Lavender and Bread
RZIM’s Jill Carattini wrote this piece for our inaugural Symposium, “The Impetus of Grief”. We gave attendees a printed version, but wanted to share Jill’s powerful words on grief and loss with everyone who couldn’t attend.
“Touch has a memory,” said the poet John Keats. Keats, who stared down the impending loss of his own life: death from tuberculosis at the age of 25; Keats, who fought to hold onto life and its jarring elusive beauty. Keats knew well the touch of a fleeting world of pains and consequences, where heart and body must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways. Yes, touch has a memory.
Smell, too, has a memory, poet Anya Silver would add, her 30-some-year-old body racked with a cancer that will win very soon. And sometimes, too, I spray perfume, she writes. On my son’s sheets, or hold my wrist, To his nose, so that after I’ve died, The smell of vanilla will return me to him—Overcoming, briefly, the foul smell of loss.
The foul smell of loss. Was it this fetid certainty, I wonder, that propelled Mary as she clutched her priceless jar of fragrant nard and ran toward Jesus to seize hold of him before he slipped out her hands like everything else?
What grief comprised the foul smell of loss for her? Was it the loss of dignity, the loss of community, suffered at the easy label of ‘sinful woman’ thrust upon her by the men who saw her as a waste of Jesus’s time? Save for this title, the woman with the jar is unnamed in Luke’s Gospel. But she lived in a culture that would have given her this label as much for moral failure as for miscarriage, for being cast aside by her husband, for being born with the loss of sight.
Or was the foul smell of loss for Mary the anguish of watching her brother die, the vivid memory of praying that help would come only to be given the deafening answer of silence? Did she remember her and Martha’s fear of the foul downwind creep of death—when Jesus asked them to open the tomb of Lazarus, after four, long hot days?
At this feast, the resurrected Lazarus lived to enjoy another meal—one of Mary’s great sorrows had surely been reversed, for now. But there are some losses that cannot and will not be resolved. Was the foul smell of loss for her the intuitive sense that Jesus was just days away from being taken from her forever?
Like each of us, Mary held her potent memories, which filled her head and heart and every crevice in between: intense and intimate layers of grief that could linger and fade and rush back at any moment without warning—the hopeful scent of community and a festive banquet, suddenly mingling with the skulking air of death and despair.
Perhaps it was in one of these jarring moments when Mary retrieved her priceless alabaster jar of pure spikenard, a potent variant of the lavender that fills this very room [at The Symposium]. The contents held within this fragile vessel were so costly they would typically have been saved for only the most sacred of events—a wedding, a funeral. Mary breaks open the jar and pours its fragrant contents out on the feet of Jesus. Shaking loose her hair, a familiar sign of the deepest grief, she mops up tears and fragrance.
Imagine the smell of a pound of the purest perfume in a small and crowded room.
When I travel and have to leave my little boy behind, I bring his shampoo, so I can go about the day, my hair carrying the reminder of one I love so deeply, one I cannot bear to live without.
John tells us that the fragrance filled the entire house. It would have lingered for a time on her hands, in her hair, in the room—and then eventually it would be gone.
It is this fleeting quality that seemed to fill the disciples with disgust and Judas with outrage. They sharply rebuke the woman for wasting this costly ointment, a gesture that, even if theologically and emotionally laden, was at best ephemeral. Their disapproval is given in rational terms, the cacophony of their reaction attempting to drown out her quiet act of attention. “The opposite of beauty is not ugliness,” writes artist Makoto Fujimura. “The opposite of beauty is legalism. Legalism injures by giving pragmatic answers to our suffering.”(3) That bottle would have cost over a year’s wages, they say. This costly perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Their response to her and her act of beauty exposes our grave discomfort with the fleeting, and the false sense of assurance in our legalistic attempts to control what is uncontrollable.
“The opposite of beauty is not ugliness,” writes artist Makoto Fujimura. “The opposite of beauty is legalism. Legalism injures by giving pragmatic answers to our suffering.”
