They Just Went to Anoint Him
April 08, 2012
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. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 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.
Here we are. It’s Easter, the big mother of all Christian holidays. He is risen! Resurrected from the dead! Christ has triumphed over death and sin and evil and darkness, once and for all! Easter is glorious, alive, the pink-and-purple holiday. All over the world, churches are filled to overflowing with people in new clothes and hats, singing “Alleluia.”
My journey to Easter started the day after Election Day. I expended a lot of energy hoping my candidate would win, addicted to CNN, feeling so hopeful for a country I truly love, for ideals I had almost written off. The day after Obama won, I had to ground myself. I planted bulbs. And I thought a lot about the people on Palm Sunday, relieved that their guy had ridden into Jerusalem: now people with our values are going to be in power, now we’ve kicked those Romans out, and our guy is going to rule, and we’ll get our nation back. Oh, we know how that story ends, a week later.
And so I dug and planted, thinking about the dreams of those poor Palm Sunday crowds whose Great Hope got crucified, and thinking maybe there’s hope for America and for our little planet yet, as I stuck these ugly little onion-y things into cold mud on a gray day. My friend the Catholic priest says, “The older I get, the more I’m convinced that of all the virtues to cultivate, hope is the most important one.” It felt good. It brought me back down to earth after the roller coaster of the election year.
So here we are at Easter, the holiday where we celebrate the fulfillment of hope, the emergence of light from darkness. Someone said, “Give us a message about renewal.” You’ve got bulbs, trees leafing out, people in T-shirts; the earth greens up once again. Some of you are preparing gardens. The days are longer. If you haven’t gotten the renewal message by now, no theological message from me is going to do it for you. Besides, renewal is experience—something that you know in your bones, not something I can tell you about. First the experience, then the song/dance/ art, then the explanations.
If you look at the story of Easter in all the gospels, it isn’t really about glorious triumph and the day when all hope is fulfilled. The gospels do not reflect this ultimate theological pinnacle that Easter has become. Swedenborgians explain Easter as a celebration of the cosmic fusion of divine and human energies, something that transformed what it means to life a life in this world. We don’t agree with other Christians who explain that God sent Jesus to die so that our sins would be wiped clean. We’ve woven explanations to make sense of a baffling, grievous, amazing experience of people who had just lost an inspirational teacher and friend whose very presence transformed them.
All the gospel stories are different, and none really has all the details that have come to be attached to the Easter story over the years. Mark is the earliest gospel, which leaves about thirty years between Jesus’ death and the first account of it. I don’t think it’s just the CNN addict in me that would expect stories to emerge more quickly from such a momentous experience.
The whole story leading up to the Resurrection— who is there, what they find, what is in the tomb— is sketchy and inconsistent across the gospels. Did they find two angels (John), or a boy dressed in white (Mark)? Who was even there? Was it Mary Magdalene (John), or all the women who were with Jesus (Luke), or Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and Salome (Mark), or just two Marys? No self-respecting myth starts out, “Once upon a time, there were these two women, or maybe it was a group of women, or it could have been three women, or maybe it was just this one lady who ran to find these other guys…”
The gospel writers have completely different takes on what happened that we now celebrate as Easter:
John (90 AD): Jesus is standing in the tomb, looking like the gardener, then appears to the disciples who were hiding behind closed doors, lets Doubting Thomas touch him, does some miracles, breathes on everybody, and instructs them, “Feed my sheep.”
Luke (70 AD): Jesus appears on the road to Emmaus, walks with the disciples, goes unrecognized until he has a fish sandwich, then blesses everybody.
Matthew (50 AD): Jesus meets the women as they are en route from the tomb to tell everybody, and then commissions them to spread the word.
Mark (30 AD): The earliest gospel, the original one, has no resurrection story. Mark has no Easter. The women go to anoint Jesus, find the tomb empty, and run away in fear. The end.
As I read through all of the Easter stories, trying to remember why we make such a big deal out of Easter, there was an image that stuck out for me: women going to the tomb of their friend to anoint him for burial, according to Jewish tradition. Even today, groups of Jewish women (chevra kadisha) do an extensive ritual funeral preparation (taharah). This prayerful ritual of washing and preparation for burial is as old as Moses and was probably what the women had in mind when they went to the tomb. They loved Jesus. He had been their friend. He had recognized them in a way that society did not, affirming their humanity, their wholeness—not just their value as procreators or strategic marriage targets. And they stood there and watched him get executed. They just wanted to give him the dignity and decency of the traditional ritual of their faith. This is a powerful ritual.
My friend Henry is a Holocaust survivor. He’s so old you can’t even read the number tattooed on his arm anymore. We’re losing those people, that witness. Henry lost his wife, his beloved Rose. He was so unable to face her death (which was not sudden, believe me) that he hadn’t talked to anyone about final arrangements. His daughter figured they’d just have her cremated; isn’t that what people do? We found a rabbi who offered his chevra kadisha to do the taharah. At the graveside, the rabbi spoke of how Rose was anointed the way her Bubbie and Tzadie had been anointed, and their grandparents before them, and so on, back to Moses. The Holocaust had disrupted that tradition in Henry’s family, and burying Rose in a traditional Orthodox ceremony, with the ritual preparation, had restored something: it kept an order—in Henry’s life, in history.
This idea is at the heart of the Easter story. Women who loved Jesus, even when their hopes in what he might accomplish had been killed, even when it was dangerous to be associated with him. Love that is greater than expectations. Faith that is bigger than grief. These women came to anoint him because they loved him, not because they thought there would be a resurrection in clouds and glory. Easter is about the love and faith that see us through when hopes crumble and grief seems insurmountable.
I want to close with some words from author Molly Fumia:
“Resurrection. The reversal of what was thought to be absolute. The turning of midnight into dawn, hatred into love, dying into living anew. If we look more closely into life, we will find that resurrection is more than hope; it is our experience. The return to life from death is something we understand at our innermost depths, something we feel on the surface of our tender skin. We have come back to life not only when we start to shake off a shroud of sorrow that has bound us, but when we begin to believe in all that is still endlessly possible. We give thanks for all those times we have arisen from the depths or simply taken a tiny step toward something new. May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances. And as we enter the world anew, let us turn the tides of despair into endless waves of hope.”
Hava nashira, shir alleluia—Let us sing, let us sing alleluia.
Christ is risen from the dead: trampling down death by death; and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
Though thou didst go down into the grave, O Immortal One, yet thou didst put down the power of Hades and didst rise a consqueror, O Christ our God: thou spakest clearly to the myrrh-bearing women, “Rejoice!”; thou didst bestow peace upon thine apostles, and to the fallen hast thou brought resurrection.
- Orthodox Rite
Rev. Kathy Speas