Easter is probably my most favorite holiday. I love the symbolism of rebirth and new beginnings. In honor of Holy week, I have paired one plant with each day. Each plant was chosen for its correspondence and role in each day leading up to the Resurrection.
Day 1. Sunday. Jesus Triumphantly Enters into Jerusalem
On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. -John 12: 12–13
Palm Sunday. This is the day that Jesus triumphantly rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey in fulfillment of the prophecy by the prophet Isaiah. He was met by a multitude who followed his teachings and believed in Him as their Messiah. They were familiar with the prophecy and recognized Jesus as the foretold Savior. Inline with their belief, they laid down their clothing and cut down palm fronds to place on the road in front of him in reverence and respect for His station. At face value, this was a kind gesture of love for the one they venerated and loved so much. But symbolically, it was much more.
The palm tree was an essential staple in the lives and economy of ancient Israel. If you traveled back in time 2000 years, you would find evidence of palm trees everywhere. The trunks were tapped for sugar and the pith was dried and ground into flour for unleavened bread. The leaves were used for thatch, weaving, food for animals, and an essential source of shade from the intense middle eastern desert sun. The leaves were used for fanning by the upper class and were often strewn in front of royalty and officials as an early form of a “red carpet” to protect their clothes from the dust of the road. The fruit provided oil, water, food, and wax. The flowers were used to make perfumes, jewelry, and headdresses. Medicine was made from the palm. In fact, it was so essential and important that it was featured on local currency and was an emblem of Judea. The Palm was a believed to be a gift from God and was a symbol of Judea’s riches as well as a universal symbol of wealth and luxury. By strewing the palm fronds (and their garments) in front of Jesus, the multitudes were sending a message that they believed in the divinity of Jesus and were symbolically “giving of their worldly goods” in honor of the Messiah.
Day 2. Monday. Jesus Cleanses the Temple
And when any will offer a meat offering unto the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour; and he shall pour oil upon it, and put frankincense thereon: and he shall bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests: and he shall take thereout his handful of the flour thereof, with all the frankincense thereof; and the priest shall burn the memorial of the of it upon the alter, to be an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord. -Leviticus 2: 1–2
“My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves,” He told the money changers (Matthew 21:13). Then many of the blind and the lame came to Him in the temple, and He healed them.
On the second day of Christ’s time in Jerusalem, He paid a visit to the temple, as He had been taught from his youth, and as was expected of a great teacher and spiritual leader as himself. What He found there was not pleasing. Money changers, hawkers, and politicians had turned the Temple into “a den of thieves.” Jesus felt the wrath of His Father and with righteous indignation “cleansed” the temple of its perversion. He physically overturned tables and chased the wicked men from the grounds with a whip. While this most definitely got rid of the physical presence of irreverent men and behaviors, anyone who has cleaned a filthy home knows that a stench usually accompanies trash. It is reasonable to believe that Frankincense was then burned in prayer and in an offering to cleanse the spirit and the air of those who had just been evicted from the Temple.
Most of us know Frankincense from the Christmas story when the Magi brought the Christ Child royal gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. One might wonder why such costly and “impractical” gifts were given a baby born in such humble circumstances. But if we look closer, we will find that the gifts were both highly symbolic, prophetic, and even practical! Nowhere in the scriptures does it mention what Joseph, Mary, and Jesus did with those gifts, but we could speculate a bit. Frankincense is a resin high in terpenes and esters making it ideal for soothing childhood bumps, bruises, and common illnesses. The bible also mentions that Joseph and Mary made temple worship a priority and Frankincense was commonly burned in temples for its pleasing scent as well as the white smoke it produces symbolizing prayers being lifted up to Heaven. The Frankincense could have also be used in an anointing oil when Jesus began his ministry. Frankincense was (and still is) commonly used in temples, ceremonies, and other places of worship. On a symbolic level, the old testament states that sacrificial animals were to be sacrificed with frankincense. Jesus was to be the last and final literal “sacrifice” and therefore, Frankincense would be an appropriate pairing for Him.
