Saint Gregory Nazianzen, bishop and doctor of the church, was a poet, theologian, and a dazzling orator. His beautiful writings have been sources of meditation for 14 centuries.
In one of his homilies he suggested that, in order to prepare ourselves for Easter, we identify ourselves with one of the prominent figures present at the Passion and death of Our Lord. Are we Simon of Cyrene, the Good Thief, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, or one of the Marys who arrived at the tomb to find the stone rolled away?
As Jesus hung on the Cross, one of the criminals blasphemed him, cursing and swearing, while the other was contrite: “We are paying the price for what we’ve done.”
The good thief was a revolutionary, according to one translation, so I imagine he was feisty and impulsive, perhaps of sanguine temperament, someone who fell into the wrong crowd through bad judgment rather than evil intent, yet whose heart is open and generous. On Good Friday, he shows sincere and humble faith: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Perhaps you identify with the good thief, whose simple and spontaneous trust in Jesus was immediately rewarded with the gift of paradise. If you are the good thief, says Saint Gregory, acknowledge your God.
Simon may have been melancholic. He was coming in from the fields, he was tired and looking forward to the Sabbath rest, to the Passover celebration. He didn’t want to be singled out from the crowd to help bear the ignominious cross. He wants to resist, but reluctantly he obeys the soldier’s command.
“Why me?” he must have thought, at first keeping his head down to avoid being recognized. But then, a slow dawning respect comes over him as the man who had been lauded as the messiah courageously and silently bears the cruelty of the soldiers and the jeers of the crowd. In The Passion of the Christ we see a silent friendship develop, as the two link arms, carrying the cross together. He felt his heart deeply touched by grace, wrote Anne Catherine Emmerich. If you are Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross.
Joseph of Arimathea was “a secret disciple for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38). He asked permission from Pilate to remove the body. He was a wealthy and “upright” member of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:57, Luke 23:50), a respected leader, one who is used to being in charge and calling the shots.
Yet he is compelled to follow Jesus, too, to become his disciple. Perhaps he was choleric, a leader who is drawn to Christ, who recognizes Christ as the Messiah, yet pragmatically retaining his position in society. If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, says Saint Gregory, ask for the body of Christ.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee who had come to Jesus at night but who was guardedly open to hearing the truth. He knew that Jesus was a man of God, but skeptically asks, “How can a man be born again once he is old?” (John 3:4) This shows his literal understanding of Jesus’ words. Nonetheless, he later defends Jesus to the Sanhedrin (John 7:50) and joins with Joseph of Arimathea to wrap Christ’s body with linen and perfumed oils (John 19:40).
Perhaps, like Nicodemus, you’re a bit skeptical or worry about appearing like a religious fanatic. Nicodemus may have been a cautious, reserved phlegmatic, someone who doesn’t want to rock the boat or make a show of his faith. Perhaps you worry about appearing like a religious fanatic or you’re a bit skeptical. If you are Nicodemus, Saint Gregory tells us, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body.
Whether we are one of these or, instead, are like Mary, who finds the empty tomb and rushes to tell everyone the good news, we can strive to enter into the mysteries of this Good Friday by placing ourselves at the foot of the Cross and joining our sufferings with Christ’s.
On Easter, we will rise with him.