Great Apothecary

March 11 2016 | by

AT THE TIME of Christ, ointments were oily substances made with oil compounded with various spices, resins, and aromatics, preserved in small alabaster boxes to retain their fragrance. They were expensive luxuries sparingly used.

Apothecaries often hid their secrets to ointment making. Their trademarks lay in the amounts and types of herbs and spices which they selected to use in the oily base.

In a back room, hidden away from prying eyes, an apothecary might dice herbs and spices and dry them in the sun. Then, filling a jar partly full of olive oil, he would pour in small amounts of dried herbs and spices, and carefully push them below the surface of the oil. Over the top of the oil he would pour a thin layer of wine to prevent mold, and then he would cover the jar, place it in a warm, dark spot, and keep it undisturbed for two or three weeks. When the time had passed, the apothecary would pour the mixture onto a fine cloth and twist out the oil. Infused with the fragrance of herbs and spices, the oil was now ready for healing and anointing.


Medicinal treatments


Today, people commonly use ointments to treat wounds. Or they apply ointments to the skin to ease itching or pain. At the time of Christ, ointments were used for other purposes as well. Unlike other surrounding tribes, the Jewish people did not use ointments as cosmetics. They did, however, use ointments as medicinal treatments and to anoint corpses and the linens in which they were wrapped. While the first use was intended to bring healing, the second was intended to mask the odor of decay. Ointments were also used in ceremonial observances, particularly to consecrate a priest and the altar of holocaust.

St. Anthony discusses the passage in Exodus in which God instructs Moses to consecrate the Holy of Holies: Take spices, of principle and chosen myrrh, and of cinnamon, of calamus, of cassia, and of olive oil. And thou shalt make the holy oil of unction, an ointment compounded after the art of the perfumer: and therewith thou shalt anoint the tabernacle of the testimony, and the ark of the testament, and the table with the vessels thereof, the candlestick and furniture thereof, the altars of incense and of holocaust. [Ex 30:23-28] (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, vol. I, pp. 234-35, Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio – Editrice).


Spiritual botany


Anthony develops a theme (Sermons I, p. 235) around each of these ingredients. Since myrrh is the chosen primary ingredient, Anthony likens it to “devotion of the mind, which we should choose for ourselves as first priority.” For St. Anthony the spiritual life had to begin with prayer.

Unlike most people, Anthony reflects on the color of cinnamon rather than its fragrance or taste. “Cinnamon, the colour of ash, stands for the remembrance of death.” For the Saint, no one can advance in the spiritual life without remembering that he or she is only passing through this world. Death is the single reality that every human being will experience.

The flowering plant calamus, also called sweet flag, is derived from a Greek myth in which Kalamos, the son of a river god, loved a youth who drowned in a swimming race. Kalamos also drowned and was transformed into a reed whose rustling sound in the breeze suggested the sound of mourning. Calamus root is used to treat eye diseases and has other medicinal properties. Recognizing the healing nature of this plant as well as its rustling, sorrowful sound, Anthony writes, “Calamus (reed-pipe) is the melody of confession.” Confession, the result of sorrow for sin, brings healing to the penitent.

Bible verses Exodus 30:24, Ezekiel 27:19 and Psalms 45:8 mention the use of cassia. Anointing oil was derived from the dried bark and flowers of the cassia, while the leaves and pods were crushed to make medicines for fighting infection. “Cassia, whose habitat is watery places, and which grows tall, is faith: which is nurtured in the waters of baptism and grows tall by charity,” Anthony muses.

The medium in which these ingredients are mixed is olive oil, which Anthony names “heart felt mercy.” Thus, for Saint Anthony, devotion (myrrh), remembrance of death (cinnamon), calamus (confession), and faith (cassia) should all be infused in mercy (olive oil). “From these five we should make the holy ointment which sanctifies us, compounded after the art of the perfumer, the Holy Spirit.” (Sermons I, p. 235). Certainly the Holy Spirit is the Great Apothecary Who compounds the exact proportions of spiritual gifts for each soul, thus spreading abroad God’s sweet fragrance of grace and goodness.


Three holy souls


Anthony then compares the anointing of the tabernacle and altar with how the spiritual soul should deal with others. Those receiving the sweet ointment of goodness will be “the poor of Jesus,” those who are “renewed through penitence,” “the holy prelates of the Church” and “all those others appointed to lesser office,” “those in the active life” and “contemplatives.” (Sermons I, p. 235). In other words, no one is left out. The Holy Spirit wishes to anoint every soul with virtue so that each may be sanctified.

Anthony notes that, following Christ’s death, three holy souls, especially graced by God, wanted to prepare ointments for the corpse of Christ: “Mary Magdalen, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, brought sweet spices, that coming, they might anoint Jesus. Luke says that: The women that were come with him from Galilee… saw the sepulchre and how his body was laid. And returning they prepared spices and ointments; and on the sabbath day they rested, according to the commandment [Lk23.55-56]” (Sermons I, p. 233).

The Saint explains that the women worked as late as they could on Good Friday, but had to cease work because the Sabbath was upon them. They waited until the Sabbath was over at sunset and when “it was possible to work again, they hastened to buy spices, so that in the morning they might come and anoint the body of Jesus” (Sermons I, p. 234). The ointments the women were making were not luxurious, several week-long infused oils, but quick treatments to mask the scent of decaying flesh.


Jesus’ tomb


Historians propose that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus washed Christ’s body when it was taken down from the cross, and then wrapped it in fine linen, with approximately seventy five pounds of aloes and myrrh. The men individually wrapped each limb of Christ’s body, and then the body itself, thus binding it before laying it in the tomb. They wrapped Christ’s head in a napkin.

The women, who had watched Jesus being buried, but without participating in the ritual, wanted to anoint the body as was customary to do over a period of several days. But religious law forbade them from working on the Sabbath, so they had to wait.

The next day, the dead body of Jesus had been resurrected into the true Holy of Holies, which required neither ointments to mask death nor ointments to sanctify. Christ had conquered death and was and is holiness Himself: “To him be honour and glory, empire and power, in heaven and on earth, in eternity and through everlasting ages. Let every faithful soul, in this Easter joy say: Amen. Alleluia!” (Sermons I, p.250).

Updated on October 04 2016