"Preparing the Spices" -- "Some Women of our Group Astounded us"
Hespeler, 27 March, 2016 © Scott McAndless – Easter
Luke 23:50-24:3, Luke 24:13-32, Psalm 118:1, 2, 14-24
ary Magdalene opened the package of spices and ointments that Joanna had brought back from the market and inhaled deeply. She was suddenly overwhelmed by the scents: cinnamon, cassia, balsam and resin. She could even smell the small amounts of frankincense and myrrh that her dear friend, Joanna, had only been able to afford by selling the very last pieces of jewellery that she had plundered from her abusive husband, Chuza, when she had fled his household to follow Jesus.
It smelled beautiful, but it was also emotionally dangerous for her. Smell is a powerful trigger for the memory. The part of your brain that processes olfactory information is only separated by a few synapses from your amygdala which is the part of your brain where your most powerful and emotionally charged memories are stored. That is why sometimes just getting a whiff of some scent that is connected to your past can transport you back to events that you may have thought you had completely forgotten.
And there was no question that the smells of these spices and resins were connected to many traumatic memories in the lives of all the women who were there in that room. Mary herself was instantly transported back to the day when her intended husband was drowned while fishing on the Sea of Galilee. She remembered the deep grief and confusion that she felt as they carried the body of her promised husband to his family tomb outside the town of Magdala. At that moment it had seemed as if her entire life had been over and, in a very real sense it was.
There was a reason why they all reacted so similarly. Women in that culture had very well defined roles and duties around death. When someone died, everyone always automatically looked to the women to do what needed to be done. They sang the laments and songs of grief. They told the story of the person’s life and death. They led the procession to the tomb. Most especially they washed and prepared the body with the traditional mixtures of ointments and spices and wrapped it in the linen cloths.
Everyone (even the men) agreed that men just weren’t any good at that kind of thing. So heavy were the expectations of so-called “manly” behaviour placed upon them that men could not express emotions like grief or sorrow in any sort of helpful way. So it was always left to the women – one of the few places in public life where they were actually allowed to take a leadership role. So they had all done it so many times before.
It was somewhat distressing to the women that they had not been permitted to prepare the body of Jesus for burial – that a man named Joseph, a secret ally on the council – had taken care of it by quickly wrapping the body in linen cloths and stowing it in some tomb that had no connection with Jesus’ family. But there was no helping that. Not only had there been no time to do things properly as the sun was setting and the sabbath was about to begin, the situation was also far too dangerous for any open displays of grief on the day when he was crucified.
But the women were determined that they would do whatever they could to make it right. A lot of people have wondered why the women would have returned to the tomb where Jesus had been laid on the third day and why they would bring with them the spices and ointments that were commonly used to prepare a body before burial when he had already been buried, even if hastily so. It is not as if they could have unburied him in order to do it all over again. Even if it had not been for the large stone covering the tomb and forming an impossible barrier, such an act would have unacceptably disturbed the dead.
But we do know that there was a custom in many ancient Mediterranean societies – and in ancient Palestine as well – of a special visit to the grave that took place on the third day following a death. It was a celebration that was led, like all other activities around death, by women. The mourners would go out to the tomb where a beloved friend or family member had been laid and they would take with them a simple meal: bread, wine, maybe some fish and olive oil. These things would be taken as a special gift to the dead, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising if women were to take as well such things as burial spices and ointments.
But the point of the third day gathering by the tombs was not merely to honour the memory of the dead with gifts. There was a belief, common among many cultures and, the evidence suggests, also among first century Jews, that when they gathered to share this simple kind of meal by the tomb of a beloved friend or family member, the dead would join with them in that meal. This was something that all of the women who followed Jesus from Galilee would have experienced before. They had gone with other women to tombs and experienced the presence of the dead on the third day.
What exactly had they experienced previously, I suspect, would have been something like the kinds of experiences that people still sometimes report to this very day. I have often had people tell me about the ways that they were comforted after losing a loved one – how they just felt the presence of that person watching over them or saw something that confirmed to them that their beloved was still with them in some very important way. These are not unusual experiences. Many have had them following a death. People doubt such experiences, of course, because it is notoriously hard to prove any very personal experience, but many have been greatly comforted by these things that reassured them that their loved ones were still with them.