Day 3. Tuesday. Jesus Confronts Priests and tells Parables
…If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. – Matthew 17:20
Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of Heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. -Matthew 13:31 – 32
On the third day of Jesus’s last week on Earth, He returns to the temple and confronts the priests, answering questions, and telling parables. One of his most well-known parables is of the mustard seed. Mustard was a well-known herb in Judea and thus everyone would have been familiar with the plant and its attributes. Mustard has a very small and opportunistic seed. When a seed falls to the ground, it immediately germinates and grows a new plant. Once a mustard seed is planted, it is very difficult to get rid of. In His parables, Jesus uses the analogy of the mustard seed to symbolize the growth of one’s faith and the growth of the Gospel and Christianity. He likened the mustard seed to the Kingdom of Heaven, in that it would start small but would put down roots wherever its seeds were planted. Mustard, in and of itself, has powerful physical healing properties (as well as tasting super delicious!) just as the gospel has powerful spiritual healing properties. Mustard can aid the body in detoxing harmful substances, will cure aches and pains, heals the nerves, repels poison, and helps maintain a healthy heart. Can you see the parallels to the gospel? The Gospel can aid the spirit in getting rid of harmful thoughts and emotions, it can cure an aching and broken heart. The gospel can settle an anxious mind, repel the poison darts of the adversary, and will strengthen and maintain a righteous heart. Amazing isn’t it?
Day 4. Wednesday. Jesus spends the day outside Jerusalem with His disciples and friends
Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. – John 12:3
And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. (Mark 14:3) She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
Alright, technically, the first anointing, found in John 12 took place six days before Passover, which would have been prior to his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and the second anointing took place two days before Passover. We don’t know exactly what Jesus did on the day before Passover, but it is likely He spent the day with His disciples, friends, and family preparing for the holiday. So, since we don’t have any specific information about this day, I choose to insert this point about Spikenard as it has some significance in the timeline.
Spikenard was indeed a very expensive oil. It originates from Nepal so it would have had to have been imported from the Orient. Experts believe that the “pound of ointment of spikenard” likely would have cost Mary at least a year’s salary. As this oil was hard to come by and so very expensive, it says a lot that Mary would choose to use it to anoint Jesus’ feet with it. The etymology of Spikenard gives us a beginning understanding of the oil. In Hebrew, the word ‘Nard’ means ‘Light.’ In Greek, it means ‘genuine’ and ‘pure.’ So, in a sense, Jesus was being anointed with ‘pure, unadulterated light.’ Which He is. On a terrestrial level, Spikenard is regarded as a healing and a highly spiritual oil. Modernly, we know that its chemical makeup contains properties that are used to calm the mind, uplift the spirit, and promote emotional ease and spiritual certainty. Jesus would have needed all of those elements to help him get through the massive ordeal that was to come.
Day 5. Thursday. Passover and the Garden of Gethsemane
And he came out, and went, as he was wont, to the mount of Olives; and his disciples went with him. (Luke 22:39) Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. (Matthew 26:36)
The olive tree, like the palm, had permeated every aspect of life in Judea. Olive oil was used for everything such as food, cooking, soap, lamp oil, anointing, and as an ointment for wounds. Again, we can find parallels between olive oil and the nature of Christ. The name ‘Christ’ as well as the name ‘Messiah’ are both names meaning ‘The Anointed One’. During Sacrament, we symbolically partake of his body and drink of his blood (food). His sacrifice cleanses our souls from sin (soap). His gospel lights our way back to heaven (lamp oil). His love and priesthood is a balm for our wounds. An ancient Jewish belief is that the Olive Tree was, in fact, the tree of life. And for good reason too! The evergreen olive tree is incredibly long lived. In fact, to this day, there are olive trees around Jerusalem that have lived for at least 1800 years, and perhaps longer! If an olive tree is chopped down, it does not die; instead it sends up new shoots from the roots and stump to form a new tree. It is a symbol of everlasting life!
On the day of Passover, Jesus came to the base of the Mount of Olives, or Mount Olivet, to the garden called Gethsemane to pray and atone for our sins. Even this location was literally and symbolically named. Named Mount of Olives, this area was home to dozens of olive orchards and gardens. The garden of Gethsemane was so named as ‘Gath’ means ‘press’ and ‘shemen’ means ‘oil’. Jesus went to the garden of the ‘oil press’ where he prayed to His Father for the remission of all mankind’s sins. It was there that like the body of the olive was pressed for life-giving oil, the body of Christ was pressed, and life-giving blood seeped from every pore.
