Between the death of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, John’s Gospel provides an account of what happened to the body of Jesus, first while still on the cross, and then secondly being taken down and buried according to Jewish custom in a new tomb in a garden. Each of these accounts contains what we may call selected historical fact and theological symbolism, and for our true edification, we must notice both, as we await liturgically within the Christian Year the Easter cry that Jesus is risen from the dead.
Verses 31-37, The Effusion of Water and Blood
Only in John’s Gospel is the story told of the breaking of the legs of the two men, who were crucified with Jesus, and then the piercing of the side of Jesus (already dead) by one of the soldiers, leading to the effusion of water and blood. The fact that no bones of the body of Jesus were broken because he was already dead is presented as a clear fulfillment of prophecy (see Exodus 12:10 & 46 with Numbers 9:12) as is also the sight of the pierced Jesus (Zechariah 12:10).
The witness of the mysterious disciple, who must be the Beloved Disciple of verses 26-27, is solemnly recorded, and the truth of his witness is attested by the Lord himself. John perceived that purification (water) and new, sanctifying life (blood) flow from the completed Sacrifice of the Lamb of God; and thus John bears witness to the truth and efficacy of the Gospel, in order that those who read this account may believe both that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, and that they are cleansed and given new and everlasting life by his shed blood (cf. 1 John 1:7).
It is also possible that the Evangelist understands the effusion of water and blood also to prefigure the two Gospel Sacraments—Baptism (Water) and Lord’s Supper (Blood)—for both take their meaning and gain their efficacy from the unique death of Jesus. In the Eucharist in the churches the mixing of a drop of water with the wine in the chalice also recalls the flow of water and blood from the pierced side of Jesus.
Verses 38-42, The Body of Jesus
Pilate gives his approval to a secret disciple of Jesus to take down the body of Jesus from the cross and give it a burial that would be both in accordance with good Jewish custom and with the dignity of Jesus himself. Normally the bodies of the crucified were given as food to the vultures. This secret disciple is then joined by another, who provides a lavish amount of sweet-smelling spices to be placed on the body of Jesus as it was wrapped in linen sheets. Then the two secret disciples place the embalmed body of Jesus in a new tomb in a garden near to the place of crucifixion. Thus the site of the Crucifixion will be also the site of the Resurrection, the former witnessed by disciples, the latter seen only by angels!
Both the secret disciples have been mentioned already in the Gospels. Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin. who visited Pilate for permission to take the body, is described in Luke 23:50f. as a good and righteous man. Nicodemus, who provided the spices for anointing, is the man who came to Jesus by night (see John 3) to ask Jesus about his true identity.
In terms of theological symbolism, we may suggest two basic themes here.
First, the theme of the lifting up of Jesus on the cross: when he is lifted up he will draw all unto him (12:32). The testimony of the Beloved Disciple, who saw the effusion of water and blood, is to all those who have true faith in Jesus. Such disciples represent one group whom Jesus draws to himself when lifted up on the cross and then in Resurrection/Ascension to heaven. Here we meet a different group, nevertheless a real one, another kind of disciple, the secret disciple ,who is not fully and openly committed but yet who is nevertheless drawn by the love of Jesus towards union with him.
Secondly, the theme of Jesus as the king. The lavish amount of spices points to the burial of Jesus as a king and so does the fact that the tomb is in a garden (see 2 Kings 21: 18, 26 & Nehemiah 3:16, Acts 2:29). That Jesus was buried as a king fittingly concludes the Passion narrative in John’s Gospel in which Jesus is crowned and hailed as a king in his trial, and then enthroned and publicly proclaimed as king on the cross (John 19:19-20). He is the King whose kingdom is not of this world but of that greater world, the kingdom of heaven/God. In fact in glorification he is the King of kings and the Lord or lords.
Less clear as theological symbolism, but very attractive to devotion, is the suggestion that the royal gift of such a great amount of spices suggests the sweet-smelling, holy, healing and distinctive smell , which went forth into the world, into all space and time from the unique, once-for-all Sacrifice of the Son of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:14-16; Ephesians 5:2).
A Prayer for Holy Saturday-Easter Even
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, You who, on this day, rested in the tomb, and by this act sanctified the grave as a bed of hope to your disciples: Make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of your passion and death, that when our bodies rest in the grave, our souls may live with You; who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.