Today I served as narrator for the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of John read during our Good Friday Liturgy. I have been privileged to present this dramatic story many times and have heard it read every Good Friday for over 60 years. In this case I volunteered for the task because I know that in trying to read in a clear and meaningful way, allowing my voice to reflect when able the tension, emotion or import of a scene, leads me deeper into the story and can become an occasion of grace.
We are blessed to have a very scholarly local pastor who is gifting us with his reflections on the presentation of human encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John. The first focused on Nicodemus who came in the safety of night to see Jesus and ask questions. Our discussion centered on the inherited faith of this Pharisee, his motivations and his fear. We hear little afterward about Nicodemus and any possible changes of heart until the Passion narrative. Here it seems that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, likely onlookers at the crucifixion, conferenced over their need to do something and assigned each other specific tasks. Joseph would approach Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus and Nicodemus would obtain the traditional spices to be inserted into the burial cloth wrapped around it. Although he visited under cover of night when Jesus was alive he could hardly carry one hundred pounds of spices through the streets and remain an invisible Jesus sympathizer.
Today, as I read the few words concerning Nicodemus' compassionate bravery an image of him flashed through my mind; the image created by Michelangelo in an unfinished Pieta begun in the last years of his life. I saw it in Florence 55 years ago. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
The Deposition (also called the Florence Pietà, the Bandini Pietà or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ) is a marble sculpture by the Italian High Renaissance master Michelangelo. The sculpture, on which Michelangelo worked between 1547 and 1553, depicts four figures – the dead body of Jesus Christ, newly taken down from the Cross, Nicodemus (or possibly Joseph of Arimathea), Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. The sculpture is housed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. [The Duomo is the Cathedral of Florence.]
According to Vasari [biographer of Italian Renaissance artists], Michelangelo made the Florence Pietà to decorate his tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Vasari noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, Michelangelo worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this piece to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy.
After 8 years of working on the piece, Michelangelo would go on and attempt to destroy the work in a fit of frustration. This marked the end of Michelangelo’s work on the piece and from there the piece found itself in the hands of Francesco Bandini who hired an apprentice sculptor by the name of Tiberius Calcagni to restore the work to its current composition. Since its inception, the piece has been plagued by ambiguities and never ending interpretations, with no straightforward answers available.
The face of Nicodemus under the hood is considered to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself.
It is interesting to think about Michelangelo in his last years contemplating his life, anticipating his death, and choosing to immortalize himself in the face of this character. I can imagine him facing in memory his flawed character and his failures in faith but also his last clinging to the suffering Jesus; Jesus who in his humanity also died. In this Pieta Michelangelo is the frightened onlooker brought to faith and completely humbled by what he has witnessed.
In the split second of accessing the image of Nicodemus as I read into a microphone there came the grace to know that I am Nicodemus in this story. We are all Nicodemus; all onlookers standing on the stony soil of Golgotha, having a hard time absorbing the shock of being witnesses. We are all Nicodemus in our regrets, in remembering our flaws of character, our failures in standing up for truth and justice, our fear of what others might say about us. We are pitiful. But we cannot just go away under the weight of our self-recriminations. We especially cannot do that today because we know the end of the story.
Instead we can, like Nicodemus, accepting who and what we are and the mistakes that have been made, choose to move in a new direction, chose to make ourselves useful. We can choose to remember and act upon the words of Jesus that we heard just yesterday in the Liturgy of the Lord's Supper. "Do you realize what I have done for you?.....I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."