The four Gospels agree that it is man named Joseph from Arimathea who buries Jesus after his crucifixion. Each account sprinkles into the story some unique details, and the details are everything. When John tells the story (John 19:38-42), we find out that this Joseph is a disciple of Jesus, but a secret disciple. He’s a well-respected man among Jerusalem’s religious elite, and openly following Jesus would have been a quick way to lose that status and whatever privileges and relationships came along with it. So he follows Jesus from a distance, getting as close as he can while remaining far enough away that no one suspects what Jesus actually means to him. Fear will not let him get any closer.
John also tells that someone else is present for this burial, someone we’ve met before – Nicodemus, whose adoration of Jesus is also tempered by his fear of reprisal from his fellow Jewish leaders. We’re reminded that Nicodemus was only willing to meet Jesus in the dark, in the absence of any light that could expose him. He and Joseph are quite a pair. Here to give Jesus a burial are no disciples we’re more familiar with, no Mary and Martha or Philip and Andrew, but two cowardly, secret followers whose love for Jesus has remained safely in the dark until now. For Joseph and Nicodemus, their defining trait in the Gospel of John is that they’re afraid, that their journey toward Jesus is a slow and nervous one. And yet, here they are, better late than never, and in the absence of more likely candidates.
They bury Jesus in a garden, John tells us. They bury Jesus in a place where lifeless things are planted into the ground and then sprout to life. Could Jesus be buried in a more perfect place? Before narrating the resurrection, John has tipped his hand. The crucified Jesus is laid in a place where things come to life and bear fruit. As Jesus said himself back in John 12, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Yes, we’re familiar enough with the Jesus story to know that he’s raised to life on the third day. But even if we didn’t know that ahead of time, John’s story is filling us with anticipation. If Jesus is buried in a garden, surely he will do what all thing planted in a garden do – sprout to life.
Joseph and Nicodemus are a sign unto themselves that this resurrection is already in motion. From John 1 until now, they’ve been governed by fear. But here they are burying Jesus in plain view for anyone to see. Their fear is giving way to something new, something brought to life in a garden. Their fear was crucified with Jesus. This is why we give ourselves to the cross, to the experience of loss and grief and sacrifice. Because when we do, we do so in a garden, in a place where old things are buried and new things are sprouting to life.