Thursday, April 21, 2011

Faith Works 4-23

Faith Works 4-23-11

Jeff Gill


Taking the Spices They Had Prepared



When Luke begins what we now call the twenty-fourth chapter of his account of Jesus, he walks us with three women heading for the tomb where Jesus' body had been laid out in a borrowed niche, behind a heavy stone, "taking the spices they had prepared."


John speaks of a hundred pounds of spices, a mix of myrrh and aloes. The aloes are a grim reminder of what they expected to find when the women had gotten someone to help roll back the stone – rot, decay, putrefaction. Aloe would mask and compensate for the stench with enough freshness and bright scent to allow them to finish their work, an anointing of the body that normally would have happened earlier.


Myrrh was simply the usual outer application for a dead body, a hint of Temple incense and a scent of the divine in the midst of the most earthly. More for the wealthy, a faint hint for the poor, but always there.


The rush of the crucifixion and the impending restrictions of the Sabbath meant Jesus' body had been hastily wiped off and wrapped in a shroud, but not properly treated with the spices and oils that normally attended the funeral of a beloved family member or friend. In most cases, the press of circumstance would mean that it was just too bad, "but we did our best", and the body would be left to the work of a dry climate and natural processes of decay. With any luck, the family whose burial site had been borrowed would not have need of it again, until the remains in the niche had crumbled to a dry outline which could be swept into an ossuary, a bone box, and set into a smaller niche while the bench was again used for a new corpse.


These three women were made of both faithful and stern stuff. They were not going to assume they had done their best, and they were steeled to face the unpleasant realities of their beloved friend and rabbi on the third day after his grotesque execution. No smell, nor expense would be spared, and they were likely the women who had tended dying family members, births, and everything up to and including the spring lambing, so dealing with a decayed body was something they did not flinch from.


In fact, from Matthew's account, an anointing of sorts had been done by a woman, perhaps one of the three, but probably not, just before the fateful final trip into Jerusalem proper. An alabaster jar of nard, a very fine (and expensive) ointment, from Nepal or somewhere from the uttermost east, had been poured out on him and rubbed into those travel-worn feet, just up from Jericho along the steep, winding path to the Holy City.


For the everyday and always for the poor, olive oil would do, but myrrh in the temple, aloes in the countryside, and various scents in healing ointments were a vital part of life in such a dry and weary landscape. It was soap, it was refreshment, it was renewal and restoration, for the skin and much deeper. Anointing was important, in life, and in death.


So it was that the women had gathered and prepared a hundredweight of spices and incense and oil. More than thirty pounds apiece to carry, across the Kidron Valley, through the awakening city, out the other side and around into the mix of garden and garbage dump where the Romans executed prisoners and where a few of the upper classes kept their family tombs.


They had no expectation of anything other than death, and decay. There was no plot, no plan, no illusions, no delusions: they had done the hard work of preparing burial spices for a silent corpse, and were going at dawn the first day they could, the third day after the Passover's deadly conclusion, the last thing they wanted to do.


They knew what they would find, and could not even imagine any other outcome, as the sun rose over Jerusalem on the first day of a new week.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him an unexpected outcome at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.