Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus and the Corporal Acts of Mercy
The joint feast of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is celebrated on August 31. Both men are named in the Gospels as quiet followers of Jesus who took a public stand on His behalf at the time of His death, requesting the body of Jesus and preparing Him for burial.
Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, possibly a member of the Sanhedrin, and a secret follower of Jesus. He went to Pilate when Jesus was crucified and requested the body for burial. Roman law allowed members of an executed person’s family to claim the body and bury it in a family tomb. Decisions on claiming a non-family member’s body were on a case-by-case basis, but were not generally granted. Joseph, receiving Pilate’s permission, took Jesus’ body to be buried in a tomb that had been carved out of stone to serve as his own tomb.
Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin who had come to Jesus secretly late one night to talk. (Jn 3:1-21) He was a supporter of Jesus. Once Jesus had died, Nicodemus brought the traditional spices, around 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe, as well as the burial cloths in which to wrap Him. Together with Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial and laid him in that soon-to-be-famous tomb in the garden. They sealed the tomb with a great stone and returned home quickly, because the Sabbath was beginning.
These two men are the patron saints of undertakers and those who care for and prepare the dead for burial. They are also models for all of us of the practice of the Corporal Acts of Mercy.
The Corporal Acts of Mercy are:
- To feed the hungry
- To give drink to the thirsty
- To shelter the homeless
- To clothe the naked
- To visit and ransom the captive (prisoners)
- To visit the sick
- To bury the dead
These very practical activities have been seen since the earliest days of the Christian community as the tasks of Jesus’ followers. Jesus Himself told his followers that to the extent they perform these services for any of God’s children, they perform them for Him. (Mt 25:31-46) Burying the dead was not part of the original list Jesus gave in his discourse on the Last Judgement. This final Work of Mercy comes from the Book of Tobit, in which a just man, Tobit, defies the Assyrian conquerors to provide proper burial for fallen Israelites, despite being punished for doing so.
This call to service of people’s physical (corporeal) needs is fundamental to our calling as baptized Christians. The world has been transformed by Christians who have taken this charge seriously. Now it’s our turn to live out that calling.