The taking down Jesus from the Cross
We continue meditation about Passion of Our Lord with His Mother.
A small body of men is now approaching the summit of Calvary, and from their fixed looks it is plain that Jesus is the object of their coming. Is it some fresh outrage, some new sorrow for Mary? It is a new sorrow for Mary, but no fresh outrage. It is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, together with their servants. Both of them were disciples of our Blessed Lord, but secretly; for they were timid men. Joseph was "a counselor, a good and just man," who had not "consented to the counsel and doings" of the others, because he "himself looked for the kingdom of God." Nicodemus was a man learned in the Scriptures, the same who had come to Jesus by night for fear of the Jews, and had learned from Him the doctrine of regeneration. Joseph had gone in to Pilate, o whom he probably had access in his capacity as counselor, and had begged the Body of Jesus, which had been granted to him. He had then, as St. Matthew tells us, got "a clean linen cloth" to wrap it in, and had called on Nicodemus to accompany him to Calvary. Nicodemus, as St. John tells us, brought with him "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight." They also brought their servants with them to assist. They approached our Blessed Lady with the profoundest reverence and sympathy, told her what they had done, and asked her permission to take the Body down from the Cross. With hearts full of the tenderest devotion to the dolors of the Immaculate Mother, they drew nigh to the Cross, and made their preparations. They fixed the ladder against the Cross. Joseph mounted first, and Nicodemus after him. Mary, with John and Magdalen, remained immediately beneath them. It seemed as if some supernatural grace issued forth from the Adorable Body, and encircled them round, softening and subduing all their thoughts, making their hearts burn with divine love, and hushing them in the deepest and most thrilling adoration. Old times came back upon the Mother's heart, and the remembrance of the other Joseph, who had been so often privileged to handle the limbs and touch the Sacred Flesh of the Incarnate Word. It would have been his office to have taken Jesus down from the Cross. But he was gone to his rest, and one that bore his name supplied his place, and it was both sweet and grievous to Mary that it should be so. One Joseph had given Him his arms to lie in, the other should give Him his own new monument to rest in; and both should pass Him from their own arms to those of Mary. It is strange, too, how often the timid are unexpectedly bold. These two disciples, who had been afraid to confess their Master openly when He lived, are now braving publicity when even apostles remain within the shelter of their hiding-place. Happy two! with what sweet familiarities and precious nearness to Himself is not Jesus recompensing their pious service at this hour in Heaven!
Joseph touches the crown of thorns, and delicately loosens it from the head on which it was fixed, disentangles it from the matted hair, and, without daring to kiss it, passes it to Nicodemus, who reaches it to John, from whom Mary, sinking on her knees, receives it with such devotion as no heart but hers could hold. Every blood-stained spike seemed instinct with life, and went into her heart, tipped as it were with the Blood of her Son, inoculating her more and more deeply with the spirit of His Passion. Who can describe with what reverential touch, while the cold Body was a furnace of heavenly love burning against his heart, Joseph loosened the nails, so as not to crush or mutilate the blessed Hands and Feet which they had pierced? It was so hard a task that we are fain to believe angels helped him in it. Each nail was silently passed down to Mary. They were strange graces, these which were now flowing to her through the hands of her new son; yet, after all, not so unlike the gifts which Jesus had Himself been giving her these three-and-thirty years. Never yet had earth seen such a worship of sorrow as that with which the Mother bent over those mute relics, as they came down to her from the Cross, crusted too as they were, perhaps wet, with that Precious Blood, which she adored in its unbroken union with the Person of the Eternal Word. But with what agony was all this worship accompanied, what fresh wounds did not all these instruments of the Passion make in her heart, what old ones did they not reopen!
But a greater grief was yet to come. The Body was detached from the Cross. More and more thickly the angels gathered round, while thrills of love pierced with ecstatic bliss their grand intelligences. Mary is kneeling on the ground. Her fingers are stained with Blood. She stretches the clean linen cloth over her arms and holds them out to receive her Son, her Prodigal come back to her again, and come back thus! And was He not a Prodigal? Had He not willfully gone out from her quiet home into the wildest and rudest of worlds, leagues and leagues distant from the purity and love of her spotless heart? Had He not spent all His substance on companions, worthless and despicable? Was it not a riotous spending, a riot of some eighteen hours' duration? Had He not been prodigal of His Precious Blood, of His beauty, His innocence, His life, His grace, His very Divinity? And now He was coming back to her thus! Can such a sorrow, such an accumulation of concentering sorrows, have any name? Can she bear the weight? Which weight? The sorrow or the Body? It matters not. She can bear them both. From above, the Body is slowly descending. She remembers the midnight-hour when the Holy Ghost overshadowed her at Nazareth. Now it is the Eternal Son who is so strangely overshadowing His kneeling Mother. Joseph trembled under the weight, even while Nicodemus helped him. Perhaps also it was not the weight only which made him tremble. Wonderfully must grace have held him up to do what he did. Now it is low enough for John to touch the sacred Head, and receive it in his arms, that it might not droop in that helpless rigid way; and Magdalen is holding up the Feet. It is her old post. It is her post in Heaven now highest of penitents, most beautiful of pardoned spirits! For one moment Mary prostrates herself in an agony of speechless adoration, and the next instant she has received the Body on her extended arms. The babe of Bethlehem is back again in His Mother's lap. What a meeting! What a restoration! For a while she remains kneeling, while John and Magdalen, Joseph and Nicodemus, and the devout women, adore. Then she passes from the attitude of the priest to the attitude of the mother. She rises from her knees, still bearing the burden as lightly as when she fled with Him into Egypt, and sits down upon the grass, with Jesus extended on her lap.