The first time I met an ephemeral artist, whose very medium is the fleeting, I told him there was something about his art that made me profoundly sad—this intense beauty and its jarring, untimely end. He told me that when he first started making ephemeral art and he would hear this comment again and again, he smugly believed it was his gift to a greedy world—possessive and materialistic, where we labor to hold and accumulate even beauty itself, a futile attempt to fool ourselves from facing life’s transience.
But then he started to pay attention to the people who were making the comment again and again, and he realized that they were often people who had been forced to let go of something beautiful in their lives—far too soon. Over the years, he began to see ephemeral art as a gift for people who need to lament, who need permission to admit that life is both beautiful and tragic, intensely full and far too short—people who need help letting go of something lost.
John Keats would most certainly have agreed with this description of life, and yet he shared the disciples’ pragmatic disgust with the fleeting. Keats’s fear was not simply a dread of dying young, but an artist’s dread of dying without leaving behind a name for himself. Heartbroken, frightened, and despairing, he asked his friends to have carved into his gravestone only these words—and not his name: “Herein Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.”
Certainly we have been witnesses to similar testimonies—the cruel stories of names writ most boldly in grief. There have been glimpses of hope to be sure—glimpses of shared tears, of community, of healing, of memory kept alive. Keats’s own prediction of his life fading into oblivion has of course been spectacularly disproven. Even his grave became by the late nineteenth century a destination for literary pilgrims. One of the most famous of these was Oscar Wilde, who on a visit in 1877 prostrated himself across Keats’s grave and proclaimed: “Thy name was writ in water—it shall stand. And tears like mine will keep thy memory green.”
Unmistakably, there is a power in shared tears. There is power in a community that can hold and hope on behalf of another when hope has been extinguished. There is power in collective memory to hold and transform legacy and identity. We all know Keats’ name despite its being writ in water. In a real and mysterious sense, Oscar Wilde is exactly right: This dream/this name/this love/this child may well have been writ in water. But tears like ours will keep thy memory green. But still the question remains for me: Is solidarity in grief, togetherness in the grieving, the best that we can hope for? In the thick of this life, is our greatest comfort the occasional overpowering of the foul scent of loss with the fleeting scent of beauty?
There are certainly elements of these gifts in the story of Mary and Jesus: Jesus gives her room to weep and lament. He stands with her in solidarity. He remains present in her attempt to mark this moment in the way she needs to mark it—to momentarily cover the stench of loss with the aroma of hope and to hold on to him with all that is in her, even as she senses he is slipping through her grasp. Jesus even speaks to legacy in this story. He insists that both her name and this fleeting sacrifice of beauty will be remembered: Wherever the gospel is told, so will her story. And he was not waxing eloquently. This story is one of the very few that can be found in all four gospels.
Is solidarity in grief, togetherness in the grieving, the best that we can hope for? In the thick of this life, is our greatest comfort the occasional overpowering of the foul scent of loss with the fleeting scent of beauty?
And yet, I think in this encounter of Mary’s grief and Jesus’s willingness to hold it, there is something even richer. While the scent of Mary’s costly gift would indeed have faded, it would have clung to Jesus the longest. Long enough, perhaps, that these same disciples who questioned the pragmatic value of her act of devotion would have still been smelling lavender a few days later, as Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet on the eve of his death.
The scent of Christ’s nard and tear soaked body would have transported Mary’s grief into that upper room. The scent of loss would have stirred the disciples’ minds toward the vivid memory of her actions, their own objections and judgments, and the disquieting words of Jesus that his time with them was nearly up—and Mary was the one who was seeing it most clearly.
The fading fragrance of Mary’s grief and the creeping awareness that death was approaching would have filled the space between their hearts and minds in that upper room. The dying scent of lavender would have lingered even as Jesus broke bread with them and told them that his own body was about to be torn apart, as he poured out wine for their meal and told them to remember his life, which was about to be poured out before them. Do you sense the gift in this?
Jesus carries the fragrant and potent memory of our own grief—every wound that we hold, every tear we have cried—into his own suffering. And he is anointed by this grief. He is anointed by our own tears for his own burial. Ephemeral artist Stephen Watson describes his ‘spice paintings’ as “markers of being, concentrations of his presence,” marking a place where he sat, worked, and believed. How much more depth is this mystery given when what we have marked is Christ’s own body and he carries these concentrations of our presence all the way to the cross?
