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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Bones that Smell Like Roses

September 1st, 2023 | 5 min read

By Mitch East

For about a year, my family’s morning devotion included reading a book of saints from church history. We started noticing a phrase we had never come across before: “the odor of sanctity.” The book claimed that dozens of tombs, caskets, and burial grounds of holy men and women not only were preserved from bad odors, but more so, smelled like roses. You can imagine why Protestants like my wife and I found the phrase, well, sort of spooky.

A few months after learning this, my brothers, father, and I went on a pilgrimage to Greece. We traveled to monasteries and churches across the stomping grounds of the earliest Christians. One stop on our journey was Thessalonica. While there, we stumbled upon a church dedicated to St. Demetrios, affectionately called “the myrrh-gusher.” The short version of his story is that he was martyred by soldiers who pierced his body with spears. A church was built in his honor during the reign of Constantine. After many years, Christians uncovered the saint’s grave and found myrrh gushing beneath his crypt.

Apparently, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholic Christians believe that even the lifeless bodies of the faithful can be hotspots for miracles.

I’ve been considering this phenomenon since Holy Saturday with only jumbled thoughts. Then, a body of a nun named Sister Wilhelmina was exhumed years after her death showing little to no signs of decay. This final story pushed me over the edge. This nun’s body is five hours away from my doorstep! I was no longer reading about saints from centuries past or churches with myrrh-gushing bones. I was hearing about a supernaturally preserved body in Gower, Missouri.

If you are a Protestant and your eyebrow is raised, I understand your concerns. You believe miracles can and do happen, but this kind of miracle is a bridge too far. It might seem easier to judge the stories unlikely, even if possible. There are probably better explanations (e.g. Catholic superstition, misperception, or hoaxes).

At the bare minimum, every Protestant (even the most committed cessationist) can’t rule out everything supernatural from the start. We already believe a dead man came back to life and that the dead man in question was actually God. As a friend told me, “By relative standards of anti-materialist craziness, you don't top that.”

Once the door to miracles is open, where does that open door lead? Like any Protestant should, I began to wonder if there is any biblical basis for these miracle stories. The best place I could think to begin is the burial of Jesus.

The Gospel of John goes out of its way to assure us that Jesus was buried according to Jewish customs (19:40). There was no funny business! Like his friend Lazarus, Jesus was covered in linen strips from head to toe, with a soudarion wrapped around his face and othonia around his torso and legs. Despite their similar burials, I saw a fascinating difference between the tombs of Jesus and Lazarus.

Before the resurrection of Lazarus, his sister Martha worried about the stench of her brother’s rotting corpse (John 11:39). She warned Jesus that Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days. As the KJV says, “By this time he stinketh!” This isn’t rocket science.

The same should be true about the tomb of Jesus. If Christ’s crucified body was taken down from the cross and placed in Joseph’s tomb, only to be sealed by the Roman guards, then we should expect a foul stench from his tomb (Matt 27:57-66; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). His body may not have been in there for four days, but you would expect some odor from a bloodied body laid there from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning.

But when Peter—who was present at the resurrection of Lazarus—runs into the tomb of Jesus, he makes no comment about a smell. Neither he nor the beloved disciple say anything about it. In fact, we’re told only what they see: the grave clothes that Christ left behind.

We may not be able to conclude much about the body of Jesus if we only had the absence of smell according to John’s Gospel. But we have more. The same Peter who went into the tomb on Easter Sunday preached about Christ’s burial in the book of Acts. Peter quotes David’s psalm, in which the King of Israel sings, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27). Anyone who heard Peter’s sermon that day was welcome to visit David’s tomb with his bones. He was long past decay and corruption! Peter’s point is: the psalm written by David is not fulfilled in David.

Instead, that psalm is about “the resurrection of the Messiah” named Jesus, who was “not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay” (Acts 2:31). Whatever else you think about the Saturday in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we have two different accounts in the New Testament that give us reason to believe that Jesus’ corpse did not rot. Two disciples who enter the tomb make no comment about it upon arrival the same morning of the resurrection. One disciple later makes a speech in which he argues that Jesus’ body did not corrode or corrupt. The phrase about decay is not merely an interesting detail. That the Savior’s body was preserved from corruption was a fulfillment of the Scriptures.  

If that’s what we know about Christ’s burial, then the question is: what does Christ’s burial have to do with us? Well, the question answers itself. Every aspect of Christ’s life has to do with us. I already believe that I participate in Christ’s death (Colossians 2:20); I already believe that I participate in Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6:8). Why would I not participate in Christ’s burial?

All Christians do: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4). When we’re baptized into Christ, we’re not just crucified with Christ. We’re entombed in the same cave. We’re united to his burial.

If this burial-participation is true of all baptized Christians, why can’t the Holy Spirit choose certain men and women to show this fact in a more exemplary way? Wouldn’t it fit the character of Jesus to give the special preservation of his corpse to some of his faithful saints as a testimony to His victory over death? Doesn’t each saint’s body that is exhumed without corruption count as one more loss for our Enemy named Death?

We know the sting of death is sin. But another sting of death is the body’s corruption. Death rips the flesh and blood from our loved ones and only leaves dry bones behind. Decay takes away what makes our deceased friend the en-fleshed soul we touched, hugged, kissed, and loved. The corrosion of the body is the ruthless elimination of what gave our beloved warmth.

So, what does the Lord Jesus do? He takes away that sting of death. He gets to decide when and for whom He will give the grace of incorruptibility. Which makes sense. Our Lord is in a constant battle against Death until He finally wins at his second coming. But before then, Jesus could love to show beauty and life smack dab in the middle of caskets.

The beloved woman in the Song of Solomon calls herself a “Rose of Sharon.” Wouldn’t Christ be the kind of bridegroom who fulfills that word in a miraculous way for his bride, the church? Would it shock me to find out that Jesus decided – perhaps in the case of a nun named Sister Wilhelmina – to make her body like a Rose of Sharon?

Not at all. He is the kind of Savior who can and does make bones smell like roses.

Mitch East

Mitch East is Preaching Minister at University Avenue Church of Christ in Austin, Texas.