With minutest fondness she smoothes His hair. She does not wash the Blood from off His Body. It is too precious; and soon He will want it all, as well as that which is on men's shoes, and the payment of Jerusalem, and the olive roots of Gethsemane. But she closes every wound, every mark of the lash, every puncture of the thorns, with a mixture of myrrh and aloes, which Nicodemus has brought. There was not a feature of His blessed Countenance, not a mark upon His Sacred Flesh, which was not at once a sorrow to her, and a very volume of profoundest meditations. Her soul went through the Passions upon His Body, as men trace their travels on a map. The very quietness of her occupation, the very concentration of her undistracted thoughts seemed to enable her to go deeper and deeper down into His sufferings, and to compassionate them with a more interior bitterness than before. In none of the earlier stages of her sorrow had there been more demand upon her to control the common gestures and outbursts of grief, than when she sat in the light of that spring evening with her Son's dead Body on her lap, smoothing, anointing, and composing the countless prints of shame and suffering which had been worn so deeply into it. In vain for her were the birds trilling their even-song, the weight of the eclipse being taken off their blithe little hearts. In vain for her were the perfumes of the tender fig-leaves rising up in the cool air, and the buds bursting greenly, and the tender shoots full of vernal beauty. Her grief was past nature's soothing. For her Flower had been cruelly gathered, and lay withered there upon her knee.
She performed her task as an act of religion, with grave assiduity, not delaying over it to satisfy the grief of which her heart was full. The dead Body seemed as obedient to her as ever the Babe had been in Bethlehem, obedient in all things but one. She told St. Bridget that the extended arms could not be closed, and laid by His side, or crossed upon His breast. We ought rather to say they would not, than they could not, be closed. He will not relinquish those outstretched arms, which seem to invite the whole world into the utmost width of their embrace. There was room for all within them, a harbor large enough for all creation. If the lifting up of His Hands upon the Cross was an "evening sacrifice" to the Eternal Father, the outstretching of them was as it were a sacramental sign to men that none were excluded from His invitation and His welcome. He would carry with Him to the tomb the form and figure of one crucified; and Mary understood why the arms were rigid, and forbore the gentle violence she was about to use. He must be swathed in the winding-sheet in that shape as well as may be, preaching large, wide, welcoming love even to the end. Mary must now take her last look of that dead Face. Mothers live lives in their last looks. Who shall tell what Mary's was like? Who would have been surprised if the eyes of the Dead had opened, and His lips parted, under the kindling and the quickening of that look? With heroic effort she has bound the napkin around His Head, and has folded the winding-sheet over the sweet Face. And now there is darkness indeed around her. The very dead Body had been a light and a support. She has put out the light herself. Her own hands have quenched the lamp, and she stands facing the thick night. Oh, brave woman! Hours of ecstatic contemplation over that silent-speaking Countenance would have passed like moments. But it was a time for religion, not for the indulgence of her tenderness; and she pierced her own heart through and through with the same hand with which she hid His Face. But, O Mary! thou seest that Face now, and art drinking thy fill of its beauty, and thou wilt do so for ever more, and never be satisfied, even when always satisfied, happy, blessed Mother!
When Joseph and Nicodemus, John and Magdalen, gathered quietly round her, as she was composing and embalming the Body, their very kindness somehow brought out the loss of the compassion of Jesus. When she stood under the Cross, she had not thought about herself. She was compassionating Him. She considered only the sorrow her sorrow was to Him, not the compassion toward herself which it was causing in His Soul. But she discovered now how great a support that compassion had been to her all the while. Like all divine operations, she saw it more plainly now that it was past; and it rose up in gushing memories which were full as much kindlings of sorrow as of joy. He was gone Who alone could understand her heart.
As our Blessed Lord is daily offered in the Mass, and the selfsame sacrifice of Calvary continued and renewed without intermission day and night around the world, so are Mary's ministries to His mute yet adorable Body going on unceasingly upon thousands of Christian altars and by the hands of thousands of Christian priests. Yet, as is ever the case with those things which we have from Jesus and Mary, what was intense bitterness to her, to us is exultation, privilege, and love. When she had gently laid aside the crown and nails, as precious relics, with what profound reverence did she kneel to receive the Body of her Son! It was not the attitude of a mother toward a son, but rather of the creature toward the Creator. She adored it with divine worship. She held it in her arms until the rest had adored it also. Her rights as a Mother were merged in her service as a creature. Yet the Blessed Sacrament is the living Jesus, Soul as well as Body, Godhead as well as Humanity. Worshipful as was His dead Body, because of its unbroken union with the Person of the Eternal Word, the Blessed Sacrament, if it were possible, demands of us a worship more full and dread, more self-abasing, more profound. We have no Mother's rights.
Our act of receiving should be a silent act of holy eager fear and breathless worship. In our thanksgiving we ought to be lost in the grandeurs of His condescension, and not too soon begin to ask for graces, until we have prostrated ourselves before that living Incarnate God who at that moment has so wonderfully enshrined Himself within us. We should behave at Mass as, with all our present faith and knowledge, we should have behaved on Calvary. At Benediction, and when praying before the Tabernacle, the Blessed Sacrament should breed in us continually a spirit of unresting adoration, unresting as that incessant cry which the astonished Seraphim and Cherubim are continually uttering at the sight of the unimaginable holiness of God.
Taken from book by Father Wiliam Faber "At the foot of the Cross".