Days after their encounter with lavender and bread in the upper room, the disciples are reeling in their own tears. Their grief is fresh, like an aching, oozing wound. Jerusalem itself is filled with physical reminders of their loss. Their Holy City has turned into a city of horrors. Two of them decide they cannot take it any longer. They walk away from something worse than a funeral, which is usually true for most of us. They walk away from something intertwined with guilt and regret, the stench of death and the loss of hope itself, the horrific visions of a loved one in excruciating pain. The road to Emmaus is the road back to routine and distraction, back to fishing nets and tax offices and missed appointments. Along the way, their words and hearts are heavier than any baggage they might have been carrying.
For anyone who mourns a loss, you know that time plays a fickle role as you grapple with the sudden absence of what once was so solidly in your midst. At one point, it is all so fresh, so soon, and there are so many physical reminders. In the midst of grief, the closets and clothes and books and papers seem almost to fill the house with hundreds and hundreds of tombstones, physical reminders of a physical absence so deeply felt. This is where the disciples find themselves.
But the second offense of grief is that, over time, these physical reminders disappear, too. All the little tombstones scattered around the house and the office slowly fade away. The loved one himself seems faint and hard to remember, like a ghost from a distant past.
My own dad died 15 years ago. For my sisters and me, there are now very few physical reminders left, and this seems to fit with how far away he feels. But the other day we opened a box that had his old camera in it. My four year old, who only knows cameras to look like i-phones, was silenced by this discovery. He ran his fingers over each button until his curiosity was satisfied enough to move onto another. And then he hit the button that released the back panel of the camera, the place where 35 mm film was once stretched and loaded like a canvas awaiting its artist. My sister and I smiled at his sheer delight in this mysterious contraption. And then we realized: There was film in the camera.
We looked up at each other as if we had just discovered a holy grail of sorts. This was his camera. This was his film. These were his pictures. And then we were the ones who became like excited kids. What were we holding? How did we miss this for nearly 15 years? Where had he last been with his camera? And then a question we had to spend a significant amount of time on: Where in the world do you even go to get film developed anymore?
The point of this story is that suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it was as if my dad appeared. There was something about holding something in our hands that felt like we were holding him. Every crevice between our heads, our hearts, and our eyes was filled with an alert sense of him. It was far more of a real encounter to us than it would have been had one of us simply recalled a story or recited his resume. It was as if he was suddenly in the room with us. And our hearts were most certainly burning within us.
There was something about holding something in our hands that felt like we were holding him.
As therapist Mallory Rexroad Even attests, this is one of the reasons why music can play such an effective role in healing. The arts reposition our eyes to the truth in a way that can make it somehow, suddenly, even jarringly, present and real—offering us something to hold, something to touch and see and smell, to hear or taste, something to close the gaps between heart and mind and body, to help us reimagine. My sister and I were suddenly able to lament together a loss we hadn’t articulated for years. The encounter was something that gave sudden form to a deep loss, to one missed and missing, to the man himself we so wish was still among us. And in that instance, for that moment, he was.
This gift of having something take sudden form in front of us is characteristic of the arts. Mercifully, it is also characteristic of our God.
For these disciples on the road to Emmaus, their grief is all they can see. This very same morning the women among them came running back from the tomb with reports of a missing body and an angel’s declaration of the very thing they wanted most: Christ alive again, in their midst. The text reports that these words seemed to them “like an idle tale”. And they could not believe the very thing they wanted to believe most. And then Jesus himself appears and walks with them along the road. But they don’t recognize him. The very embodiment of their hope and expectation for liberation walks beside them. And they can’t—or don’t—or won’t–see it. He tells them that the suffering and death of the Messiah were not to be understood as a defeat of God’s purpose, but as a necessary pathway to new life. And pointedly, profoundly, Jesus suggests that this is the very pattern of God: from death to life. In fact, this pattern of God is in every story told in Scripture:
In Genesis, God takes chaos and brings creation to life. In Egypt, God moves his people from slavery to freedom. In destruction and exile, God brings them to re-creation and release. And out of the death of the Messiah himself God brings us to resurrection—first God’s, then our own. They had seven miles of this—by foot! And it still didn’t open their eyes to the one in their midst.
