The best thing to do on days when the sun barely peaks through is to look up. Clouds may cover the sky, but they are not the thick, grey blanket that blots out everything; they have edges and shapes, and the sunlight outlines them in dramatic ways, painting a skyscape of grey, yellow and white. Sometimes huge masses of woolly whiteness are outlined, and then ten minutes later it has all broken up into a hundred pieces, each caught in the glare of the light behind them. Occasionally that light shines through, a scattering of yellow beams high in the sky, or suddenly picking out features on the ground for a few fleeting seconds before being swallowed up by the changing features overhead. This is most dramatic when viewed against distant hills or mountains – the weather in the Lake District is often wet but never boring. Today we must content ourselves with the skyline wherever we live, but don’t miss out on it, nevertheless. God’s creation is full of variety.
Today’s plant is not really a plant at all, or rather it is the product of a plant. The plant in question is a rare tree called Commiphora myrrha, or the Myrrh tree. It is only found in the Arabian Peninsula and in parts of East Africa, and is rather thorny.
Slits are made in the bark of this tree and the resin is collected before it quickly hardens into a substance that we know as myrrh. It is used in many ways, including as a perfume, incense and in medicine.
We are familiar with myrrh from various passages in the Bible. It was used to mix the anointing oil for the tabernacle and all of its furniture in Exodus 23, and was considered to be a sacred mixture, not to be used on anything that was not holy, on pain of expulsion from the community of Israel. It was also used in beauty treatments, appearing seven times in the Song of Solomon.
Most famously, it appears twice in the life of Jesus. One of the Magi’s gifts was of myrrh, giving us an indication that its value was extremely high (possibly more than the gold itself). These three gifts speak about the baby Jesus in prophetic ways. The gold points to His kingship, as gold was a worthy gift for a king. The frankincense was used to make incense which was offered to the ancient gods are part of worship, and therefore can be seen as acknowledging Jesus’ deity. But the myrrh is more unusual, because another of its uses was to embalm dead bodies – a strange gift to a baby! Perhaps the Magi also understood something of Jesus’ deeper mission here on earth.
The second use of myrrh in Jesus’ story comes at precisely that point; when He is being prepared for burial, see John 19:39. The mixture of myrrh and aloes was spread in with the burial clothes in order to harden the wrappings and therefore to contain as much of the rotting flesh as possible, as well as to minimise the smell of decomposition. In a hot climate such as Israel, bodies started to decompose very quickly, so they were put into caves or carved-out tombs (sepulchres) so that the process could take place out of the way of people. Then the bones were gathered up and placed in a ‘bone chamber’ or carried away in jars, thus making room for the next dead body in the cave. These caves often had a little ‘window’ to allow the odours to escape, and a large round stone as a heavy doorway which was painted white to warn people to stay away (Leviticus 21:11, Matthew 23:27).
There is a third reference to myrrh in Jesus’ life, far less well known. Mark tells us that the soldiers who crucified Jesus offered Him wine mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:23); here the myrrh was used to deaden the pain. Jesus refused it.
The same theme of death should run through the life of every Christian. Our walk is one of crucifixion of the ‘old man’, of death-to-self and of service to others. Perhaps myrrh should be a gift to every new believer to remind them of that.