The Spices of Life Nothing can carry us to the crucifixion and resurrection faster than the fragrance of frankincense. While some of the story gets lost through time, and translation, the truth of the spices and oils never waivers. The spiced oils and their descendants are witnesses to what transpired in the days that followed the crucifixion. They have not changed since the writing of this text. They carry the sweet truth and show us how Jesus was buried 2000 years ago. He was buried according to the customs that used spices and oils extravagantly. Aloe (sandalwood) and olive oil are used as the base and then spiced with aromatic scents like bay leaves, spikenard (or its cousin lavender), rosemary, sage, and myrrh. These are the agents that were used for healing a body from its creation until its return to the earth.
In John’s Gospel, it is recorded that Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and sandalwood weighing a hundred pounds to anoint the body of Jesus. That is an enormous amount of oil. In what is surely one of the most intimate and loving acts in the gospel, Nicodemus anoints Jesus’ body with the spices and oils and wraps him in a cloth. In Mark’s gospel the body of Jesus had not be anointed when it was laid in the tomb because the body was hastily wrapped after Pilate granted Joseph permission to take it. Mary Magdalene; Mary, the Mother of James and Joses; and Salome were all at the foot of the cross. They watched as Joseph took Jesus down and saw where he laid him in a tomb hewn from rock. The women had all cared for Jesus while he was in Galilee and they want to give him a proper burial. So as soon as Passover ended they risked their safety and went back to the tomb laden with spices and oils to anoint his body. They went grieving, as faithful women, fully expecting a body. They were taken completely by surprise as a young angel preached resurrection. They left, in terror and awe, still clutching the spices oils.
Resurrection always comes as a surprise in the midst of death. We are like the women in Mark’s Gospel, faithful and fearful when we meet death. We meet death heavy laden with grief that feels like a hundred pounds of oil on our chests. This community met death on the first morning of our annual pilgrimage to Ecuador this year, when we received a call that Michael Pontes had died. It was a tragic ending to a beautiful life. Michael had talked about his glimmers of faith and love, but wrote before he died that he didn’t hold out much hope. It made those of us who loved him walk around heavy with our own grieving oils.
The next three days in Ecuador were a whirlwind of activity and we set all our Michael thoughts aside as we opened the hot make-shift clinic and hundreds and hundreds of people came for healing and community. At the very end of the second day, just as everyone was closing up, a young woman came in and said she needed a doctor. The translator saw in the mother’s eyes that ancient look of desperation and fear that hasn’t changed any more than the fragrance of oil. So the translator quickly called the doctors and nurse practitioners and three-week-old baby, Luis Santiago, ashen and non-responsive, was carried in by the aunt. Immediately a circle formed and hovered over the baby. It felt like the air was sucked out of the clinic for several minutes as life and death hung in the balance. The circle opened as they cleared the airway a fraction and the baby was breathing a tiny bit more. The group prepared quickly to take the momma and baby to the hospital 30 minutes away. The young mom was scared, so I stood next to her and said a quick prayer, marked the baby with a sign of the cross, and without forethought, prayed, “Come on, Michael, and help this baby out.”
I prayed to Michael, and everything flipped in an instant. Before Michael died, if he had been with me in Ecuador, he would have asked a whole bunch of questions; Why would God let a baby suffer? Does God really love us? How does prayer help? Do I really believe in resurrection? And all of a sudden I was turning to him for comfort and blessing. I was the one scared and lost because this baby might die. What was the most surprising to me in that instant of prayer was that beyond his doubts or my worries, I could feel him close, like a young man in a tomb whispering resurrection in the face of death. It’s hard to believe in resurrection. It’s hard when we cross through wilderness and are a bit bruised by thorns that caught us on the way. It leaves us grieving and clutching oils.
Hours later we were all sitting in the dark outside, waiting for the nurse practitioners to come back with the news about baby Luis. Finally we heard the truck as it pulled up to the gate. The truck starting beeping its horns and flashing it lights; blinding us and telling us it was time to celebrate, the baby lived. Everyone cheered. We cheered for life, for the nurses, and that we had witnessed a baby’s resurrection. I cheered because praying to Michael was a sign. A sign that even in the wake of deaths that cast a huge pall and pack a heart-breaking sting, resurrection surprises us. On the night the baby’s life hung in the balance, it was the angel Michael I prayed to without hesitation. Resurrection transforms everything, fear, tombs, and even the spices and oils. Oils for the dead became the fragrance of life.
Michael Pontes and the baby were connected for a moment in a universe of 7 billion people where death is overpowered by the fragrance of love that never waivers, no matter how shaky we may feel. The hope of resurrection comes as a joyful surprise. With Easter comes the most hopeful signs of life in the world. These spices donning the altar are fragrant gifts to anoint the dead, and these very spices are transformed into signs of life; signs that all things are transformed in love. So we are taking these oils and spices from this altar to the new still at Thistle Farms, dedicated to Joanne Cato. Then for the next two days Jennifer, Jim, and volunteers will take these sacred spices and distill them for healing. Today we celebrate the oils as a sign of life that carries us all the way to the eternal side of time. We can doubt so much about our life and faith, but let these oils be a sign that we never have to waiver in our hope. In Mark’s Gospel, it is love itself that speaks the last word. The women leave speechless and transformed. Resurrection fills the very air with a fragrance that allows us to walk in hope all the days of our life and even on the last day, when we make the grave our bed, to sing. “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”