Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) descent from the cross, Mantua, 1600-1602 Wikimedia Commons

Glen Argan: Our mission is clear on the new sabbath

  • April 10, 2020

Joseph of Arimathea saw something that others on the Jewish council did not. In St. Luke’s telling of the story, Joseph was not only a good and righteous man, “he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.”

Joseph saw Jesus as the embodiment of God’s kingdom. Why else would he have sought to take charge of the burial of Jesus thus defiling himself so he would be unable to celebrate the imminent sabbath?

No one only partially convinced that Jesus was the Messiah would take such a step. Jesus was dead; what hope of Him being the Messiah could have remained? Still, Joseph got permission to bury Jesus. Permission received, he took the body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth and buried it in a tomb where no one had been previously buried.

Luke writes, “It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning.” A note in my NRSV study Bible says the literal translation is, “the sabbath was dawning.” This makes no sense since it was before sundown on Friday and night was still to come.

But the dawning sabbath to which Luke referred was the fullness of sabbath established through the paschal mystery — the kingdom of God. Did Joseph know this? Even if he had no expectation of the Resurrection, he must have had an inkling that God’s reign had begun in a glorious, but hidden manner.

He must have had a tacit realization that the sabbath as had been celebrated for hundreds of years was a harbinger of the true Sabbath — Jesus Christ. Why else would he abandon the Jewish sabbath to bury Jesus’ dead body?

Throughout His public ministry Jesus had defied the limited notion of the sabbath as idleness. In the story of the sabbath healing of the paralyzed man recounted in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says of the sabbath, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (5:17). He healed people on the sabbath, and He allowed His disciples to pick corn on the sabbath.

The Jewish people understood sabbath as a commemoration both of the seventh day of creation when God rested and of the people entering the Promised Land. Less attention was paid to Leviticus 25 where the Lord calls His people to celebrate the jubilee every 49th or 50th year, “seven weeks of years.” In the jubilee, crops will not be planted and all debts erased. Land will be returned to its original holder.

The Lord proclaims, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine; with Me you are but aliens and tenants.” We respect creation by refusing to take ownership of any part of it.

With this idea of jubilee in mind, Jesus declares His mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:18-19).

In His death and resurrection, Jesus embodies sabbath and jubilee. It is the time of liberation of captives and the oppressed. Sunday becomes “the eighth day,” the day of the new creation which transcends the sabbath as it had been celebrated.

This promise is fully realized in the everlasting kingdom where the servitude of work and the worship of money are eliminated. Yet God’s kingdom is also realized every time the poor and the outcasts are included in the earthly banquet where we partake of God’s bounty. It is defiled when people increase their wealth and power by hoarding that bounty for themselves.

Pope Benedict XVI bore witness to this when he wrote, “(God’s) kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; His kingdom is present wherever He is loved and wherever His love reaches us” (Spe Salvi, 31). We long for an eternity with Christ and that longing reveals itself through our participation in Christ’s sabbath mission.

How much of this did Joseph of Arimathea understand? Explicitly, maybe none of it. But he did long for God’s kingdom and he recognized Jesus as the kingdom’s presence in our midst. Joseph waited expectantly for the kingdom. When he saw it dawning, his actions revealed his awareness of the fullness of the sabbath in the death of Jesus Christ.

(Argan has been a contributor to the Catholic press in Canada since 1977.)

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