So it wouldn’t really be that surprising if these women were preparing to go out to the tomb and minister to their dead Lord and friend with an expectation of finding some kind of reassurance of his presence. They packed up the spices and ointments, some bread and wine and the other elements of a simple meal and they waited for the dawning of the third day. But it seems that they were about to get more than they had bargained for.
The women who went out to visit Jesus’ tomb at the dawning of the third day had all experienced grief and loss before. Everyone in that society agreed that grief was women’s work. So it was all so very familiar to them – the feelings, the smells, the songs that they sang and the atmosphere. And, given that human life was cheap in Galilee, they had all doubtlessly lost people that they loved. It had been very personal before.
But this was different. Jesus hadn’t just been a friend or a teacher to them. He had been a reason for them to start to live again. He had given them hope that things could actually be different. And so, as they headed out to the tomb to share a meal there and bring offerings for the dead, they may have expected to experience the presence of their now-dead Lord in the same way that they had experienced it before for their other loved ones, but surely they were hoping for something… more.
Christians believe that they did experience something more than the commonly experienced reassurance of the presence of the dead. What exactly happened to them would be impossible to describe precisely because even the Bible has a hard time pinning it down. There are four different accounts of what those women experienced at the tomb in the Bible and not one of them agrees in all the details with the others. But I don’t necessarily think that that is a problem because what these passages are describing are deeply personal experiences that changed the lives of the women who had them irrevocably. It wasn’t just about what they saw and felt and heard and touched, it was about what all of that meant on a very personal level.
I imagine, though, that they arrived at the tomb and they told, one more time, the story of how he had died and what his death meant, just as it would continue to be told whenever the church gathered in the years to come. And then, as was traditional at these sorts of third day gatherings, they took some bread and they broke it. And how could that not have made them think of him – not only because of the last meal he shared with this disciples but also because of how he loved to gather and eat with all sorts of people and especially with outcasts and sinners and all the other people that everyone else rejected. That act alone must have made it seem as if Jesus was very near.
But there was more to it than that. As they took the bread and shared it, as they drank wine from a common cup, they knew that he was there – not just in their memory (though, of course, he would always be there), not just in spirit as they may have experienced it with others they had lost, he was there in body, in whole person. Most of all, he was there in reality. It was like the realest thing that any of them had ever experienced.
And that experience, my friends, is the basis of our Christian hope. I believe that those women experienced it there outside his tomb on the third day after his death. That was when it all started. That is not to say that they immediately understood everything that they had experienced. I wouldn’t be surprised, in fact, if it took them years to really put it all into words that could even make sense to people. And, of course, it wasn’t just that one time outside his tomb either. None of it would have probably amounted to anything if people had not continued to consistently experience the reality that he was alive.
Each experience of the risen Christ was unique, but clearly one of the ways that people continued to experience him was when they shared these same kinds of simple meals of bread and wine and common foods when they gathered. They were often surprised that he was present in those meals with them just as the women had experienced.
That kind of process is described to us in the story from the Gospel of Luke. It takes place on Easter day when two disciples are walking to Emmaus. They have heard about what the women experienced at the tomb: “Moreover, some women of our group astounded us,” they say. “They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.” They know about what the women experienced, but they don’t seem convinced – not until they experience it for themselves as the stranger with them breaks the bread and shares some wine and they are suddenly part of the same feast that the women shared outside the tomb.
And that is what Easter is really about. It is not just about what they experienced, as real as that was. It is an invitation to all of us to share in that experience together. It is an invitation to share a bit of bread and some wine and to know that this is an event that is not limited to this particular place and time. If you are open to it, it is a meal that can transport you back to the moment when those women gathered on the third day outside his tomb. I pray, and I hope that you join me in this prayer, that at least some of us here today might find some small taste of that in this simple shared meal. That is why we do it.