The Unused Myrrh

All night long the women had been coming to the house. Almost from the moment that the sun had set on the Sabbath, they had left their homes and had crept through the darkness, some in small groups and some singly, keeping to the shadows so as not to be seen. It had been dangerous for them to come – Jerusalem was under curfew and the streets were full of Roman soldiers – but in spite of the danger, the women came. They could not keep away.
They had gathered in the lower room of the house. The room was full of women, but it was very quiet, the silence broken only by occasional muffled sobbing.
Mary sat alone in a corner of the room. None of the other women had come to sit near her. Her grief seemed to make her untouchable. As if she were trapped in a shell of anguish that no one could break through.
Her son was dead.
He had been killed.
It was beyond imagining. It was unbearable. They had killed her son. Killed him like a criminal. He, who should have been their king, the Messiah sent to save them all. Just days before, the people had hailed him as their Messiah. As their king. And then they had called for his death. She closed her eyes, but quickly opened them again when images of his body as it had looked, hanging on the cross, flashed across her mind.
A slightly louder sob from across the room caught her attention. Joanna and Salome were holding each other, trying to comfort each other as best they could. The other Mary – the one they called the Magdalene – was also sitting across the room. Even though Joanna and Salome were sitting near her, she also seemed to be locked in a small pocket of isolation, separate from the other women in the room. Out of all of the women there, only Mary and the Magdalene were not crying; Mary knew it was because their grief was too deep and too great for tears.
All of these women had followed her son – they had loved and respected him like they loved and respected no other. Many of these same women had left everything that they had ever known – given up their homes and the safety of their families – just to follow her son and to serve him. And he had treasured their service to him. He had treated them with respect and love and had let them follow him and hear his teachings, just as if they were as equal as the men who followed him. Mary had often felt that that alone would have been enough to inspire the women to follow him as they had. Women were considered to be inferior and unworthy. No other Rabbi would even think of allowing women to learn from him as her son had done.
Her son had been different. He had spoken of a world where the strong shall be weak and the weak shall be strong, a world where the slave shall be free and the poor shall be rich and where all would be equal. Mary had believed completely in the kingdom he would set up. She had known that her son had come to change the world.
But now he was dead – dead and gone, his promised kingdom faded like mist in the heat of the day. What would become of them all now?
The women were not alone in the house. The men, the ones who had followed the Rabbi so boldly just days before, were gathered in the upper room hiding behind shuttered windows, terrified that at any moment there would be pounding on the door and soldiers to take them away.
The women didn’t seem to care if anyone came for them. They had continued to come to the house through the night, not caring if they were seen gathering. Besides, no one ever really cared about women gathering together. It never mattered to anyone what women did.
As they had come to the house, the women had brought with them strange tales of unexplainable events that had been happening since her son’s death. Mary herself had seen the sky turn dark as night and had felt the ground tremble as her son had died. She could hear whispers from the women huddled together in the room, whispers about grave stones splitting open and the dead walking into the city.
One of the last women to arrive was Hannah, a maid in the High Priest’s house. She had said that the High Priest had had to be carried home from the Temple, almost dead from fear. He had been babbling unintelligibly; the few words that they could understand were that the Temple veil had been ripped in two before his eyes by some unseen hand.
Mary barely heard the whispers. Her mind was too full. As numb as she was inside, there were still preparations to be made. The women had come to the house to sit Shiva with her, but Shiva couldn’t begin until the burial was finished. When they had taken her son from the cross, it had been so close to sundown that they had had to place his body in the tomb without any of the necessary burial preparations.
Mary knew that the Magdalene and some of the other women were planning to go to the tomb to anoint his body. They were just waiting for the morning. Some of the women had brought fine herbs and clean linen to wrap the body and the Magdalene had already filled pitchers of water for the women to carry with them to the tomb.
She carefully unwrapped the alabaster jar from the cloak she had covered it with; it wouldn’t do to show that she had carried something so precious with her through the city.