And then they arrive in Emmaus, and they invite Jesus in for a meal after their long journey full of words. He picks up the bread, and he blesses it, and he breaks it, and he places it in their hands. And suddenly the Savior in their midst takes form before their opened eyes. In the breaking of bread, torn like his own body, placed in their hands as both basic and emboldened provision, Jesus himself suddenly appears before them. We might even note that this is true for them even after Jesus dis-appears! The sudden reintegration of their broken hopes, the sudden form of resurrection, the sudden healing of their isolation and despair—in the gift of Christ himself—remained with them. And they were left communing in transparent and hopeful wonder: Were not our hearts burning within us as he walked with us on the road?
Jesus somehow both gently and fiercely embodies the hopeful suggestion that we need more than company along the road of grief. We need one another, to be sure; he calls us to this as well. But even the company of Christ himself was not enough to reverse the broken hearts of these disciples. We need more than a sharing of our tears in this beautiful, fleeting life. We need something more than any rational explanation of our loss could ever offer: We need the one who can reverse the reality of brokenness itself.
We need the one who meets our basic need as bread, who bridges burning hearts and searching minds, who places himself in our hands—broken and blessed—and suddenly, nourishingly appears among us, having taken our very tears to the other side and back again.
We need the one who can reverse the reality of brokenness itself.
My sister and I finally found a store that could actually develop a canister of film. There were a few comical conversations with teenagers along the way, which left us feeling very old. But we finally got the pictures back.
We held onto the envelope with every apprehension. As the despairing middle child, I gave us a “pep” talk about how we really shouldn’t get our hopes up: It’s probably something completely uninteresting. And the film is probably ruined anyway. There is no way dad will actually be in any of these photos. This was long before the word ‘Selfie’ even existed.
We knew the probabilities and yet we still shook with the hope of holding something solid in our hands, seeing the last images he took, looking at the world through his eyes one more time. What we saw immediately leveled us, and we sat in silence as tears fell on our feet. I need to explain that our dad was very into genealogy. He had researched ancestors on both sides of his parents going back to their immigrations to the US from Ireland and England. Part of his search involved tracking down the burial sites of relatives and going to visit them if he could. If he found them, he would take pictures.
So the last photos my dad took were of gravesites—gravestones of his mother’s mother and father and the children they buried together, including one my son’s age when she died. So here we were holding the last images my father saw through his camera lens—and they were images of loved ones who had gone before him—names writ in water, my dad’s own tears keeping their memory green.
But this was not what took our breath away. My dad had taken the picture in such a way that the outline of his shadow was across the photo. We were holding the silhouette of my dad across the gravestones of his relatives. He had suddenly, jarringly appeared, taking form in our very hands.
Now the very mysterious thing here is that my dad was a good photographer and by photography standards these are terrible photos.
A good photographer knows how to position light and shadow; a good photographer does not want to get in the way of the photo. And yet, I have never been so thankful for a shadow across a grave, this layered intersection of the dead and the living. It was the most beautiful gift two sorrowing children could be given.
Do you know how much more profoundly this is true when it is Christ we hold in broken bread and lift to our bodies?
This is the gift Christ leaves for his sorrowing children, who are not left as orphans: And it is not a shadow of the deceased. But a meal for the living—where somehow, some way, the crucified one himself appears as we eat together, as we share our grief from Cape Town to Atlanta to Jerusalem, and continue to anoint him with tears that he carries to the cross and beyond it. This is no idle tale, but the risen Christ himself, who embodies our every hope as the Bread—not of death and loss—but of life.
And I suspect if we kneel close enough, we may even catch the scent of lavender and the promise that our tears—and our names—are never forgotten.
This is no idle tale, but the risen Christ himself, who embodies our every hope as the Bread—not of death and loss—but of life.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.