Carlos Wilton, April 8, 2012; Easter, Year B; Mark 16:1-8
“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene,
and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought
spices, so that they might go and anoint him.”
After the long weeks of Lenten reflection and penitence, the great day is here at last: the festival day of all festival days, the day of resurrection!
The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!
Behind me you can see the wall of flowers donated in memory of, or in honor of, loved ones. I’ll tell you, it’s a good thing I’m not allergic to flowers! I do know some ministers who are. They have to arm themselves with an arsenal of antihistamines just to step up to the pulpit and preach their Easter sermon.
What you really notice up here on Easter Day – and maybe you do at your distance, as well – is the aroma of the flowers. Gather this many live, flowering plants in one place, and the effect is overwhelming: a great, big, fragrant reminder of the new life that returns to the earth every spring. Far more importantly, though, the smell of flowers reminds us – God’s people – of new life in Jesus Christ!
It’s one of the few times in the Christian year when the sense of smell is enlisted to enhance the worship experience – and I love it!
You may have noticed, at the start of today’s New Testament lesson – though it went by pretty fast – the mention of something that affects the sense of smell: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” A sad duty – just about the saddest you could imagine. Jesus, the teacher and dear friend of these disciples, has died, and they must go and “anoint” his body.
Now, this is stuff from an earlier age and a culture far removed from our own, so I’ve got to explain a few things. Jesus was nailed to the cross just hours before the Jewish Sabbath began. He died sooner than anyone predicted. Usually, it took days for a criminal to die on a cross, from dehydration and – in the final hours, as the weary muscles of the diaphragm can no longer inflate the lungs – of suffocation. In Jesus’ case, the Romans used nails rather than rope – an especially cruel variation. They also pierced him in the side with a spear. Those wounds produced a massive loss of blood that hastened his demise.
When Jesus’ few remaining followers – mostly that small knot of faithful women – realized Jesus was going to die within hours, not days, they were thrown into a whirlwind of anguished decision-making. They knew that, at sunset that day, the Sabbath would begin. Nobody would be permitted, on the Sabbath, to do the work of taking his body down from the cross and transporting it to the tomb.
After Jesus uttered his final cry of agony and died, these women had a narrow window of time to do what had to be done.
They laid him in a borrowed tomb that had been offered, for temporary use, by one Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Jesus who was a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious council. It was Joseph’s own personal tomb, the place where his own body would one day lie. We don’t know if using Joseph’s tomb was the plan all along, or whether it was a last-minute act of compassion on his part. Whatever the case, in offering his tomb, Joseph saved the day. What’s more, as Mark tells the tale, he did an incredibly bold thing. As soon as Jesus died, he went directly to the palace of the Governor, Pontius Pilate himself. and demanded an audience. Joseph asked Pilate if he could have the privilege of claiming the body of the Nazarene rabbi.
Pilate was amazed Jesus had died so quickly. He sent a detachment of soldiers to make sure he really was dead. Having confirmed that he was, Pilate gave his permission. Now only a man like Joseph of Arimathea – who had such high standing in the Jewish community – could have squeezed such a concession out of Pilate. (God knows what sort of quid pro quo he had to offer in return – maybe a bribe, or at the very least, a promise to do something for the Governor in return.)
Without the quick-thinking Joseph, Jesus’ corpse would have hung on the cross for at least another day, subject to decomposition, and attacks by birds of prey. Sometimes the Romans even let the bodies of crucified criminals hang there for weeks, a gruesome reminder of the cost of resisting Imperial Rome. For Jews, who believed in a bodily resurrection at the time of the Messiah’s return, such desecration of the body added insult to what was already deep injury.
After obtaining the Governor’s permission, Joseph raced back to Skull Hill – Golgotha – himself. Then, mobilizing whatever helpers he could summon on the spot, he took Jesus’ body down from the cross and carried it, perhaps on the back of a mule, to his own, newly carved-out tomb. There was no time for anything more. The sun was about to set. Further burial preparations would have to wait till the Sabbath was ended, at sundown the following day. Joseph personally saw that the heavy stone was rolled back in place, in front of the tomb door – mostly to prevent wild animals from getting in and desecrating the body.
Twenty-four hours later, when the Sabbath was finally ended, it was already dark. No one could imagine venturing into the even deeper darkness of a rock-carved tomb and anointing the body. It would have been a ghastly scene to try to do such a thing by the flickering light of oil lamps. So, when the women show up at the break of dawn with their bundle of burial-spices, it’s their earliest opportunity to do what has to be done with the body of their Lord and Master.
And what is it they’re about to do? Scripture says they intend to “anoint” the body. What this means is that, first, they’re going to bathe the corpse as best they can, after which they’re going to take jugs of olive oil, in which large quantities of fragrant spices have been marinating, and rub that aromatic mixture all over him. Then, they will wrap the body tightly, head to toe, in bands of cloth.
This, as you well can imagine, is not a pleasant task. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a job for those who loved the deceased person best. Not only that, as far as the Law is concerned, performing this service will render the women ritually unclean. Before they can enter a synagogue again, each of them will have to undergo a lengthy purification ritual.
Yet, it’s even worse than that. Jesus had died a violent death. His body, with its open wounds, is – as far as they know – still covered with sweat and dried blood. The passage of twenty-four hours, with no steps having been taken to preserve the corpse, means the natural processes of decay are already well under way.
What’s more, the women are well aware that this is a borrowed tomb. They know Jesus’ body will have to be moved again, probably in a matter of days. So, their work takes on added urgency. They’ve got to do this grisly work thoroughly and well.
