Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
Growing up as a Lutheran I had never seen or heard of such a thing, but as a twelve year old boy, I asked my math teacher who had come to school with what appeared as a bruised forehead, whether he had fallen and hurt his head, I learned for the first time about the ancient custom of placing ashes on the forehead on the first day of Lent. What was strange to me then, is perfectly natural now.
The Book of Job tells the story of a man who has lost his ten children and all his possessions. In his mourning he sits in sackcloth and ashes, scraping the boils on his body. In the agony of both his body and soul, he thinks about how he may have offended God. He might as well be dead and afraid to curse God, but he chose to curse the day of his birth and to wished to die. There’s no one who in his or her lifetime, because of personal or family calamity or embarrassment has not wished that he or she were dead. When we as Christians confess our sins, we’re embarrassed and we know we’re worthy of both temporal and eternal death. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah commanded the people to put on sackcloth and sprinkle their heads and faces with ashes to show that they had a guilt worthy of death. The Church adopted the custom of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful to remind them that without God there is no hope.
While we are still living, the prophetic words of Genesis come true for us: “Thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return.” We’re present for our own funerals and hear the words “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Ash Wednesday is the reminder that no one, not even Christians, can escape the inescapable verdict of death. By ashes we prepare our bodies for burial.
Tonight, here we are at the opposite end of Lent. On this Good Friday evening we’re not here to mourn for ourselves and prepare our bodies for death, but we’ve come to mourn over the death of Jesus and to prepare His body for burial. The enormity of personal guilt can never be appreciated until we contemplate the death of the Son of God. We look at the corpse of Jesus and see the collected guilt of humanity. No longer is it a matter of an evil thought or misspoken word, but now it’s a matter of total alienation and estrangement from God.
In Latin America, the burial of Jesus is commemorated with processions through the streets carrying replicas of the corpse of Jesus in glass coffins. It’s called the feast of Corpus Christi and was first done in Belgium, in 1247. Tonight, we join the first mourners at the cross of Jesus who formed that first funeral procession for our Redeemer. It begins at the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James and John, the disciple John, and Joseph of Arimathea. We hear the Savior’s dying gasps.
We see the cross bar unhinged from the upright beam and lowered to the ground. We hear the nails lifted out of His hands and feet and we follow His funeral procession to the tomb. And we’re not here at the cross to relive history or to remember its more obvious moments. We’re here to see the collected and individual guilt of all humanity. On this night there’s no boasting or pride in what our race has done. Ultimately mankind has accomplished nothing worthwhile. Here is our own self-degradation and self-abasement. On this night there is only shame.
Burials today are done professionally and clinically. Only the hospital and funeral home attendants handle the corpse and this only under the most antiseptic conditions. At the cemetery even the dirt which covers our bodies is hidden with an artificial grass covering. The coffin is lowered into the ground only after the mourners have left. The burial of Jesus had no such amenities.
Removing bodies from the cross, that gruesome instrument of torture could’ve been done on another day. But sundown of that day was not only the beginning of a high Sabbath, but it was Passover. The law said that dead bodies had to be hidden out of sight with none of the usual religious amenities of anointing allowed by Jewish law and practice. Concern for human emotion was pushed aside for efficiency and expediency. It was a pathetic sight.
Following the lifeless body of Jesus was the woman who had given Him life. Every mother who has lost a child can place herself in the picture of the mother of Jesus cradling His body in her arms. Death is never natural and always hard to understand, but the death of our children is unnatural. Of His twelve closest friends only one was there. Ten were in hiding and one had hung himself. In fact, there was nothing godly or religious about this scene at all. If Jesus was the prophet and spokesman of God on earth, perhaps there was no God. God is life and the source of life, but the crucifixion was the scene of death spelled out in capital letters.
But of course, there was much more to the story than what the eyes of the few remaining mourners could see. There was even much more to the story than what the Evangelists were telling us. Those who had condemned Jesus and those who had crucified Him and those carried His body to the tomb were not the main characters in this story. The one who had condemned Jesus and who offered up Jesus as a sacrifice by His death and who had carried His body to the tomb and placed Him in it, was none other than God Himself.
In Abraham’s sacrifice of his Son, Isaac, we saw what God was going to do in Jesus. We saw what God was going to do with the body of Jesus when God prepared the grave for Moses that great Old Testament prophet. Often God’s saints die alone, but they’re never completely alone because God never forsakes them.
The psalm says that though my mother and Father forsake me, God will never forsake me. Jesus was God’s perfect saint. He fulfilled the will of God as no other person before or after Him had. If the death of God’s saints are precious to Him, how exceedingly precious in the sight of God was the death of Jesus. Though Jesus cried out in anguish that God had deserted, God had not deserted Him. God Himself was burying Jesus because God simply does not desert His saints. Just the opposite was true. The burial scene of Jesus was God’s victorious moment in accomplishing the world’s redemption.
At one time I used to not only shy away from funerals, but to avoid them, because they made me feel uncomfortable. But leaving this world is as important to God as coming into this world. The words spoken at Baptism could be spoken at our death: “The Lord bless your coming in and your going out from this day forth and even forever more.”
Our Lord’s death was no more a tragedy than was His birth. Good Friday is no less important than Christmas. In fact, Good Friday is the culmination of Christmas. Tonight, we see that Jesus accomplished what He came into this world to do. He participated in every facet of our lives. He experienced everything in which we have, even our death and burial. Like us, He prayed that God would save Him from the hour of death, but unlike us He wasn’t spared. By His death and burial Jesus prepared for our death and burial. Only by our death and burial can we both be with Jesus and be like Him. Now the grave is not strange or alien or frightful to us because, by His death He sanctified our death and consecrated our graves. We lie with Him in the grave, so that there may also be for us a third day when we shall come out of our graves. The last words which we hear are not those of Ash Wednesday, “Dust you are and to dust shalt you return”, but His command to come out of our graves to the resurrection of eternal life.
The words of Paul: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” This is the most important day in the Church, the day of our Salvation.