April 8, 2012 Mark 16:1-8
I had never really thought about a detail in the Easter story until an insightful preaching teacher, William Willimon, pointed it out. Mark writes that three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, all followers of Jesus, come to his tomb in the darkness on Easter morning to dress his body with spices.
The role of the women seems to have usurped the role of the disciples who have all fled. These women bring spices to the dead body. The women are trying to put a better face on the terrible events of the preceding days. They are trying to keep alive a memory of Jesus in the face of something so final. In their grief, his body, torn as it is, still possesses them.
Jerusalemin April is already getting hot during the day. A body begins to rapidly decay in the heat and to stink.
Of course, it was the days before refrigeration or embalming and the chemical process to slow the natural process of decay. The practice then was to cover the body with sweet smelling spices. We get our custom of bringing flowers at the time of death, not just to look pretty but to sweeten the odor of death. This was the function of the spices.
On Good Friday there was a public spectacle. A loving, welcoming, healing, forgiving man named Jesus was brutally tortured to death by crucifixion. There were many crucifixions of Jews in those days under the oppressive Roman regime. These crucifixions were designed to intimidate any potential opposition to Roman occupation. And Jesus was intimidating to the authorities by healing on the Sabbath, forgiving sins, and cleansing theTemple. The Roman authorities silenced him by executing him.
Somehow in the midst of this horrible event, the handfuls of sweet smelling spices seems terribly inadequate, even futile. Still in the face of death the women are doing what they can. For these three women the spices represent the depths of their grief. They loved Jesus and now he is dead. They dared to hope and now the object of their hope has been tortured and executed.
They were trying to put a good face on their terrible loss. Don’t we try and put a good face on death too? Look at what well meaning friends say to us at the time of death of a loved one. “He has gone on to a better place”. Or “She will live on in your memories. “ But when we love someone, we don’t want them to leave us, even though we know that where they are going may be better. And though we have wonderful memories, we want them with us in person.
These three women who come to Jesus’ tomb want Jesus with them. They do what they can by bringing spices. It is at least something.
When we receive the phone call that someone we love has died, we naturally want to do something. We get out our pots and pans and make a pie or cookies or a casserole or soup. It’s like the spices. It’s not going to change anything but it is something.
The women go out to the tomb with the best they can do, paying their last respects with a couple handfuls of spices. And when they arrive, to their amazement, they are told by a man in a white robe, an angel? that Jesus is not here. He has been raised.
The women have never heard of such a thing. What does this mean? Isn’t death final?
We may have had successes or failures through our life. But we will never successfully overcome this problem of death. We can try but we can’t pretty up the grim reality of death.
Here is the good news. We don’t have to. We can bring the pie and casserole, the cookies and soup and we can offer words of consolation, and we can bring spices. In the end we fall into the everlasting arms of our loving God. We find ourselves totally dependent and vulnerable. We reach out empty-handed, asking God to triumph in a way we cannot. He is risen!
I don’t know what the women did with those sweet smelling spices. They were out of there, so afraid were they. Maybe in their fear they just dropped the spices when they started running.
Now we might think they should have been joyful about Jesus’ resurrection, hearing that they would find him inGalilee. But Mark says they were frightened. And that is how the original version of the gospel of Mark ends, with the women frightened.
It is frightening to expect to see a body and instead to see an angel. It is frightening, come to think of it, to know that we human beings are inadequate in the face of death, to realize how finite and mortal we are, how utterly dependent on God we are.
Instead we fall into the arms of an everlasting God. God does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. God does something about our death problem. God triumphs over death and so do we.
So whether you are filled with fear, doubt, joy, you can drop what you are doing and run and tell the Easter message, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”