She held the jar of myrrh in her hands, lost in memory. The alabaster always felt cool to the touch no matter how hot the day was. She could remember, as if it were just yesterday, the day the magi had come to visit them. The magi had stood crowded into the little courtyard of the house they were living in. It had seemed as if she had looked up from her spinning and they had suddenly appeared before her.
The gold and frankincense the magi had given were long gone, used to pay for their return home from Egypt. But the myrrh had never been used. Myrrh was precious, an incense used for the burials of kings. It had felt unlucky to sell it to pay for everyday expenses. When her husband had died, her children had suggested that it be used for his burial. She had loved her husband very much, but she had not felt that it would be right to use the myrrh for his burial. She had felt that it was still too precious to be used.
Now she knew why she had kept the myrrh all this time, what it had been meant for. The magi had called her son a king. She would use the myrrh to bury him as a king should be buried. He might be buried in a borrowed tomb, but he would have a king’s burial.
The Magdalene and the others quietly left the house just before daybreak. None of the men had offered to go with the women to the tomb. The tomb was being guarded by Roman soldiers who were just waiting for any of her son’s followers who might be trying to steal his body away. It didn’t matter that the women would be going alone; it didn’t matter that they would need help moving the stone away from the opening of the tomb. There was no power on earth that could make the men go willingly to what might be their executions.
She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes again. This time she wasn’t tormented by visions of how he had looked at the end. Her mind was flooded with images from his childhood. Images that were bitter as well as sweet, images from the time before he had gone out into the world, when he had just been hers.
She saw him as a baby and the way he had looked on the night he was born, a tiny, squalling, little red creature, but still the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in all her life. Rocking him to sleep, his tiny hand curled around her finger. She saw him as a small child, taking his first steps and the look of wonder on his little face as he watched the clouds racing across the sky. She saw him as an older boy, playing with his brothers and sisters. She remembered the day her youngest daughter had run to him, an injured bird in her hands, asking her big brother to ‘fix it’ just as he had fixed her broken doll for her the day before. Her daughter had believed that he could fix it; she had always believed that he could do anything. Mary had wondered how her son would explain to his sister that a bird was a different thing from a doll. But he had held the bird in his hands and the bird had flown away. Healed.
Mary did not know how it was that these miracles had seemed so normal to her at the time. Maybe because he had always done such things. They were as much a part of him as his kind, dark eyes were. It was how she knew that he could help with the wine at the wedding. And when she had heard the stories of the greater miracles he had performed, they had not surprised her, either. She had been told by the angel that her son was the Messiah. It was fitting that the Messiah be able to work miracles.
But it hadn’t made sense that the Messiah would die. How could the death of the Messiah ever help his people? How could his death bring them their freedom?
The sound of pounding feet across the floor overhead woke her. Dimly, she could hear shouting coming from above. The other women were looking up at the ceiling, trying to see what all the noise was about. One of the women went to the door and then ducked back inside quickly, as someone raced past her down the stairs from the room above.
She could hear the men shouting at each other, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. Some of the women were huddled together in fear as the sound of running feet pounded overhead. She could hear their whispers; the Romans must have come for them!
Mary closed her eyes again. What did it matter if they had come? They had already killed her son. What could they do to her now?
“Mary.” She opened her eyes at the sound of her name. The Magdalene was standing in the doorway. Her dress and her veil were dusty; her face was covered in dirt and one of her sandals had torn. She was out of breath. Mary realized that she had been running.
Her face was lit up with joy.
The Magdalene knelt before her and thrust the jar into her hands. Mary could see that tears had made tracks through the dirt on her face. Funny how grief had not made her weep, but joy had.
“The stone was rolled away...” The Magdalene was still trying to catch her breath. “There were angels…” Mary was not surprised. There had been angels at his birth… “He is risen.”
Mary stood slowly. She realized that she was holding the jar of myrrh tightly in her hands. The alabaster was still cool, even though the Magdalene had been holding it so tightly as she ran back to tell them the news. Mary twisted off the lid of the jar, breaking the seal. The smell of the incense filled the room.
The jar was full. It would always be full. The risen Messiah would have no need of it…