. The Karmapa Lama was
too young for debate; even now in India he is only beginning to learn the doctrines he must teach. The Chinese
authorities never worried about those doctrines anyway; they never worried what metaphysics he would teach, what
debates he might win. But now his body
is in India, and they do worry. Already his body is making trouble, as his teaching might
never have done.
Tomorrow night we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And from there you and I will go
into the world to make trouble. You will put your body out there in affection, in service, in
compassion, in companionship, in doing justice. Year after year, however your beliefs
change and grow, the body of Christ will go where you go, as surely as the Karmapa Lama is in India tonight, troubling
any who fear love, faithfulness, loyalty, courage, justice,
freedom, or peace. You will walk and serve and touch people as Jesus walked and taught and shared food and touched
and healed everyone, out-caste or in-caste, enemy or friend.
Real friendship and real holiness are about enabling a person to go to the hearth of
their own solitude where their soul waits to bless them.
– John O’Donahue
So whatever you believe, whatever you imagine about what we do tonight, do not
shrink from the person beside you, the shoulder ahead of you in procession. Feel Christ’s
body there; feel the shoulders of humanity. Since Jesus died and was buried in that name-less pit, God has made
these people, in this church, into Christ’s body for you to caress, to anoint, to comfort, to give and receive
and share affection. These people and the human race outside our church doors.
Feel Christ’s body with your hand tonight — the miraculous human hand that God evolved and shaped for thousands
of years to work this earth, to clasp friends and lovers
and children, and to lift in prayer. Jesus had just such a hand; and when they pierced it, and killed him, God
poured his spirit into a thousand thousand hands like yours. Your hand and that shoulder and all these bodies are
beautiful, and they are full of life God gave
them. When one day they grow frail and stiff and weaken and die — even the most beauti-ful, purest body will weaken
and die — then your death will not stop Christ’s working body, the body that now touches everyone you touch.
So bury Jesus with gentle affection, and take up his work in the world wherever his
spirit blows you. Your service to all suffering humanity begins here, with a simple deed of
physical affection. Affection for Jesus and all the lost people whose death he shares, because sharing wholly with
people was the purpose of his life.
And it still is.
Richard Fabian is presbyter of St. Gregory’s Church.