Bottom line: this is a desperate triage operation. the postponed second half of what should have been done immediately, on the day of Jesus’ death – were it not for the Sabbath. The immediate goal, for the bereaved women, is to find someone to move the stone for them, then to go in there with their faces muffled in cloth against the stench, bathe and oil the body, then wrap it in strips of cloth they have soaked in that same aromatic oil. On a very practical level, their mission is simple: cover up the aroma of death with the strongest, most pungent scented oil they can find.
Now, I realize some of you may be squirming a bit at the earthy, even grisly details I’ve just related. Maybe you’ve listened to the Easter story, year after year, without ever paying much attention to what it really means to anoint a body for burial, in a hot climate, with no refrigeration, more than a day and a half after the death took place. Yet, you need to know these stark details, I think – not only because they’re part of Mark’s Gospel story, but because they speak to the state of mind of the two Marys and Salome: their courage and determination in performing this unpleasant service for one they deeply love.
They’re fighting a losing battle – a desperate, rear-guard action – and they know it. The force of death is so terribly strong in this world, so seemingly invincible. In the case of their beloved Master – as far as they know – the battle has already been lost. Surely by now he has crossed over the boundary from the land of the living to the land of the dead: that journey whose one-way ticket is always free, and from which there is no return.
There’s another reason I think it’s important to picture the details of this scene: because it runs parallel to so many other situations you and I may encounter, in this sometimes-troubled life of ours.
The phone rings in the middle of the night. A family member has died. If the news comes unexpectedly, it hits especially hard – although, even in those cases when the obituary’s already written and contains the phrase, “after a long illness,” when that moment comes, the message is still terribly difficult to hear.
Next morning, the response-machine’s engine coughs reluctantly into life. Those who have done this before know exactly what to do – and those have not get a quick lesson from those who have. The people closest to the deceased go about the usual business of phoning the more distant relations, visiting the funeral home, planning the service, arranging for food for the reception, and assembling photos to transform a big, blank piece of poster-board into the story of a life.
There may be brief flashes of joy in the midst of this sad time, as precious memories are shared or funny stories told, but overall the feeling is that of a great and ponderous weight that must be borne. Like the stone blocking the entrance to Jesus’ tomb, that emotional weight is simply too heavy to be moved (at least not by any one person).
There are other kinds of griefs and losses, as well: the loss of a livelihood, the fracturing of a marriage, a diagnosis of chronic illness, a permanent falling-out between friends or family members – the list goes on and on. Even without a literal corpse to attend to, these losses, too, leave their dried-out shells behind: reminding us that, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:11, “While we live, we are always being given up to death…”
And what, typically, is our response? Why, we can only do as the two Marys and Salome resolved to do. We assemble our little bundles of spices in the pre-dawn darkness; we make our way wearily down to the tomb. We know what to expect – for what could be more sadly inevitable, what pattern more long-established, extending back to before the dawn of history? Upon gaining entrance to the place where hopes and dreams are entombed, we do whatever we can with the scented oil and the spices, rubbing our glistening hands over cold, rigid flesh, massaging muscles that will never move again, trying to mask the pervasive stench of death with another, more pungent aroma.
It’s a battle we know we can never win – although possibly we may gain some small bit of ground back from our adversary. And we will know – as they surely did – that one day, it will be our own body laid out upon the slab, and other hands doing for us the work that love demands.
Well, what a sad and tragic story this would be, were it to end there! But, as we all know, there’s more to come – much more!
Mark spills out the news with growing enthusiasm and wonder. The women arrive, and find the stone rolled away. There is no body to anoint; the tomb is empty. Says a mysterious young man in dazzling white, in a clear and achingly beautiful voice: “He is not here, he is risen. Go tell the others: he is on his way to Galilee. Go and meet him there!”
Mark ends his resurrection story on a chilling note:
“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them: and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
So shocking, so disruptive of the natural order is this news of resurrection, that Jesus’ disciples have to take some time to sort it all out. The news that their Lord and Master has been raised to new life is better news than they had ever thought possible. Yet, it’s also frightening news – for, if the familiar power of death is now vanquished, what will take its place?
That verse is also where Mark ends his Gospel. His readers know, of course, that the paralysis of fear is only temporary. Those first disciples will recover their courage in time, they will soon meet the risen Jesus, and in time, they’ll learn how to testify to the good news with eloquence and power. Maybe that hanging ending is there for our benefit: for it leads us to reflect on the occasions when we, too, “say nothing to anyone, for we are afraid.”
I said this is where Mark ends his Gospel – although if you turn the end of his book, you’ll see not one, but two different epilogues. These were almost certainly added by someone else, years later. (They’re not found in the earliest manuscripts of Mark, which is how the scholars know they’re later additions.) Those epilogues – known as the Shorter and Longer Endings of Mark – tell of encounters with the risen Christ, as the other Gospels do.
But let us now return to the three women, the two Marys and Salome, who have just heard the angel’s message. They look at one another in utter astonishment. Then, they drop their bundles of spices beside the pathway. What use are they now? Not only is there no body to anoint, there is no death. Not any longer. For Jesus, their beloved Lord and Master, there is only life: life raised up, life restored – and, as they will soon learn from his own lips, as they meet him, face to face – life eternal!
Their walk back is surely very different from their walk down to the tomb. The sun is out now, beaming bright. The grass is greener than ever they remember. The flowers are more beautiful, and all around them, wafted on a gentle Spring breeze, they smell it: the aroma of life!
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.