Day 6. Jesus is tried, condemned and crucified. He is buried before the beginning of the Sabbath.
And there came also Nicodemus which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. -John 19: 39–40
After the Romans satisfied themselves that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed dead, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea gained permission from Pilate to take the body of Jesus for burial. As it says in the above scripture from the Book of St John, Nicodemus brought to the sepulcher a mixture of myrrh and aloes. Myrrh was used, due to its highly preservative nature, for partial embalming of bodies being prepared for burial as it slows the decomposition of the body. In addition to it’s part in burial rites, it was also often combined with olive oil to make a fragrant oil used to anoint kings and priests to their sacred callings. It was quite expensive and generally could only be afforded by the wealthy and high in station. The fact that it was used in very large quantities is reflective of the level of respect His followers had for him.
Day 7 – 8. Body remains in Tomb/ Resurrection
As the scripture above states, after Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross and brought to the sepulcher for dressing and burial, “an hundred pound weight” of myrrh and aloes was used. At first I was certain that this was a reference to the plant Aloe vera, but after some research, I discovered that the reference could be indicating a highly fragrant and extremely expensive wood found in India and southeast Asia called “Aloeswood” or “Agarwood”. The confusion stems from a loose translation of the Hebrew word “ahal” which could mean either plant. So, since both have qualities that would be relevant in this sense, I shall briefly discuss both.
Aloe vera: Aloe vera is one of the most ancient medicinal plants on Earth with references dating back at least 6000 years. In Egypt, it became known as the Plant of Immortality and was a funeral gift to the Pharaohs to ensure their presence in the afterlife. To the Native Americans familiar with the plant, it was known as “the wand of heaven.” It is a powerful healer and restorer of life and has been used in healing balms for millennia. Worldwide, it is a symbol for resurrection due to the plant’s ability to heal itself or to come back from the dead. This brings up the imagery and prophecy of “by his wounds, we are healed.”
Aloeswood/Agarwood: This highly fragrant (and ridiculously expensive) tree, found in the ancient Orient, or modern India, was and is known as ‘the wood of the Gods’, since it is often used as incense for religious ceremonies. Aloeswood, as stated in traditional ayurvedic texts and more modernly in Islamic tradition (because I seriously couldn’t find any helpful biblical references to it), is highly psychoactive, and effective for meditation and enlightenment; and is said to connect with the transcendent, stimulating the psyche, human body, and consciousness. It is believed that angels are attracted to the scent and smoke of Aloeswood. These properties would be highly prized and sought after to be included in a burial shroud, in hopes and belief that it would aid the resurrection of the Lord.
Plants and people have always been intrinsically linked through function and symbolism. The advent of Spring with all it’s rebirth, new beginnings, and growth can be a metaphor for new phases in our lives. The connection between these aspects, the time of year, and the death to resurrection cycle is enough to make anyone stop and take stock of their lives and begin a new chapter in their lives.
Historical role of palms in human culture – http://www.fao.org/docrep/X0451E/X0451e04.htm
The Story of Frankincense – http://www.mei.edu/sqcc/frankincense
Olive Oil and Its Significant Symbolism – https://www.myolivetree.com/blog/olive-oil-significant-symbolism/
8 Surprising Benefits Of Spikenard Essential Oil – https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/essential-oils/health-benefits-of-spikenard-essential-oil.html
Spiritual Significance of Spikenard – http://www.aromahut.com/spiritual-significance-of-spikenard-in-the-bible/
15 Impressive Benefits Of Mustard – https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/herbs-and-spices/mustard.html
The Mustard Seed – https://www.lds.org/ensign/2014/03/the-mustard-seed?lang=eng
A Wise Man’s Cure: Frankincense and Myrrh – https://www.history.com/news/a-wise-mans-cure-frankincense-and-myrrh
Why Did the Magi Bring Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh?: Medicinal uses of frankincense may help explain the gifts of the magi – https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/why-did-the-magi-bring-gold-frankincense-and-myrrh/
THE WORLD OF OUD & ITS USES – https://www.sultanuloud.com/pages/world-of-oud-and-its-uses#
Etymology of ‘Aloe’ from Hebrew – http://www.balashon.com/2008/03/aloe.html
THE SPICES AND THE VISITS TO CHRIST’S TOMB – http://www.bibleresearch.org/observancebook5/b5w79.html